30 Years Ago, Challenger Disaster Devastated New Hampshire and the Nation

Jan 28, 2016

The Challenger explosion

Thursday marks 30 years since the break-up of the space shuttle Challenger, which claimed the life of Concord High School teacher Christa McAuliffe.

She was among the seven crew members on board who were killed.

McAuliffe had been selected from more than 11,000 applicants to be the first participant in the NASA Teacher in Space Project.

Jim Van Dongen was news director for New Hampshire Public Radio at the time, filing reports from Cape Canaveral for the station.

He now works as an adjunct professor of English at New Hampshire Technical Institute.

He joined NHPR’s Morning Edition to talk about how covering the disaster affected him. 

If you’re a reporter, you’re supposed to maintain a certain professional distance. You’re still a human being, but you have to protect yourself from taking things too personally. I couldn’t do that. I really had a difficult time dealing with it, and I think that was true for all of the New Hampshire reporters who went down there, because it wasn’t just another story.

You can read the full transcript of Van Dongen's interview below: 

I wanted to ask you about your recollections. You actually went down to Florida and reported on the launch.

Yes. We teamed up with WOKQ in Dover, so the two stations – Roger Wood was their news director – we went down on a Thursday with the intent of watching the launch on a Friday or a Saturday. Because of weather conditions, either cold temperatures or high winds, it kept getting postponed. The launch was postponed sometimes on an hourly basis. Sometime you’d get to the end of the launch window for the day and it was postponed until the next day.

Finally, on Tuesday morning, it finally lifted off. Roger and I were on both stations live at the same time. The launching pad was a good five miles away because the shuttle was so powerful, we had to be that far back, but we still couldn’t see anything. You know, that iconic picture of the contrail splitting off into two directions.

That was taken by a telescopic camera.

Right, it was done at a much different angle than we were looking at. We were looking practically straight up at it, so we really couldn’t see it. I started getting uneasy, but I didn’t know what I was looking at.

And I think that speaks for a lot of people. You’re not sure of what you’re looking at because you’re not a rocket scientist.

Right, we had no way of knowing if this was normal.

Teacher Christa McAuliffe experiences the "vomit comet."Credit -Keith Meyers of the New York TimesEdit | Remove

And you can hear the crowd kind of hush a little bit.

All of a sudden they stopped cheering and no one was really sure what was going on. And I distinctly remember hearing the commentator say, “Obviously, a major malfunction; rescue ships and planes being dispatched down range.” And at that point everybody was still in a state of shock because this wasn’t supposed to happen.

From your standpoint, talk about the legacy of Christa McAuliffe here in New Hampshire and what this meant for Concord and the region.

Obviously, it was a terrible shock. It took a long time to internalize this. If you’re a reporter, you’re supposed to maintain a certain professional distance. You’re still a human being, but you have to protect yourself from taking things too personally. I couldn’t do that. I really had a difficult time dealing with it, and I think that was true for all of the New Hampshire reporters who went down there, because it wasn’t just another story.

I want to talk about the legacy too though and what she has meant to generations of kids since then and maybe as a spokesperson for science.

She’s still an inspiration, there’s no question about that, both locally and across the profession. People can by way of encouraging women in particular about anyone. I mean, one of the things we do at NHTI is emphasize these science, technology, engineering, and math classes, that those are important. She’s an inspiration for anybody looking to go into those subjects.