By Jessica Tansing
Panther Press Contributor
January 28, 1986 was an unusually cold day for Central Florida and 16-year-old Dana Otto was filled with excitement. She and her tenth grade high school class were invited to Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral to watch the live launch of The Challenger space shuttle. Standing with her classmates, she couldn’t have fathomed the impending doom of what would be the last Challenger mission.
January 2016 marks the 30th anniversary of The Challenger space shuttle explosion, a memory still vivid in the mind of the now middle-aged Otto.
The launch was special, because for the first time, it was decided that a civilian in the form of a school teacher would join professional astronauts in space. A contest was held and some 11,000 teachers applied. The top 10 teachers were invited to the White House and Vice President George H.W. Bush announced the winner. New Hampshire social studies teacher, Christa McAuliffe, was chosen. After many months of vigorous training, she joined six professional astronauts in a quest to orbit space and observe Halley’s Comet.
Around the United States, the launch was eagerly anticipated and viewed live by children in school, students on college campuses and adults taking a break from their day to turn on their television. At Kennedy Space Center, Otto watched the ground shake and the windows rattle. She saw the space shuttle launch, leaving a dramatic stain of dark smoke against the crisp, blue sky.
“You could see [the shuttle] touching the tree line and shooting off,” she said.
Suddenly, the playful demeanor of the crowd changed as what started as a puff of smoke spewing from the side of the shuttle turned into a massive aerial explosion. Just seventy-four seconds after launch, confusion born out of disbelief raced through the mind of Otto and her fellow classmates.
“I never really understood what happened, and we were really upset,“ remembers Otto.
After the explosion, Otto and the rest of her class made the twenty mile drive back to her school.
“We went back to our classrooms and the principal told us that the Challenger had exploded.”
Just a few hours before, Otto was a typical 16-year-old “worried about makeup and hair” and now she was someone that had just witnessed firsthand the most devastating tragedy to ever hit the space program. Otto describes her emotions that day as flowing from excitement, to pure confusion, to extreme sadness.
That evening, Otto watched as President Ronald Reagan addressed the nation on television.
“We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God,” said the president during the speech.
NASA would not put another person into space for three years after the explosion. Otto says that many people in the area were dependent on the space program for jobs, and that they were a very close-knit community.
Otto’s father, Glenn Otto, worked for NASA in the Department of Quality Assurance. On the day of the explosion, he was in Houston, Texas working on a different project.
“She didn’t talk much about the explosion at that time, other than to ask me questions about why I thought it happened,” he said.
In June of that same year, a Presidential Commission tasked with investigating the explosion gave their report. It was then that Dana Otto, her father, and the rest of the world learned what “O-rings” were. According to the Report of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident, “the loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger was caused by a failure in the joint between the two lower segments of the right Solid Rocket Motor. The specific failure was the destruction of the seals that are intended to prevent hot gases from leaking through the joint during the propellant burn of the rocket motor.” The seals were also known as “O-rings.”
January 2016 will mark the thirtieth anniversary of the Challenger explosion. Otto calls witnessing the launch and subsequent explosion as a “defining moment of her life.” Nowadays, she enjoys bringing her husband and two young children to visit the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Washington Dulles International Airport in Virginia, which is part of the Smithsonian Museum. A favorite stop is in front of the majestically resting “Discovery” space shuttle. It is described by the Smithsonian as “the third Space Shuttle orbiter vehicle to fly in space. It entered service in 1984 and retired from spaceflight as the oldest and most accomplished orbiter, the champion of the shuttle fleet.”
While Otto witnessed an American tragedy on January 28, 1986, visiting the Discovery brings her a sense of comfort, and possibly even some closure.