BBC Home
Explore the BBC
Search ON THIS DAY by date
Front Page |  Years |  Themes |  Witness
About This Site | Text Only
1986: 'That Y is burned into my mind'
On 28 January 1986 American space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after launch, killing all seven on board.

It was the worst disaster in the history of space exploration, and the US space programme was put back years.

Millions of people witnessed the tragedy on live television.

Your accounts from the USA

I was nine and living just west of Cleveland, Ohio. Christa - the teacher - was from a Cleveland area school district, and my entire school was very excited about the upcoming launch.

I remember the school didn't have enough TVs for each class so we double and tripled up in classrooms so everyone could watch the launch. The teachers kept trying to quiet us down. Leading up to the launch the whole class counted down to the launch (10-9-8-7-6-...). We all sat in awe as we watched it climb and climb.

Then the explosion and the split as the boosters veered to the right and left. That "Y" is burned into my mind.

The whole class gasped. We had all studied it for weeks and knew that something terribly wrong had just happened.

The principal made an announcement and asked all students to return to their classrooms immediately. The teachers shut off the TVs and took them out of the rooms. I remember being agonized for the entire rest of the day wondering what had happened to the crew.

Our teacher could not calm us down and finally agreed to go to the office and check if we would promise to be quiet. She came back and told us that they were still looking for them and that they had seen a parachute so maybe there was hope, but we all knew that there really wasn't any.

Every time I see that "Y" it still makes my heart jump.
Heather W, USA

I was nine years old and a student in Concord, New Hampshire.

Christa McAuliffe was a teacher at the local high school, so all the schools in the region were letting their students watch the launch on television.

We were taught a great deal about the shuttle, and I remember being told that when the boosters separate, there's a puff of smoke and a little pop.

And then it happened. I had actually cheered, because I thought it was what was supposed to happen.

To this day, I still feel the horrible twist in my stomach from the moment I realized the explosion wasn't a puff and a pop.

We all cried¿students, teachers¿ My house was nearby, and I could see it from my classroom.

I didn't want to go home because it meant that it was a part of my real life.

Years later, I played baseball with Christa McAuliffe's son. He was the kind of guy about which you say to yourself. Man, I wish I could be like him, until you realize what it took for him to be that way.

For the McAuliffe family especially, I will never forget.
Brandyn Siegler, USA

I was 14 years old and living with my parents in a suburb of Boston, Massachusetts. I came home from school in the afternoon and found my mother watching something on TV.

She turned to me with her eyes full of tears and asked me if I had heard about what had happened. I hadn't a clue and was shocked by my mother's reaction more than by the actual event being played and replayed on the television.

I don't know if it was the power of the television, the whole spectacular sight of the rocket exploding or the people who perished or a combination of it all... but it was quite a day.
Mark Odom, USA

I was in college at the time, majoring in engineering. My lifelong dream was to work at Nasa.

Although I was devestated by the disaster, it strengthened my resolve and inspired me. I did wind up working at Nasa for three years on the Space Shuttle and Space Station in the early 1990's.

I'm a teacher now, and the memory of Christa McAuliffe (the teacher in space who was on the flight) will always be with me.
Thomas Connolly, USA

The 28th January is my birthday.

I was in school when I found out about the shuttle. We weren't watching the take-off in our classroom but a fellow student who left for Special Ed classes was.

I was passing out little chocolate cupcakes when he came in and told us what had happened.

The teacher ran out from the room to verify this story and the rest of the day was very quiet as our teacher knew the teacher that had been on the shuttle.

I remember crying when I got home because it had "ruined" my Birthday.

I was too little to entirely understand what had happened at the time but I most certainly keep the men and women killed in this disaster in my thoughts on this day.
Lisa L, USA

I was 11 years old when the disaster happened.

I remember vividly on that day our teacher gave us a special treat and allowed the class to watch the liftoff live on TV in the classroom.

There was a lot of buzz about the first teacher in space. I recall seeing the explosion, and the confusion that ensued. After awhile, when people realized what happened, there were tears from some students, and shock from others.

Our teacher cried and we were all sent home early from class.

To this day, the image of the explosion is still so hard for me to see.
Ting, USA

I was standing with a customer outside our Resort in Palm Beach, Florida. The day was clear and the sky was crystal blue.

