30 Years: How We Covered The Challenger Disaster

 

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On January 28, 1986 the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff. The accident killed all seven crewmembers: Francis Scobee, Michael Smith, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Gregory Jarvis and schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe who was set to become the first civilian in space.

A presidential commission blamed the explosion on a design flaw, but more broadly faulted NASA for a “management structure that permitted internal flight safety problems to bypass key Shuttle managers.”

In the early moments of the disaster, newspeople across the country found themselves simultaneously covering perhaps the biggest story of their careers, while dealing with the inevitable shock and grief. On this 30th anniversary of that awful day, here’s how one newsroom handled the task. This post originally appeared in 2014.

On the morning of January 28 most of the national news media was paying relatively little attention to the liftoff of the Space Shuttle Challenger.

In the earlier days of the space program, any launch would have been big news. Every network would have carried it live. But Shuttle flights had become so successful, and so frequent, the novelty had worn off. Only CNN, still in its early years and eagerly seeking live events to fill airtime, was showing the Challenger countdown as it happened.

Inside the newsroom at WNBC-TV in New York City, one TV monitor on the wall was tuned to CNN. All the rest displayed the soaps, game shows and local programs running on the other channels.

A few of us glanced up briefly as Challenger lifted off. Nice. Same old, same old. Not much stirring in the newsroom.

About a minute later, right after “Go at throttle up,” we saw what some of us thought might be just a slightly different view of the normal solid rocket booster separation. The voice of Mission Control kept going like nothing had happened: “One minute fifteen seconds.. velocity 29-hundred feet per second…altitude nine nautical miles.. downrange distance seven nautical miles….” Then he stopped.

The pictures got increasingly grim. After a few awkward, silent moments, someone in the newsroom could be heard saying, “Something’s wrong.”

Now all work in the newsroom freezes. Everybody’s watching. And standing. Jaws have dropped open. Everybody senses a terrible thing has happened, but no one will say or do anything until we know for sure.

Mission control speaks again: “Major malfunction.” And again: “The vehicle has exploded.”

A few more seconds of shock, everybody in the newsroom still motionless. Then, as if a switch were thrown, people start running in all directions, shouting instructions: “We have to get on the air!” “Get someone over to the flash cam!” “Tell Master Control!” “Is Jack in his office?” Chaos.

Moments before WNBC could get on the air, NBC News took over, as did the other networks, going wall-to-wall with nonstop coverage. The next opportunity for the “local” station would come in about six hours, at 5 PM, and WNBC made the most of it.

Everything originally planned for that afternoon’s local newscasts was thrown out. Decisions came rapidly. A reporter was dispatched to New Hampshire, where teacher-crewmember Christa McAuliffe lived. Experts were brought in. A model of the Shuttle was obtained. Even Pat Harper, our anchor, on vacation in Europe, phoned in and reported live. In less than half a day, the WNBC staff pulled together some of the strongest, most informative and compelling news broadcasts I’ve ever seen. ┬áThe anchors, reporters, producers, writers, directors, field crews, studio crews, PA’s and NFA’s worked their hearts out, and they all did a great job.

Then we went home and fell apart. We joined the rest of the human race and grieved.