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Past Times: Challenger disaster hit home in North Carolina

Space Shuttle Challenger explosion

Thirty years ago, on Jan. 28, the space shuttle Challenger launch was broadcast on national television. The shuttle exploded killing all 7 people on board, including teacher Christa McAuliffe.
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Thirty years ago, on Jan. 28, the space shuttle Challenger launch was broadcast on national television. The shuttle exploded killing all 7 people on board, including teacher Christa McAuliffe.

The explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, which marks its 30th anniversary Thursday, is one of those moments. Everyone remembers where they were and what they were doing when they learned of the disaster. Everyone remembers the names, especially Christa McAuliffe, the teacher in space. And in North Carolina, native son Mike Smith was on our minds. In November 1985, N&O writer Matt Schudel had interviewed Smith about his upcoming mission in space.

Ever since he was old enough to dream, Mike Smith wanted only to soar into the sky. The family farm sat just off the runway of the Beaufort-Morehead City Airport, and when Smith was growing up, the idea of flight was always right overhead.

“Whenever I was conscious of what I wanted to do,” he said in his home in Houston in November, “I wanted to fly. I can never remember anything else I wanted to do but flying.”

It was the dream of countless young Americans, during those eager early days of the space program, when John Glenn and Alan Shepard and Wally Schirra flew around the Earth and emerged as smiling heroes about to conquer what truly seemed to be the last frontier.

On Tuesday Michael J. Smith finally got his chance at the ultimate dream of a flier, as he sat second in command in the cockpit of the space shuttle Challenger. He had logged 4,300 hours of flying time, but his final flight would last just one minute, 15 seconds. …

Smith, 40, was the second astronaut from North Carolina, after William E. Thornton of Faison. Though he hadn’t lived in North Carolina in more than 20 years, he never lost his pride in the Tar Heel State.

“I think about it all the time,” he said last fall, after a whirlwind day in which he flew a jet from Florida to Washington and home to Houston. “I was flying over it today, thinking how beautiful it was.”

By the time he turned 15 in 1960, Smith was taking flying lessons in Beaufort. Before and after school, Smith worked on the family’s 13 1/2 acre-farm and did whatever other jobs he could to earn the $7 a week he needed for the lesson.

The Marine base at Cherry Point was nearby, and Smith wanted nothing more than the chance to pilot a military jet.

“I can remember Dad taking us to Armed Forces Day,” he recalled in November. “I must have been about 10 years old. I remember sitting in the cockpit of a Fury and thinking how great that would be.”

His brother, Pat, reminisced last fall and said: “Mike was known to stop ball games to watch military airplanes go over. He’d call time out. It would be right out in the middle of the field. He was the quarterback, and he’d call time out, stop till the airplanes took off right beside the field. They’d go on out of sight, and then he’d go back and play football.”

Mike Smith made his first solo flight on his 16th birthday, April 30, 1961, as his parent surreptitiously watched from the side of the runway. He graduated from Beaufort High School in 1963, was admitted to the U.S. Naval Academy and embarked on a flying career that took him through 198 combat missions in Vietnam and through five years in NASA’s astronaut training program. …

Smith had invited family and friends from across the country to be in Florida to see the Challenger launch. Parties were planned, and it was to be a time of celebration and reunion. Pat Smith had given Mike a Beaufort town flag to carry into space, and Bob Burrows handed over the old logs from Smith’s student flying days as a memento. The town of Beaufort had planned a parade in Smith’s honor and was going to ask him to speak this spring at the high school commencement.

For Smith, being an astronaut was a comfortable as slipping a hand in a velvet glove. The N&O Jan. 29, 1986

At Raleigh’s Underwood Elementary School, Raleigh Times reporter Katie Mosher spoke to second-grade teacher Mary Dascombe.

Like classes across Wake County and the nation, her students had followed the Challenger space shuttle mission that had been dubbed the “ultimate field trip.” They had planned to watch replays of the blastoff and follow the two lessons which Mrs. McAuliffe was to have taught from space on the fourth day of the mission.

Tuesday afternoon, the class instead watched news coverage of the disaster and discussed the sorrow they felt for Mrs. McAuliffe’s family and students in New Hampshire, as well as for the families of the other crew members.

But the second-graders – many of them born a decade after man first walked on the moon – also drew a general consensus that the tragedy should be a lesson and that the shuttle missions should continue. The Raleigh Times Jan. 29, 1986

Thirty years ago, on Jan. 28, the space shuttle Challenger launch was broadcast on national television. The shuttle exploded killing all 7 people on board, including teacher Christa McAuliffe.

Thirty years ago, President Ronald Reagan scrapped his State of the Union address to talk about the space shuttle Challenger explosion. Seven people, including a teacher, died on board on Jan. 28, 1986. "The crew of the space shuttle Challenger ho

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Leonard: 919-829-4866 or tleonard@newsobserver.com

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