Though far from the launch site, the Shuttle's tail could be seen from miles away. We watched it go up and then suddenly. I said to my customer, "That doesn't look right."

We went inside to the resort where in the lounges, TV anchors were confirming the worst.
Kevin, USA

Growing up in central Florida, I watched most of the manned US flights launch from the street in front of my house: Mercury, Gemini, the Apollo moon shots, and too many space shuttles to remember.

I rushed outside and saw the big boosters zigzagging aimlessly
Jack Spears, US
So on that cold morning I listened to the launch on the radio and didn't bother to go outside.

When the announcer said that the shuttle had exploded, I rushed outside and saw the big boosters zigzagging aimlessly while the remains of the Challenger tumbled down through the cloudless blue sky.

The vapour trails and cloud left by the explosion hung in the sky for much of that terrible day.
Jack Spears, USA

I was working in Florida at the time and used to watch the launches from the parking lot of our plant.

I had convinced my buddy Aaron to come and watch this launch, as he had never seen one.

It was obvious right away to me that something had gone terribly wrong - the trail of exhaust had become two. Tears filled my eyes as I told Aaron, "I brought you to see a launch, not a disaster".

I've never watched another launch
Mitch deLong, US
We returned to the building where what we knew was confirmed. I've never watched another launch to this day.
Mitch deLong, USA

It was my last semester as an undergraduate senior at the University of San Francisco. School had just started and I was buying books at the university bookstore.

They had the radio on for entertainment when suddenly the radio program was interrupted with the shocking news that the space shuttle had just exploded seconds after take off.

I rushed back to my dormitory and turned on the television and watched in horror the replay of the shuttle taking off and its explosion right before it left the earth's atmosphere.

It was a terrible day.
Antonio De Rosas, Philippines

I was in 7th grade, and we had all returned to our homerooms in order to watch the broadcast. We watched the explosion and I remember feeling confused if that was supposed to happen or not.

I also remember the newscaster saying "Obviously a major malfunction" and that seemed to me to be quite a strange understatement - the word "malfunction" led me to hope that maybe everything was more or less ok.

Once it was clear that everyone on board had been killed, I remember thinking, "Weren't Christa's children and students standing there watching the launch?" and feeling really terrible for them.
Krista, USA

Our family had immigrated to the United States the previous September. I was at our sponsor's business office and she was helping me fill out our tax returns.

We had the television turned on for the kids to watch, and suddenly the program flashed to the space shuttle disaster as it happened.

As we watched in horror the explosion in the sky, I will never forget my five-year-old son's poignant exclamation, "Why?" Then we realized he was pointing at the awful "Y" in the sky.
Jan Marshall, USA

Like a few other mentioned, I too was in school the day it happened and watching the launch on television.

I was about 7 or 8 and the class was sitting on the floor. My best friend DJ was sitting next to me. He had not just a small boy's enthusiasm for being an astronaut, he had a true understanding and desire to be a part of it all.

So, there we were sitting and I remember how rapt in attention he was. He suddenly went 'oh,' I thought he had forgotten something or had an accident or something. I looked at him, then looked back at the television and then it happened.

We were silent for a moment, the announcer said said something about a mechanical fault. I blurted out "It blew up, it's not a fault." Then, DJ started screaming and crying. He couldn't stop.

Today I wonder and really hope DJ made it to NASA, that Challenger didn't dash his hopes.
David Devine, USA

It may have been the first time a major tragedy had occured in my lifetime that I was old enough to understand
Melody Siracusa, USA

I was 14 years old when the challenger explosion occured.

That morning, the weather was bad and school was cancelled, but a few hours later the roads had cleared, so my father decided that my siblings and I would go with him to visit his brother's family.

To be honest, I hadn't even realised that the shuttle was to be launched that day; It had been delayed so much that I assumed that the launch would be delayed once again.

When we got to my uncle's house, the TV was on, and the family was watching the news coverage of the explosion.

We sat there in shock, watching the replay of the explosion over and over, wondering how such a tragedy could have happened.

It may have been the first time a major tragedy had occured in my lifetime that I was old enough to understand.

