|I can't describe how I felt when
it exploded. We were eating lunch and one of the engineer's wives
called to say that the Challenger had blown up. He laughed
and said "no way", but there must have been something about her tone that
made him turn on the radio.
You could have heard a pin drop in that room. We all stood, transfixed by what was playing out over that radio. It had become the center of our universe for that instant. Someone dug up a television in the lab were the testing was done and we watched it explode over and over . . . the stunned speculations began as the phones started to ring.
Being a technical writer, I wasn't privy to all of the discussions between the engineers trying to figure out what had happened, but NASA was on the phone and so was (ironically) Morton Thiokol. I was pulling books so they could look up the specs and to make sure we had described everything correctly. I have to hand it to that company: no one was out to prove we didn't cause it "no matter what". They, we all, wanted the truth.
Everyone eventually figured out that the explosion didn't start in that area of the craft.
An interesting thing about highly compressed liquefied hydrogen: it explodes when depressurized. It doesn't need an ignition source. It just goes BANG. The main fuel tank didn't need the fire from the SRB. All it needed was a big enough hole.
At throttle up, the vehicle is pulling in excess of 9Gs. That's a lot. Fighter pilots can black out in a 9G combat turn. 9Gs or so (it's been a while) is the normal launch G load. When it exploded, the crew would have endured at least twice that. They should have died instantly, but they didn't for some reason. I was told later that they probably survived that long, whirling fall into the ocean. The impact with the water would have been like hitting a brick wall. That was what probably killed them. They fell for miles and minutes, knowing they were as good as dead.
When I got home, I had to explain it to my kids. They were really young. I had to explain that sometimes things just go wrong in spite of all the planning and work. In spite of the fact that I'd grown up watching the space program develop, I explained that we were infants in our efforts.
I didn't know anyone on the Columbia or Challenger, and I don't know anyone now who has any inside knowledge of the loss of Columbia. I could make a few calls, but it's been years and years and people move on. I went to the commercial side when the defense biz burped me out in the late 80's/early 90's.
I do know that those people on the Columbia died a difficult death. They were incinerated. They were probably conscious. They wear pressure suits on launch and landing and those suits would have protected them while they struggled with the ship. They would have watched it break up around them and as each piece and person tore away into the fireball.
Space is risky, but we're getting better at it. We need to go there. We need to explore. God put it in us so we'd look for Him and the rest of His creation. We cannot refuse this urge, so we continue despite the danger. Brave people every one. Those in the ship and the thousands upon thousands that make the parts to make them fly.