Space Shuttle Mission 51-L

The Challenger Seven: A Shared Romance With Space

By Dale Russakoff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 2, 1986

A small child rushed out of his house in a tiny South Carolina tobacco town to gaze in amazement at the sky. The date was Oct. 4, 1957, and the child had just learned of the Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik, the first satellite to enter the great beyond of space.

The child was 7-year-old Ronald E. McNair, and he was mesmerized by the notion of such a thing staying up in the sky. His father, a car repairman, recalled that the child posted himself outside their ramshackle house for hours, watching in case the flying machine fell, so that he could get out of its way.

A few hundred miles away, a youth in the fishing village of Beaufort, N.C., was becoming fixated on the wonder of flight. He saw small private planes rise from the runway of the local airport, churning their way over the football field where his school team practiced. With each flight, young Michael J. Smith would freeze, staring upward "until he couldn't see it anymore," his coach recalled.

Clear across the United States in tiny Auburn, Wash., a young man named Francis R. (Dick) Scobee was heading to the Air Force to become a pilot, pursuing an ambition born from growing up next to the huge airfield where the Boeing Co. tested the early American jetliners. Their engines revved so thunderously that the noise competed with the cheers of crowds at Scobee's high school football games.

Serendipity and a remarkable period of American history would bring these three men and four other persons -- Judith A. Resnik, Ellison S. Onizuka, Gregory B. Jarvis and Christa McAuliffe -- together in a brief, shared romance with the heavens. Then a technological failure would freeze them forever in time -- 11:39 a.m., Tuesday, Jan. 28, 1986 -- 74 seconds into a mission to that timeless seducer, Outer Space.

The seven astronauts who died when the space shuttle Challenger exploded grew up with the space race. In many ways, its story and theirs are one.

They were youngsters in 1957 when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I, prompting the United States to embark on a conquest of space in a Cold War panic, to "make sure that space is not used to endanger our security," in the words of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Four years later, most of them thrilled to the idealistic vigor of President John F. Kennedy when he vowed to add the moon to his New Frontier.

College years coincided, for most of them, with the Mercury and Gemini missions and with the 1967 fire that killed three astronauts as their sealed capsule burned on the launch pad. All were in or near their 20s when, two years later, astronaut Neil Armstrong took his "one small step" onto the moon.

The Challenger Seven also mirrored the space program's multiple directions.

Scobee and Smith were fighter pilots, drawn to space in the spirit of the early, fighter-jock astronauts. McNair, Resnik and Onizuka were scientists, recruited when the government wanted more technological brainpower on its space missions. But their recruitment represented something else, too: the push by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to diversify its all-male, all-white astronaut corps. In Onizuka, McNair and Resnik, they brought in a Japanese American, a black man and a white woman.

In the 1980s, the opening of the program to nonastronauts brought in Jarvis, a communications engineer for a defense contractor, and McAuliffe, a teacher and self-described first "ordinary person" in space.

Laced through the story of their lives are key themes of the American romance with space, some less romantic than the notion of a "next frontier" implies. Portrayed as a great national adventure, the space program also has been a drive for world prestige, for military superiority, for scientific knowledge. Many of its goals could have been accomplished by unmanned spacecraft. But as President Kennedy's space advisers wrote in recommending a manned flight to the moon:

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© 1986 The Washington Post Company