I have vague memories of John Lennon's murder, of the Jonestown Massacre and of the assassination attempts on President Reagan and Pope John Paul II, but the Challenger explosion was the first to affect me.
Melody Siracusa, USA

I was in San Antonio visiting my parents and watching the shuttle take off.

We were so excited. The camera showed the astronauts' families and their excitement.

Then there was the shocking explosion. I will never forget that.
Andrea Lacy, USA

I remember the morning of 28 January. I was in the fifth grade in a small town in Texas. The launch of Challenger was advertised to the school as something we needed to see, since it was the 25th launch of a NASA shuttle and the flight consisting of a civilian school teacher.

Just prior to launch, the school had us go to the various classrooms that TVs were set up in. The kids were all rowdy- excited to be more out of classes for a brief moment in time than the launch. Finally the countdown reached 10 seconds and we counted down with the voice of NASA.

Then we watched, still talking about everything from what people did over the weekend to transformers toys to whatever. Then, we were all silenced when we saw the unimaginable. Seventy or so seconds after launch, Challenger was nothing more than a big white poofball of smoke and fire.

The NASA space shuttle was no more. the rest of the day, students were somber and quiet for the most part. Even lunch time, the usually noisy cafeteria was more quiet. Throughout the day, you could hear various conversations about what transpired. Well, that is my memory of the Challenger accident.
David, USA

I was on active military duty for the US Air Force on the day that the space shuttle fell from the sky.

My wife and I had gone to have lunch at the Dyess air force base Texas NCO club and we were watching the launch when it happened.

I will never forget the silence that descended on the club as the live feed showed the contrail of the booster rockets pin wheeling across the sky. I just bowed my head and said a quiet prayer for the mission crew and their families.

The images shown on that day are as fresh now as they were then.
Tommy J Sands

 E-mail this story to a friend

Shuttle launch
24 previous missions had been completed successfully

Space shuttle Challenger exploding
The explosion was witnessed by millions on live TV
Memories from the UK

I had just turned five-years-old and I was watching one of my first editions of Newsround.

What I remembered is the image of the smiling astronauts waving and then entering the shuttle. Then the image of the shuttle exploding in mid-air is still an image that makes me shudder.

Newsround was the first British programme to show this as it happened.
Helen, UK

I was 12 and I remember coming home from school to see my mum in tears. I went in to the front room to see the event being replayed over and over on the TV.

It is an event I will never forget - what made me especially sad was the fact that the crew included one of the first non-military crew, Sharon McAuliffe, was on board.
Frank Bradshaw, UK

The memories from that day will stay with me forever
Damien Everett, UK
I was nine-years-old at the time of the disaster. We had been doing projects on space at school and had spent many weeks following the Challenger preparations.

I remember how excited we were the day before each launch was due. I also remember how upset and shocked we all were after the explosion. The next day at school our teacher explained to us what had happened for anyone who did not see it.

I remember tears running down her cheeks. The memories from that day will stay with me forever.
Damien Everett, UK

My memory of it is seeing it on Newsround and seeing John Craven himself struggling to get the story across. He was like the rest of us and in total shock at the unfolding events.
Graham , UK

It was the first time I'd ever seen a newsflash
Stephen Woodcock, England
I remember this very clearly indeed. I was only 12 at the time and remember watching BBC's Newsround.

Suddenly, everything went quiet and a newsflash came on. I think it was the first time I'd ever seen a newsflash and it was pretty scary, because you knew it was something serious.
Stephen Woodcock, England

I was at primary school and I remember coming home and seeing the shuttle on the news.

I was very shocked at what I was seeing. I had a keen interest in space exploration, and I was just terrified at what the footage was showing.

Even now, it still seems as if it happened yesterday. I remember seeing the footage of the explosion over and over again. It's something I'll always remember.
Jase, UK

I remember watching TV, I think it was Newsround, with my brother and sister. It was quite shocking seeing the explosion and the incredible time for the debris to hit the ground.

I was hoping that the astronauts would have escaped in their escape pod. It was particularly sad as the space shuttle was carrying the first women civilian into space and we knew her family could see the destruction at first hand.
Michael Walker, UK

Shuttle launches were still a major event back then. There was a great buzz of excitement about them and they were regularly featured live on television.

