Twenty five years ago today I was working for a McDonnell-Douglas military subcontractor as a buyer of military electronic components used mainly in the manufacturing of stores management systems, communications and armament control systems for FA/18, AV8B, F-15 & E2C aircraft for the US and Australian militaries. A small part of the operation included what we called the “Space Shuttle Lab” which to most employees at this aerospace facility was where the guys with the high government clearance were tucked away in their own little world. As luck would have it I became pretty good friends with a few of the “SSL” technicians over lunches and a few beers at a local watering hole. I learned through my purchasing position as well as frequent conversations with my pals in the “Lab” that they built models and 1 of a kind items/parts such as gimbals and gyroscopes that were used in the guidance and navigation systems aboard the Space Shuttles. On shuttle launch days a few select “outsiders”, myself being one, were invited down to the lab to view the launch countdown via specially installed closed circuit TV affording an insider’s look at the preparations for the start of the missions. Needless to say as we gathered in this small conference room to view the lift off of Challenger’s 10th mission, known to us as STS-51-L, several of the guys wondered aloud if it was too cold in Florida (31 degrees, while we had 37 there in Florham Park NJ) for liftoff at 11:37 AM as scheduled after being delayed 4 times (including once unofficially due to the schedule of Vice-President George H. W. Bush, who wanted to personally view the launch) since its original scheduled date of January 22.
At around 11:15, 6 or 7 of us were gathered just outside the conference room when another friend of mine who worked in the metrology lab stopped by to ask if he could view the launch with us, I checked and cleared it with my friend Vince who ran the “Lab” and Joe, who as an ordained deacon, asked if he could lead us in a quick prayer asking for the safe return of the Challenger crew. This was not a problem and Joe, unbeknown to me, who had been out with me the previous night hoisting few, produced a small piece of paper on which he’d scribbled a few notes including the names Michael Smith, Dick Scobee, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe. After the small prayer someone mentioned the fact that McAuliffe would be teaching school kids from space as the first teacher in space which drew smiles from all of us.
As most people are aware, the shuttle lifted off from its girding and ascended skyward where 1 minute and 13 seconds later a huge burst of bright light was witnessed and believed by many (except my friends who seemed to know otherwise instantly) to be the burn off from the rocket booster separation but unfortunately turned out to be the destruction of the orbiter and crew. While this launch wasn’t widely televised as this spectacle had become in the vernacular “Old Hat” for NASA, our nation was witness to the second major catastrophe in the history of the space program and seven heroic pioneers were lost.
As the entire small conference room at Lear Siegler burst into shrieks of terror and tears as the events unfolded, numerous “outsiders” overheard our commotion and word rapidly spread of the disaster that had just occurred over the skies of Florida. Employees began gathering in small groups discussing the accident until it was announced throughout the plants that my friend Joe would lead a prayer in the parking lot. Within 5 minutes 1200 people had gathered outside in the 37 degree sunny day to hear the somber information that had been witnessed by the few of us as well as that garnered through official channels.
While most of us had never met the crew, we felt a tremendous bond and I’ll never forget the scene of these employees huddled together, most openly crying and many visibly shaken as the president of our company announced that the work day was over and urged us to pray with Deacon Joe for the families of those lost as well as the entire space program family. Looking back on it over the years, I’ve sometimes wondered if this statement was based on business or genuine feelings of grief, although at the time it certainly didn’t seem to matter.
A few of us headed to the Ringside Pub in Caldwell, NJ to watch the news coverage and “drown our sorrows” and toast (not sure that’s the right term) those who’d been lost. As the evening progressed and the country heard from President Reagan as he stated,
“The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and "slipped the surly bonds of earth" to "touch the face of God."
I thought to myself, “I hope this never happens again.” Unfortunately my hope was dashed on February1, 2003 as we lost the shuttle Columbia and its crew.
As we Met fans eagerly anticipate the start of baseball in Florida next month, I hope we all take a moment to remember those lost on this day 25 years ago. It really means a lot to me.