Where No Man Has Gone Before ‘n Stuff

| January 29, 2013

We all have anniversaries of events that impacted our lives in some way. This time of year is an odd sort of trifecta for me.

January 23, 1968: The USS Pueblo was attacked.

January 30, 1968: The Tet offensive kicked off.

I was deployed and involved in both, although time and fading memories (and THIS venue) preclude me from offering up iffy details and/or even good Sea Stories.

The third item is bit clearer and far more recent

On Jan. 28, 1986, 19 years and a day after the Apollo 1 fire, NASA’s space shuttle Challenger broke apart 73 seconds after liftoff due to an O-ring failure in one of the orbiter’s twin solid rocket boosters. The malfunction allowed hot gas to escape the rocket booster, ultimately causing the shuttle’s external fuel tank to explode.

While working at the NASA Tracking Station on Kauai during the early ’80s I worked on the first 8 or 9 Space Shuttle missions. In the run up to one of those launches we were visited by a team of astronauts for a “meet ‘and greet”. One of those visiting was Ellison Onizuka.  I knew from his bio that he had been an AF test pilot before becoming an astronaut so I asked him, after more than two adult beverages apiece, how he thought it would feel to just ride the shuttle after flying jets.

He paused and offered this: ” How would YOU feel if YOU sitting on top of a huge potential bomb waiting for someone to light the fuse?” Okay, that IS a paraphrase rather than a direct quote, but the gist is valid. We all laughed.

So every year about this time it is hard to ignore the flood of memories, and memories of memories. I’ll be breaking my alcohol fast one day this week and raise a toast to those who dared and for those who did their duty.

Category: Geezer Alert!

Comments (48)

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  1. Twist says:

    I was in the 5th grade when that happened. We got pulled out of class and put in the Library. The teachers wheeled in the TV so we could watch the news.

  2. Chip@NASA says:

    I was at Kadena AB in 1986 when Challenger exploded….came in to work and thought they were kidding. Sad.
    I was working at NASA and was on military duty with my reserve unit at Andrews AFB on the firing range when the combat arms instructor came over and said “Columbia blew up” and I screamed at him “Hey dickhead, that’s not funny!!!!, I work at NASA” and he paused and said…I’m not joking.
    The last week of January is always a bit retrospective here and not a year goes by during that week from the 25th of Jan through about the 2nd of Feb that we all don’t think about the “curse” as we all call it.

  3. Just A Vet says:

    I was stationed in Landau, Germany at a Nike Hercules Air Defense Unit when the USS Pueblo was attacked. Of course we went on high alert and all the guys that were about to rotate out had a stop loss initiated so they couldn’t. Very intense times for a few days.

  4. 2/17 Air Cav says:

    I will never forget the drawing of God’s hands ready to receive the Challenger’s crew. It was the most beautiful statement of all and nothing and no one could ever convey with words what that drawing did.

  5. Poetrooper says:

    I was calling on doctors in the hospital at Eglin AFB, FL. that day. I was yukking it up with one of my physician assistant friends when a young airman came in and whispered something to him. The PA went pale, looked at me and said two words, “Challenger exploded.” Within minutes, that hospital got as quiet and somber as a funeral home. There were tears in peoples eyes and they all spoke in whispers. It was truly death in the family.

  6. jerry920 says:

    I was in the field with the 2nd AD. One of the Chiefs had a TV in their 109 van. We watched it over and over again.

  7. Former 3364 says:

    I was woke up by my mother that morning to hear that the Challenger had exploded. However, I was attending NFAS Orlando in the summer / fall of 88 and the entire school had mustered in Rickover Circle to watch the first post-Challenger launch.

  8. BK says:

    Like Twist, I, too, was still in grade school. 4th grade, they took us to the library where the only TV in school was located, to watch the launch live. So many of our teachers were living vicariously through McAuliffe, and to watch it happen was jarring.

    I fear the end of the human connection to exploration. If I can trace back to the beginnings of the end of the drive for manned space exploration, it was that day in 1986. I hope our explorer genes kick back in within our lifetimes.

  9. Chip@NASA says:

    I’m almost 50 and I work at NASA so I’m getting a kick……

    With all seriousness, we will be launching folks again in the next few (many?)years. My best guess would be 2017/2018 but really late, 2020.
    Remember that we have at least 3 or 4 Private launch companies (Boeing, SpaceX, and the Sierra Nevada Corporation) got 1.1 billion which aims to foster the design and development of new private spaceships to fill the current gap in U.S. human spaceflight capabilities.
    We have already had 2 supply missions to the International Space Station by Space X using the Dragon space capsule. I don’t know why the world and the media aren’t just flipping out. When they did it last year, I said to all, YOU just witnessed HISTORY. A private corporation, (in conjunction with NASA) just worked to do something that no one, Until then NASA and the Soviet Space Agency) had done before. Launch a rocket carrying an orbital payload to an orbiting platform.
    The hard pat now is getting this all engineered, tested and certified for *safe* (as much as is ever possible) for *human* space flight.
    That is another giant leap, BUT it will be done.
    (sorry for lotso’text)

  10. Anonymous says:

    I’m new to the site, but love it. I was standing on the runway at Homestead AFB when the Challenger broke apart right over our heads (way up there). We did not know what happened until we returned to the shop.