I don't think anyone really thought of them as being dangerous. There had been relatively few accidents in the great space race.

I remember hearing the voice communications between ground control and the shuttle, the words "Challenger, go with throttle up..." and the last words we heard from the crew, "Roger, going throttle up..."

I stared with sheer astonishment at the resulting ball of flame and smoke. The news reporter said, "Ground controllers looking very carefully at the situation here... obviously a major malfunction."

The event set back the shuttle programme by a number of years but hopefully it made space travel safer by reminding us of the dangers of pushing the frontiers of science.
Martin Randall, UK

I was in the first year of my A-levels and a self-confessed space fan. There had been a lot of press about 1987 being the year things really gained pace in space development with more than one shuttle launch a month planned.

I remember getting home from school a little late, turning on the TV to see Newsround's coverage of the explosion. I recall how sick I felt on hearing the words "the shuttle's commander was..."

Later that evening I took part in an LBC discussion on what would happen next and while some of my predictions happened, most of it is still delayed as a result.
Dave O'Neill, UK

As the seconds counted down I sat there with expectant enthusiasm, but also, the sense of foreboding that goes with every watched launch.

I still choke up when thinking of that day
Henry Brugsch, UK
When the count reached +1:40, there was that all-to-familiar static crunch that we have all grown to recognize, the pause, then "We have lost all telemetry from the craft."

All that day I was in a sort state of shock, and mourning. Even now, I still choke up when thinking of that day.
Henry Brugsch, UK

My sister and I were bored, and watching the space shuttle launch live on BBC2 was just about the only thing we could agree on.

We both knew that there was a teacher on board, and being of school age at the time, this was an added interest.

We were young, but we both instantly knew that something terrible had happened and that nobody could have survived what we had seen unfolding before our eyes.

The shock of watching that accident "live" on TV was only recently matched by the events of September 11th 2001 which, unfortunately, I also watched live on BBC News 24.
Nichola Vincendeau, UK

For a split second we thought the explosion was part of the launch
G Sutton, UK
I can remember watching the launch with my three children, aged 16, 14 and 13 on a children's news programme. For a split second we thought the explosion was part of the launch.

I can remember the astronauts' parents being hustled away and the cameras giving a close up of their shocked faces. I was disgusted by such a callous act and refused to watch any more footage. We were watching them watch their loved ones die.
G Sutton, UK

I was only eight-years-old and into space stuff in a big way. When I got home from School my Dad told me the shuttle had exploded. I will never forget those pictures.

I now have a sister who is the age I was then when the Twin Towers came down and I am sure she will remember that in the same way I did.
Shivas Lindsay, UK

I would have been 14, fascinated by all things "space", and watched it on the BBC's Newsround when I got home after school.

I don't remember if it was live or a recording, but I went cold, my mouth hit the floor, and I called my mum in from the kitchen. It was unbelievable and frightening.

What made this tragedy so profound was that a civilian was involved.
Nathaniel Reed, UK

I was in the NAAFI at RAF Swinderby. We had a big inspection the following day so I had dashed out to get some cleaning materials.

I stopped in the TV room to watch the launch. The shock of watching that was only beaten by watching 11 September 2001. I dashed back to the "block" and spread the news. We all felt a little down. What a terrible shame.
Simon Campbell-Smith, UK

Other memories

I was sitting in an office with colleagues in NASA Marshall Space Flight Center.

We paused in our work on a future Spacelab flight to watch the launch on our internal monitors. We knew some of the people on board and it was going to be another great mission. I had seen many missiles blow up on or immediately after launch, but never with people on board.

It was a terrible shock and some of us watching broke down... I remember just sitting around for days wondering where the programme would go now.

The whole nation was in shock - it was like the murder of Kennedy all over again.
George E Todd, Germany

As an engineering student I was working my summer holiday in Gove, a remote mining town in the Northern Territory.

I was working with fellow students and we heard about the accident via telephone.

We were completely shocked at what happened but we had to wait two days for the television news tapes to be flown into the town to see the now famous pictures.
David McNicol, Australia

Witness Stories

Search ON THIS DAY by date

^^ back to top
Front Page |  Years |  Themes |  Witness
©MMVIII | News Sources | Privacy & Cookies Policy