Challenger Disaster

Shuttle Challenger CrewmembersFrank Mottek was an eyewitness to the 1986 space shuttle Challenger disaster at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida while sharing the CBS Radio News coverage duties with veteran CBS News Correspondent Christopher Glenn. For the one year anniversary of the tragedy, Frank wrote the following article about his experience that was published in the Sun-Sentinel in 1987.
Sometimes history sneaks past even the most astute observers, only to be revealed later and under close analysis. And sometimes it flares in your face, instantly important, and reshapes the world.
Most journalists, those whose job it is to tell history`s tales on a day-to-day basis, never or rarely witness and chronicle earth-shaking events. When they do, these observers are the first links in a chain that brings monumental news to the world. And for those who do their job aloud -- live, on the air, describing even as they are watching -- the task uniquely weds the witness to the event.

Thus I remember the day Challenger exploded -- a year ago Wednesday -- just as Herb Morrison to this day clearly recalls the day the dirigible Hindenburg exploded on May 6, 1937, killing 35 people at Lakehurst, New Jersey. 

CBS News Correspondent Christopher Glenn CBS News Correspondent Christopher Glenn and Frank Mottek in the CBS broadcast booth at the Kennedy Space Center on January 28th, 1986, just a few hours before the launch and explosion of the space shuttle Challenger.

On the morning of January 28th, I left my Titusville hotel room at 3:30. Not anticipating the freezing cold, I did not have the proper clothing, only a sweater and sport jacket. I ran through the cold to my car for the 15-mile drive; I ran with a typewriter and tape recorder to the NASA press room, where a NASA official told me there was no problem with launching a shuttle in such cold weather.

