Breaking the news of Space Shuttle Challenger

It was my generation’s “I remember where I was when I heard the news” moment: the day Space Shuttle Challenger exploded in the air after launch. It happened 30 years ago today.

My “where was I” story is a little unusual — I was on the radio, and I broke the news to our listeners.

CBS News photo
CBS News photo

That makes it sound like so much more than it was. I was a freshman in college playing records on the campus radio station. WMHD broadcast at 160 watts from the eastern edge of Terre Haute, Indiana. Our signal could be heard well only up to about two miles away. I figure our listenership at that time of day was in the dozens.

My friend Michael burst into the studio carrying a portable television. He said, “The space shuttle just blew up,” as he plugged the TV in and turned it on. ABC News was already replaying the explosion over and over.

We watched silently, in disbelief, for several minutes. And then I realized I had a certain responsibility to tell our listeners, however few.

I let the song play out, and then I played our news sounder. I shook as I stood at the mic; my voice shook as I began to speak. I don’t remember just what I said, but I do remember tripping over my tongue. At least I got the word out.

And then I felt useless. WMHD had no real news department, just a couple students who rewrote stories out of the paper and off the UPI wire and read them on the air. All I could do, just like anybody else, was to keep watching TV. I went on the air after every record to update the story, but eventually told our listeners to find a TV and follow the story there.

I finished my shift playing records, I’m sure, for nobody.

Where were you when you heard the news about Challenger? Tell the story in the comments, or on your own blog (and please link back here)!


20 responses to “Breaking the news of Space Shuttle Challenger”

  1. Gary Avatar

    I was at work in Thomasville, Georgia.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I was at work when the federal building in OKC was bombed. It was a surreal day in the office.

  2. J P Cavanaugh Avatar

    It was a weekday early in my career. Someone else in the office announced the explosion, and I remember being taken aback by it.
    I recall thinking that this wasn’t supposed to happen. It was the 1980s, for goodness sake. I could remember that Gus Grissom had been killed, but hadn’t we advanced past the Shuttle being that dangerous?
    It was a lesson in how small we are in the universe and how the best science and engineering can sometimes fail.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      yeah. I was full of feelings of “this isn’t supposed to happen” too. I’m not old enough to remember Gus Grissom’s death; we’d had nothing but successful missions throughout my lifetime.

  3. hmunro Avatar

    What a tough thing to have to do, Jim, but I admire your instincts: Let the song play out, and share the news. Your station manager must have been very proud of you for handling it with such professionalism. I imagine that breaking the news to your listeners in your own voice made this event much more personal for you.

    My memories also come from college, but invoke a detached sense of disbelief as I walked into my dorm between classes. There was a TV in the lobby, and the footage of the explosion was on a replay loop. Launch. Soar. Explode. Launch. Soar. Explode. I vividly remember thinking of the astronauts’ families, and how horrible it would be for them to see this same footage over and over again.

    Only later — when I watched the World Trade towers come down — would I understand that this sense of detached disbelief is a coping mechanism that allows us to more or less continue to function when the impossible or unthinkable happens. I’ve had a few more moments like that since we lost the Challenger and her crew, but that event remains for me a marker of sorts of the day I first encountered breaking news without an adult filter to explain it and help me make sense of it.

    I wish I’d heard the news from you instead.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Detachment really is a coping strategy. Too much trauma and detachment become dissociation, and that’s a whole ‘nother ball of pshcyological wax.

      I very well remember soon being sickened by the endless launch-soar-explode loop all the stations were showing. I eventually turned off the TV to avoid it.

  4. Jason Shafer Avatar
    Jason Shafer

    Oddly enough, I was at home sick that day. My sister and I both had some sort of bug and were simply sitting there watching whatever was on to distract our sick heads – perhaps it was the launch itself back when they were still being regularly broadcast. Anyway, we got to see it in real time and it was really bothersome to watch. The network, likely CBS, kept reminding everyone about the female civilian aboard and how she likely perished, never mind the rest of the crew.

    Years later, when taking my engineering ethics course in college, one of the people who worked for Morton-Thiokol came and told us the inside story of the infamous o-rings. The entire event was utterly avoidable.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      That’s the sad part — utterly avoidable. But I guess NASA did learn its lessons from this.

  5. DougD Avatar

    I sort of missed it. That day I was headed to the junkyard to search for car parts, just before I left I watched the first part of the lift off, then turned off the TV and went about my business. I probably missed seeing the disaster live by seconds, and didn’t find out until later in the day.

    That’s happened a few times in my life, I also didn’t find out about the death of Princess Diana and the September 11 attacks (if you can believe that) until later.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I found out about Diana pretty much as it happened; I happened to be watching TV. And here’s my Sept. 11 story:

  6. pesoto74 Avatar

    I remember that this was one of the rare times when I got up early to watch a launch. When it was delayed I decided to go back to sleep. When I got up later I checked the news and found out what happened. Even though I knew that the shuttle was more dangerous than NASA would say I still was pretty shocked.

    I also remember hearing about Diana while I was on a Saturday morning donuts run. It was a sad thing but didn’t seem that important to me. When I got home I mentioned it to my wife at the time and see acted like her best friend had died. I think she spent the next few days glued to the coverage.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      My ex was deeply affected by Diana’s death too and watched a lot of the coverage. I was saddened but not crushed.

  7. Sam Avatar

    Hi Jim, wow, I remember this one well. I was geeky kid in high school, went to school just to take a test, came back home early and saw this on the news. Ted Koppel, I think. Being an astronomy nerd, I remember it hitting me quite hard. Shocked. Further angered when it was revealed that this had been building up due to NASA’s neglect and attempts to keep deadlines, no matter what. Thanks for this post, we should never forget.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Western culture has trouble in general resisting authority in the face of signs of trouble. There are many examples of disaster in the face of that.

  8. Dani Avatar

    I was in the process of moving from one dorm to another and heard the news as I passed through the lobby. It took a minute before the tragedy registered with me.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I imagine it took most of us a minute for it to register. After so many years of solid, successful launches, it was hard to believe.

  9. bodegabayf2 Avatar

    I was in a television studio in New York directing a three camera home shopping show. There was one small monitor in the control room that was showing a live network feed. I remember glancing across the room several times, trying to focus on what I was seeing on the tiny screen. We stopped tape.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      What an interesting difference. Even though my listenership was small, I was live, and I had to keep going.

  10. Davo Avatar

    I heard about it a weeks or so after it occurred. When I happened I was hiking in the mountains of South-East Australia. I’d been out there for a month with no radio, paper or contact to the outside world. Someone told me about it after I finished the hike.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Wow, you came back from your hike and the world had changed a little. What an odd experience that must have been.

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