Sunday, January 29, 2006

Warning Bells
January 28, 1986, 20 years ago yesterday, was a fairly normal day around the radio station. I'd wrapped up my morning show at 10AM, and all morning, when we hadn't been talking about the Chicago Bears winning the Super Bowl the day before, we'd been reading news stories about the pending launch of the space shuttle Challenger, the excitement surrounding the teacher-in-space, Christa McAuliffe--and the cold temperatures at Cape Canaveral.

Out in the long hallway behind the studios, a UPI wire machine chugged away, day and night, printing news stories, weather forecasts, and sports scores. (Computerized, paperless news delivery was still a few years away--we still had to load the wire machine with fat rolls of paper, and one of the greatest sins you could commit was to let the paper run out.) From time to time, a bell on the machine would ring. Most of the time, it was just a ding or two, to alert you to a sports score or an update to a breaking story. For something really big, it might ring three times.

After 10:00, I usually stayed in the studio, recording commercials, which is what I was doing on that day. I happened to be in the hallway when the alert bell rang--four or five times, I don't remember how many, but more than I'd ever heard before. (It may have been what the wire services call a "flash"--and I think it would have been the first flash sent on the wire since the Kennedy assassination.) The news director came out of the newsroom at the other end of the hall on a dead sprint, but I got to the machine first, so I was the one to rip the bulletin. It read: "There has been an explosion aboard the space shuttle Challenger. The fate of the crew is unknown." And that was it.

I was transfixed, rooted in one spot like I was a tree or something. "The fate of the crew is unknown?" How long I stood there, I don't know. Maybe only five seconds, but I remember that I needed to actually, physically rouse myself to action. I said, aloud I think, "I'd better go and put this on the air." I went into the FM studio, broke into the automated programming, and read the bulletin. I presumably ad-libbed a bit about how we would have more information when we knew it, because at that moment, we knew nothing.

About half-an-hour after the first bulletin came in, I went on the air again to report what we'd learned in the interim. Just as I keyed the microphone to speak, the listener line started to blink. It blinked all the while I was talking, and was still blinking when I finished, so I answered it. It was a listener who proceeded to go off, angrily asking why my station wasn't saying anything about the Challenger explosion. "Ma'am, didn't you hear the bulletin I just read?" I asked. She hadn't, of course, because she'd been on the phone. But it occurs to me that she was probably right to complain--imagine hearing that there's been some sort of unspeakable disaster and tuning in your local radio station, only to hear the usual diet of Madonna and Huey Lewis. Down the hall, the AM station hadn't been carrying the launch live, but the jock on the air had been listening to it off the air. He had the presence of mind to put the network broadcast on right away. I should probably have done the same thing on the FM, but I don't recall doing so, even after the woman's phone call.

The rest of the morning passed in a blur. My day was generally done around 1:00, and I went home to watch the coverage on TV. That was Ronald Reagan's greatest day, remember--when he went on the air and quoted that poem, saying how the astronauts had "slipped the surly bonds of Earth and touched the face of God," he performed the single greatest public service of his presidency. It expressed the grief we all felt, and in a unique and appropriate way. I'd been too busy for grief while I was at the station, but it hit me once I got home.

The Mrs. had been making radio sales calls in a little town 30 miles down the road, and had learned of the disaster from a client. She kept making her calls, although at one point in the afternoon, she says she had to pull off to the side of the road and weep. And as afternoon turned into evening, I started feeling worse and worse myself. First there was the shock of it--nobody could have imagined something so horrid. Next, I started imagining myself as part of it--in the spectator stands with the McAuliffes, looking at the exploded vehicle in the sky and not really understanding what it meant, or worse, in the cockpit as the thing blew up. We took some comfort in those early hours in the widely reported story that the astronauts would never have known what hit them. It wasn't until weeks later that we learned they really did know, and that they were probably alive until the crew compartment hit the water.

Investigations showed that the Challenger probably shouldn't have been launched in such cold weather--and although it was never proven, I have suspected ever after that the launch was rushed so that Reagan could talk to the astronauts live during his State of the Union message, scheduled for that night. And if it's true that people knew it shouldn't have been launched, then somebody, either at NASA or at the company that built the rocket, killed those seven astronauts as surely as if they'd blown their heads off with a gun.

The next morning, life began again, although a lot different than it had been the day before. The Challenger explosion was the end of an era--the era in which NASA moved from success to success. Since then, NASA has looked like just another government agency, bumbling along with the lowest bidder. The agency would lose another shuttle in 2003, and while it was a surprise and a terrible loss, it wasn't one-tenth the shock Challenger had been.

(Edited, because on further reflection, I think we had a UPI machine, not an AP wire.)

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