  11. AW1 Tim says:

    I was headed down to my store, running a few minutes late when my wife ran out (she had gone ahead of me to open it up) and told me to get inside quickly. I thought we’d been robbed or something.

    As always, she had turned on the TV while she started up the coffee, and heard live the words “obviously there’s been a major malfunction.

    We too watched that over and over, as did shoppers and friends who knew we had a TV on and came in to see it.

    As a kid, I got to meet many of the astronauts when they came out to Thiokol for visits, photo-ops, etc. My dad was an executive out there, and worked as one of the Thiokol/Airforce liasons. He knew when they’d be there so would take me along. I have tons of autographs and pics of them still.

    So, every loss was always felt deeply at our home through those little interactions we had with them.

    But it’s interesting to note how all of us veterans, who know and understand fully the dangers and risks of our profession(s), who have lost friends and seen perhaps too many things which young men and women shouldn’t have to see, can still get misty-eyed and choked up when we talk about these astronauts.

    A band of brothers indeed.

  12. Just A Vet says:

    I was working at Northern AZ. University when the Challenger exploded. I just happened to be passing through the student union at the time and of course all the TV’s were covering it. Deadly quite with huge crowds watching the screens. NAU put up a large monument commemorating it on South Campus because one of the crew was from Arizona.On Jan. 27, 1967, when Apollo 1 caught fire I was Fort Polk, LA taking basic training. Memories.

  13. Just A Vet says:

    Meant to say ‘quiet’. LOL

  14. Ex-PH2 says:

    I was at work when:

    — someone came and told us the Pueblo had been seized by the North Koreans.

    — someone came and told us that things had ‘picked up’ in Vietnam, things being undefined.

    — someone had brought his portable color TV along to watch the Challenger launch. And then it blew up.

    Why won’t the media flip out over the Dragon supply runs? Because they haven’t ended in disaster. There’s no overhead helicopter shots, no sensationalism.

    I keep up with space stuff. Like Kip says in the opening of “Have Space Suit — Will Travel” You see, I wanted to go to the moon.

  15. Ex-PH2 #14: The tracking station was staffed by folks (not me) who had supported the Apollo missions, and the other precursors. In between the more mundane scientific satellite support missions we’d swing the dish onto the moon. The dish had a camera, BTW, and they would reminisce. I WILL visit the moon, one way or another.

  16. Ex-PH2 says:

    Zero, did you ever see the flyover shots by the orbiting probes of the footprints, the flag and the lunar lander? I think that was June last year.

    (Is it next year already? Woh! Got work to do.)

  17. AW1 Tim says:

    I saw those shots. Now that the “Moon-Hoax” conspiracy nutbags have been soundly disproved, they’ve switched their tunes and are claiming that those flyover shots were “tampered with”. They keep moving the goalposts and, honestly, like Gordon Duff and his granola klan, they’ll never be satisfied.

  18. Twist says:

    I feel so young. Thank you all.

  19. Ex-PH2 #16: Yep… but remember I spent time with a number of folks who had “been there, done that”. We could actually lock-on to experiments extant.

    AW1 Tim #17: None of folks I worked with had retired on bribes. I don’t invest my limited time with the assclowns.

  20. Twist #18: Join the club… And do it justice. I was young once, and I did.

  21. Seadog says:

    I was stationed in the PI when Challanger exploded. Watched endless loops of it on the one AFRTS station. Fast forward a few years… I was at home getting dressed to relieve the Columbia landing crew. Had the TV on, watching the progress. Realized I should have heard the twin sonic booms, when they announced there was a malfunction. Reported to work at the Shuttle Landing Facility. People were in utter shock.

  22. Hondo says:

    Well, Twist – then I guess I’ll won’t pile on and tell you about watching some of the Mercury launches on a B&W TV (Glenn through Cooper, I believe – and maybe Sheppard and Grissom as well). Or how and when I found out JFK had been shot.

    Some things you simply remember, regardless of how young you were at the time.

  23. Seadog #21: At least I had some distance, both time and place. I can only imagine your situation. Maybe we should talk about the PI thing.

  24. 2/17 Air Cav says:

    @22. And I won’t tell you how I learned Archduke Ferdinand got his!

  25. Common Sense says:

    I was 6 years old for the USS Pueblo and the Tet Offensive so no memories there. Of course, since my uncle was serving I was aware of the war in general, much more so 4 years later when we lost him. THAT I will never forget.

    I was about 6 weeks pregnant with my first child when the Challenger exploded. It was just horrifying watching the footage.

  26. Hondo says:

    (chuckling) Unless you’re talking Ferdinand Marcos, 2/17 Air Cav, I believe I’ll just have to call BS on that one. That would make you too old to have served in Vietnam! (smile)

  27. MCPO NYC USN (Ret.) says:


    I was sitting in a first aid class, at a little known school in Coronado, CA, the instructor rolled a TV in and we watched the Challenger drama unfold.

