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Literally. I did more than poke my head inside the hatch of Challenger a couple of times, while they were prepping it for flight, back at Kennedy Space Center. And Columbia, before it. I know the shuttle fleet was built here in Southern California; but I was my Florida TV station’s space shuttle reporter, before the first flight even launched. NASA was a bit more lax about letting you get up-close in those days: as long as you didn’t stray off the metal walkways. Think of that: getting to go inside a space shuttle!
After reporting from the first 8 launches –the most spectacular things I have ever witnessed– I came back to SoCal, initially as an aerospace reporter. And when I began morning anchoring, I pushed to continue covering launches and landings, because the shuttle was so important to our local economy (from Downey to the high desert). And so, on January 28, 1986, I was the only person covering Challenger’s launch live on Los Angeles TV, from a tiny studio at a station, in Burbank.
Long-time viewers –25 years-worth– still talk to me about our shared experience. Make no mistake, I have never felt that ‘narrating’ the launch, the explosion, or the immediate aftermath was about me. I just happened to be on TV. I tried to keep my emotions out of that broadcast. Yes, I said “My God, there’s been an explosion” (no exclamation point, believe me); but after that, all I could do was talk about what I saw on screen, and various emergency options for getting the crew back to the ground. Of course, there were none.
People say ‘That must have been a tough day for you.’ My pre-canned response is “Not as tough as it was for the astronauts.” I knew Ellison Onizuka (“El”), and Judy Resnik. Not well, but we’d run into each other at press briefings or training drills in the years before. I didn’t even think about the fact that two people I knew were onboard, until several minutes after I was off the air. The networks all interrupted programming pretty quickly after the blast, and I remember being frustrated at the misinformation they were putting out there. That night, I was on a plane to Orlando, to descend on KSC for the aftermath.
25 years is more than half a lifetime for most people who remember that day. I’m glad when people want to talk to me about where they were: it was an important day in our history; even if, for all the wrong reasons.