I ran to the CBS News bureau, where Glenn and I put together radio reports on preparations for launch, the delays, the rescheduled launch, the explosion and its aftermath.
The air was very cold and dry. The sky was crystal clear and had a magnificent orange glow as the sun rose. We watched the NASA video monitor as virtually the same scenes we saw the day before were repeated. On January 27th, Challenger`s launch was scrubbed because of a faulty hatch handle and poor weather conditions.
We watched the crew members gather together for breakfast, take their trip to the launch pad, put on their space suits and board their space ship. We saw Christa McAullife smile as a technician gave her an apple. Challenger`s launch that morning was delayed until 11:38 because of a computer problem and concern about the icicles on the launch pad service tower. Nevertheless, confident that low temperatures would not hinder a launch, NASA continued the countdown.
As launch time approached, Glenn and I went into our studio. It`s a small room with a large picture window facing the launch pad. We seated ourselves at a rectangular table in front of our microphones. Both of us put on headphones in which we could hear the NASA commentator and mission control. We could see arriving buses filled with spectators arriving and watched them take their seats in VIP bleachers.
At 11:37, Glenn began the three-minute launch broadcast:
"The flight of Challenger. At the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, I`m Christopher Glenn, CBS News." Glenn reported on the mission`s anticipated highlights and on what Christa McAullife planned to learn in space. He then asked me on the air about the delays which had plagued NASA in the first month of 1986. I said the slew of postponements could not have come at a worse time since it was supposed to be the busiest year for NASA with a total of 15 shuttle missions scheduled. I also noted that the first two missions of `86, Columbia and now Challenger, had suffered technical problems and uncooperative weather.
But I said that at that moment it looked like nature had finally "given its blessing to NASA`s launch plans today." We heard NASA spokesman Hugh Harris count down as the shuttle`s main engines started spewing flame. "Four-three- two-one and liftoff, liftoff!" Glenn then reported, "They`re off. There goes Christa McAuliffe. The shuttle streaking off the pad into a scintillating, absolutely clear blue Florida sky."
As he described what appeared to be a completely normal liftoff, as I had done at the six previous launches, I watched the cloud of thick exhaust cascade from Challenger. I saw the spaceship thunder -- for it is like thunder -- away; at one point, a clock in our studio was shaken off the wall. One minute into the flight, as scheduled, Glenn concluded the launch broadcast with the words, "Shuttle Challenger up and away at last looking good as it hurtles toward orbit carrying Christa McAuliffe and six crewmates. At the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, I`m Christopher Glenn, CBS News."
That ended the launch broadcast.
Frank Mottek reporting at 1 year anniversary of the Challenger disasterI reached across the table and shook hands with Glenn, thinking our work and all the delays were finally over. Just then we both stood up and looked up at the shuttle making its way farther and farther into the sky. Suddenly, I was struck by a pattern I had never seen before. From our vantage point, it appeared that an extra flame was trailing from the shuttle. Then, in that split second, a silent fireball appeared in the sky. Then there was silence, the silence of alarm, on the Mission Control line. Glenn immediately signaled our technician Bob to get back on the air for an emergency Net Alert Report.
The voice of Mission Control came back over the line and, coupled with an eerie feedback, we heard, "Flight controllers here looking at the situation very carefully. Obviously a major malfunction." Some seconds later: "We have no downlink."
Our technician cued Glenn, who, shaken, went back on the air:
"This is Christopher Glenn at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. There is a major problem which developed just a few seconds into the flight. We could see it happen. There seemed to be some kind of explosion aboard the rocket. And all of a sudden all communication with the spacecraft was lost. It looks as if debris is falling out of the sky. It almost appeared as if one of the solid rocket boosters or one of the spacecraft`s main engines went awry and something happened." Then came the shocking official confirmation from NASA of the awful sight in the sky.
From mission control we heard, "We have a report relayed through the flight dynamics officer that the vehicle has exploded. Flight director confirms that. We are now looking at checking with the recovery forces to see what can be done at this point."
Glenn turned back to the microphone:
"Oh, a great tragedy here! Christa McAuliffe, the first private citizen in space and the rocket has apparently exploded in the first minutes of flight."
Looking off into the distance, I could see debris raining down into the Atlantic. I watched people running toward the NASA press building, going to tell the world. And I thought of the Hindenburg explosion, of Morrison`s dramatic radio description, of history flaring in our faces.
Glenn, shaking and with an anguished look, continued a masterful, gripping description. "Debris falling out of the sky, falling slowly, painfully, tragically, slowly toward the Atlantic Ocean just a few miles off shore."
Wrestling with emotion, he said, "This flight, which was to have been such a bright chapter in the history of the manned space flight program, turning in the flash of an instant into terrible, terrible tragedy."
While Glenn remained in the studio, I ran across the gravel to the press building. While running, I thought about the application I had submitted less than two weeks earlier for the `Journalist In Space Program.` My first thought was to withdraw immediately. How close to history can you want to be? I came face to face with some fellow reporters. No words were spoken as our eyes met.
I made my way quickly to the public affairs desk where NASA spokesmen George Diller and Jim Maizell had just taken out a map. They were plotting where the shuttle was reported to have fallen. I walked up to them but, just then, an elderly woman approached and said ``could we please dim the lights for a moment of silence.`` She was politely told that it still was not clear what had happened and, please, to wait.
The rest of the afternoon was dizzying with reports and interviews. In one of my first network reports on the disaster, I said the cheers of the thousands at the space center who witnessed the launch quickly turned to tears, shock and disbelief.
An outdoor news conference was called by NASA. By 4 p.m., the space center was overrun by reporters from around the world. We were seated in bleachers in front of the countdown clock and the American flag. Suddenly, without warning, the flag was lowered to half staff. Shortly thereafter, Jesse Moore, the NASA associate administrator, and Harris, the NASA spokesman, seated themselves before us in the cold.
It was Moore who reported with "deep regret" that none of the Challenger seven survived.
Frank Mottek at the site of the Hindenbury disasterSome months later, I interviewed -- and exchanged thoughts with -- Herb Morrison, the WLS-Chicago newsman who made broadcasting history by describing the Hindenburg explosion in New Jersey in 1937.
Morrison, now 81 and retired in Morgantown, W. Va., says he vividly remembers every detail about his experience. He told me he watched the Challenger disaster on television. "My wife Mary Jane and I were sitting here looking at it, when it burned in the air. When it caught fire it exploded, just like the tail surface of the Hindenburg." He said that when Challenger was launched "we were just like them on the ground down there; we just stood dumbly."
Morrison said the Hindenburg landing at first seemed routine. He said the Hindenburg explosion had stunned him for a second. But, he said, "I had been in broadcasting for seven years so I knew what it was, you know. I could go ahead and describe it because I had seen landings before."
His emotional account of the airship explosion is now famous. Actually, while he recorded his comments as the airship burned, the account was broadcast later. Yet it is also an example of how people whose responsibility it is to report the news can remain human in the face of stunning, tragic crisis. There perhaps follows the lesson that any human, when so confronted, will identify with and be moved by catastrophe.
But this is a sad lesson: Tragedy reinforces our humanity.
In describing the Hindenburg explosion, Morrison gave this account:
"It`s standing still now. The back motors of the ship are just holding at, just enough to keep it from --
It burst into flames! It burst into flames and it`s falling, its crashing; watch it, its crashing! Terrible! Oh my, get out of the way please. It`s burning, bursting into flames and its falling on the mooring mast. This is terrible. This is one of the worst catastrophes in the world.
Oh the humanity!
All the passengers ... their friends are all there. I can`t talk, ladies and gentlemen. I can`t. Listen folks I`m going to have to stop for a minute because this is the worst thing I`ve ever witnessed.``
-- Morrison told me a half a century later that he could understand why I thought of him when I saw Challenger explode, when history flared in my face.
Challenger Videos

President Reagan Challenger Address


In 2006, the year he retired, Christopher Glenn reflected on his 50 year broadcast journalism career in his keynote speech at the RTNA State of the News Business event at USC moderated by Frank Mottek.

Watch the USC RTNA Event Video

One Year Anniversary of the Challenger disaster.

Challenger Radio Broadcasts

Listen here to the dramatic description of the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger on January 28th, 1986:

CBS Radio News Challenger Launch Broadcast with Christopher Glenn and Frank Mottek


Listen here to the Challenger tragedy as it unfolded:

CBS Radio News Special Report on Challenger Explosion