    It was very sad to watch. The instructors appropriately exploited the terror of the incident to make dramatic and patriotic point about giving your life for your country.

    I did not graduated the school. I am still friends with some who did.

    I believe it was “Group Think” that brought the Challenger down. It never should have flown that day!

  28. 2/17 Air Cav says:

    Hondo. I am one of those, like Jonn, who was Vietnam ERA–barely.

  29. OWB says:

    Remembering all three, but perhaps Challenger most profoundly. Was on duty for that one and ended up sitting in a strange woman’s living room with a cup of coffee watching the TV. It took a while before either of us could conduct the official business we had to conduct. For a few minutes we were both simply Americans, not adversaries. That part of it was rather nice.

  30. Hondo says:

    2/17 Air Cav: sorry – though you’d indicated somewhere that you’d served there.

    Ya still got me beat – barely. I missed out qualifying for the Vietnam Era GI Bill by a few months.

    VEAP sucked.

  31. MCPO NYC USN (Ret.) says:

    So … the USS Pueblo incident or as I call it, “a great friggin’ reason to invade North Korea”, is quite facinating.

    Here is abit on the “Digit Affair”: http://www.usspueblo.org/Prisoners/The_Digit_Affair.html

    The official USS Pueblo web site is here: http://www.usspueblo.org/index.html

    In accordance with the Naval Vessel Register the USS PUEBLO is still active. A ship or service craft that has been formally accepted by the Navy that is either in-service or in commission.

  32. Hondo says:

    Ah, yes – the famous “Hawaiian good luck sign”. I tip my hat to those guys.

    Screw Time magazine for spilling the beans to the NKs regarding how they were being “had”.

  33. Hondo #32: For years I had pix of a Russian ship playing with us off Korea following the event. They disappeared during some move or other.

    Those guys were taking pix of us while we were taking pix of them.

    Can no longer prove it so file it under… [grin]

  34. 2/17 Air Cav says:

    @30. I enlisted in ’72 at 17 and had an argument with a Spec 4 at Fort Jackson regarding my choice of duty station: South Vietnam. I will never forget it. I put my finger on the red star and he said, “You don’t want to go there.” I replied, “That’s why I’m here.” And round and round we went before he finally recorded my selection. The rest, as they say, is history.

  35. Rabak Kabar says:

    The day after the Pueblo was captured we got told to pack our gear because we were headed for Korea. Rumors were flying and all we knew were stories of cold and snow but then TET happened and our rumored departure seemed to be forgotten and what was really hectic for a few weeks morphed into a several month operation called Mameluke Thrust. I was working when the Challenger exploded and heard the news on the radio. What a sad day for all of us.

  36. Joe Williams says:

    We (HMM-362) were at Phu Bai and were very busy with Hue and Khe Shan and other fun places and other ops in N. I corps.I lived in interesting times. Joe

  37. jon spencer says:

    Here is a very good blog about NASA,

  38. JDC (OUT FRONT) CAV says:

    in 68 I was 2, I was in 326 med bdn fort campbell ky in 1986

  39. jonp says:

    I was out on a field problem when the shuttle exploded. I remember it clear as a bell. I walked into the mess tent and they had the launch up on a tv. The ship went up and all this smoke and flames came out, the picture panned to the crowd and they were pointing and smiling and then it panned to the control room and everyone was just sitting there staring at their screens. I remember thinking ” that looks very bad”.

  40. SSG Medzyk says:

    “…to those, who dared”.


  41. Ex-PH2 says:

    For anyone who wants a real account of what happened at Khe Sanh during Tet, read “Siege In the Clouds”.

    My copy is beat up and full of flagged pages.

  42. Ex-PH2 #41: I’ll be kinda surprised if anyone here explores that.

    BTW: My internal copy is also passe. A pal of mine who was there just passed away.

  43. DefendUSA says:

    Landstuhl, Germany…The Today Show usually came on as COB approached. We hit the barracks and Holy Shit, it still gives me goosebumps. One person saw it and came running out of their room. His yelling, “Shit, the Challenger!!!” was earth shattering. We spent the rest of the night trying to get a grip.
    We were really comforted by Reagan’s speech. The barracks was never more quiet.

  44. NHSparky says:

    Freshman year at GT, was in my dorm room eating an early lunch and watching the launch on TV.

    Never finished my lunch. I felt sick to my stomach the rest of the day.

  45. Just A Vet says:

    I was still in Germany when TET went down, didn’t get to Nam until Oct. 69. just as they switched to slant pocket fatigues! 🙂

  46. USMCE8Ret says:

    I was at home in TX by myself with the flu, and watched the pre-launch activities all up through the explosion. I don’t remember what I thought at the time, but I remember hearing the CNN newscaster say that “something had gone very wrong”…like they didn’t even know what was happening. What a terrible and tragic day that was.

    Columbia was much worse. It was sickening to see if fly across the sky and strip itself apart.

  47. Joe Williams says:

    On a personal note,Jan.7,1967 was the day my gunner was KIA thru friendly fire(dropped live grenade)while loading grunts for a insert in another zone. Joe