On January 28, 1986, America watched on television as the space shuttle Challenger—carrying six astronauts and one schoolteacher—disappeared in a twisting cloud of smoke, nine miles above the launch pad it had just left. To a stunned nation, it appeared that seven lives had instantly been lost.
Speaking to the nation that night, President Ronald Reagan immortalized that impression, in an address written by Peggy Noonan and quoting (without attribution) the poet-aviator John Gillespie Magee, Jr.: The crew, he said, had “‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.’”
But after the disaster, over time, a different and more horrible story took shape: The Challenger made it through the spectacular eruption of its external fuel tank with its cabin more or less intact. Rather than being carried to Heaven in an instant, the crippled vessel kept sailing upward for another three miles before its momentum gave out, then plunged 12 miles to the ocean. The crew was, in all likelihood, conscious for the full two and a half minutes until it hit the water.
NASA did not want the public to know this version of events, and it did everything within its power to keep the original story as the official one. More than two years after the explosion, the Miami Herald’s Tropic magazine published an exhaustively reported story by the reporter Dennis E. Powell about the actual, terrifying truth of the Challenger disaster, and about the extraordinary effort NASA put into concealing it.
When the shuttle broke apart, the crew compartment did not lose pressure, at least not at once. There was an uncomfortable jolt—“A pretty good kick in the pants” is the way one investigator describes it—but it was not so severe as to cause injury. This probably accounted for the “uh oh” that was the last word heard on the flight deck tape recorder that would be recovered from the ocean floor two months later. As they were feeling the jolt, the four astronauts on the flight deck saw a bright flash and a cloud of steam. The lights went out. The intercom went dead. After a few breaths, the seven astronauts stopped getting oxygen into their helmets.
Someone, apparently astronaut Ronald McNair, leaned forward and turned on the personal emergency air pack of shuttle pilot Michael Smith. The PEAP of Commander Francis Scobee was in a place where it was difficult to reach. It was not activated. Even so, if the crew compartment did not rapidly lose air pressure, Scobee would only have had to lift his mask to be able to breathe. Two other PEAPs were turned on. The three others were never found.
Though the shuttle had broken to pieces, the crew compartment was intact. It stabilized in a nose-down attitude within 10 to 20 seconds, say the investigators. Even if the compartment was gradually losing pressure, those on the flight deck would certainly have remained conscious long enough to catch a glimpse of the green-brown Atlantic rushing toward them. If it lost its pressurization very slowly or remained intact until it hit the water, they were conscious and cognizant all the way down.
In fact, no clear evidence was ever found that the crew cabin depressurized at all. There was certainly no sudden, catastrophic loss of air of the type that would have knocked the astronauts out within seconds. Such an event would have caused the mid-deck floor to buckle upward; that simply didn’t happen.
Powell’s piece was full of unflinching detail, recounted by sources who had found NASA interfering with the recovery and investigation work at every turn. Coast Guard Lieutenant Commander James Simpson described one incident typifying NASA’s desire to bury any information that might cast doubt on the instant-death mythology:
Added to NASA’s silence was the unofficial policy of lying when necessary, says Simpson. He offers as an example the crew cabin debris discovered on Jan. 29 by a Coast Guard vessel. “It included notebooks, tape recorders, all stuff from the crew compartment,” Simpson remembers. It also included an astronaut’s helmet, largely intact, containing ears and scalp. “I was supposed to go on television and discuss the search and recovery. I got up at 4 a.m. and was told about the cabin debris, which was found the night before. The public affairs guy at NASA didn’t know about it until I told him—his own people didn’t even tell him. He said, ‘You’re not going to mention this on TV this morning, are you?’
“I told him that if I was asked about it, I certainly would. I said, `The Coast Guard has no interest in going on national television to tell lies to protect you.’”
Finally, NASA’s Astronaut Office contacted Simpson.
“I was told the families hadn’t been told yet, even though the debris had been found the night before,” he says. “I didn’t want them to hear about it on television. So I lied on television. I still feel bad about that.”
The story, particularly the parts about the cover-up, got some attention at the time. The New York Times followed up and got Robert B. Hotz, a member of the presidential commission that had investigated the disaster, to confirm what he’d told the Herald: that he believed NASA was deliberately concealing what it knew about the Challenger, because “they couldn’t face the fact that they had to put these guys in a situation where they did not have adequate equipment to survive.”
That was the pivotal issue: By the Herald’s account, NASA had failed to take any precautions in the event of a catastrophic but possibly survivable accident. It was of a piece with the hubris and magical thinking that had led NASA to put a civilian social-studies teacher aboard a dangerous spacecraft, for a nation of students to watch live in class. There was no equipment to arrest the craft’s fall or to allow the astronauts to ditch it, nor even an emergency locating transmitter. The crew could do nothing but ride it down:
Though the official report, made by Dr. Joseph Kerwin of NASA’s Life Sciences branch in a news conference July 28, 1986, indicates that no cause of death could be determined, there is little doubt among investigators that the crew of Challenger remained alive until impact, even if the cabin lost its pressure. There is a statistical possibility that one or more of the crew may have gone into cardiac arrest due to depressurization, but this phenomenon is uncommon and would not have affected the entire crew. Certainly, says one investigator, those aboard what was left of Challenger could not have been pronounced dead until they received the injuries that occurred when the cabin met the Atlantic. Even had any crew member gone into cardiac arrest due to depressurization, they would have been easily revivable.
“If it had landed softly,” said one of the investigators, “they could have swam home.”
But the myth of instantaneous and inevitable death won out. That was the story NASA wanted told, the story it was safe to tell the schoolchildren who’d watched it happen. The Tropic investigation is nowhere to be found in the Miami Herald’s anniversary coverage, nor does the paper appear to have put a version online at all. (It can be found elsewhere as a reprint.)
A careful reading of the Herald’s anniversary report does find certain scrupulous turns of phrase—“sending the crew compartment hurtling into the Atlantic,” “the Challenger’s plunge into the dark, frigid sea”—consistent with the darker truth. But the takeaway message is the one from the paper’s initial disaster coverage: “After Challenger explosion, space’s age of innocence ends.”