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"Losing my faith in humanity ... one neocon at a time."

Friday, January 28, 2005

19 Years Ago Today

posted by Jazz at 1/28/2005 05:07:00 PM

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Joe Territo asks the question, where were you when the space shuttle challenger blew up? I have a somewhat more "insider" story than many.

I was, at that time, working as a technical writer and engineering technician for RCA Astro just outside of Princeton, New Jersey. We developed the transmitter sections of satellites which were, at that time, primarily launched via shuttle. One of my responsibilities was, during launch windows, to travel up to a desolate, middle-of-nowhere spot in New Jersey, just over the line from Easton, Pennsylvania. (It's the home of champion boxer Larry Holmes, and he owned a hotel across the river in Jersey where I general stayed during these trips.)

We worked at a sat-nav tracking station up there, with two huge dishes. We stayed in communication with the birds as they were maneuvered up from their release orbit into their final geosynchronous orbit. We monitored the downlink data feed from them, starting when they were in the shuttle bay until they reached their final position and went online at their station.

On that day, we had one bird already in transit, and a second one in the bay of the Challenger. The shuttle flights had become somewhat routine by then for the media, and you didn't get nearly as much TV coverage as you did in the first trips. We, however, had a direct satellite feed straight into NASA television. Most of the time it was boring non-activity from mission control, but we kept it on anyway.

When challenger went up, we were monitoring the feed on that bird as well as the one in transit orbit. At the moment that the shuttle blew, unlike most of America, I was watching a stream of telemetry data. The numbers are pretty much meaningless as you watch them... you only look to see that data is still coming in. One moment there was a normal stream... the next moment it all went to zeros. I only knew what happened when I looked up at the TV screen in our control room and saw the debris coming down. We'd initially thought it was just a loss of signal point.

Network TV cut away shortly thereafter and started doing interviews and showing less "disturbing" footage. NASA tracked the entire ugly thing and we sat there and watched it. It felt like somebody had punched me in the stomach.

I went out after my shift and drank a bunch of tequila and passed out in my hotel room. It was not pretty.

That's my memory of that day. I don't like to think of it often.