BILLINGS — America was shocked by the Challenger explosion on Jan. 28, 1986.
Just a few months before the disaster, Montana Astronaut Loren Acton flew on Challenger’s penultimate mission.
But at the time of the tragedy, Acton was over 2,000 miles away from the Kennedy Space Center, in Northern Wyoming, waiting to speak to a group of JR High School students about being an astronaut.
“I was standing on the stage at the Junior High School in Worland, Wyoming," said Acton.
"I was ready to talk to several hundred junior high kids about my space experience when someone came trotting down the aisles and said, ‘did you know that the Challenger had blown up'?” Acton continued.
Acton went on with his talk at the school but he spent the rest of that day in an office set up by the principal talking to the media.
On that day, all NASA employees were embargoed and couldn’t speak to the press, but NASA contractors like Acton could. He was in high demand, and by the end of that tragic day, he was exhausted.
Challenger had issues even on Loren’s mission back in July of 1985. At three seconds be blast off their launch was aborted due to the malfunction of a coolant valve that caused the shutdown of all three main engines. The issue was eventually fixed and two weeks later Loren’s crew had a successful launch and mission.
It is unsettling to think, however, that just six months later a ruptured fuel tank on that very same shuttle would take the lives of a Space Shuttle crew.
“When it was finally figured out why we lost that mission, I was really grumped off because it was totally unnecessary. It was because of a lack of communication between Marshall Space Flight Center, who's responsible for the rockets, and NASA Space Flight Center who’s responsible for making the final decision about whether or not to go. They weren’t communicating the way they should have. We should have never tried to launch that day.”
Although Challenger was lost, its legacy lives on and its crew is not forgotten. On Thursday morning the Kennedy Space Center will be holding a remembrance ceremony and memorial that will also be live-streamed on their Facebook page.