Challenger Disaster — 30 Years Later

Tracy Caldwell Dyson

NASA astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson ’93 has logged nearly 200 days in space.

Cal State Fullerton alum Tracy Caldwell has said it was (Christa) McAuliffe who inspired her to become an astronaut. In 2007, Caldwell, who also researched at UC Irvine, went into orbit aboard space shuttle Endeavour to help expand the International Space Station. She has spent 188 days in space and made three space walks.

Thirty years to the day later, Paul Okamura still remembers the smiling faces of the astronauts – not the fireball that came later.

It was Jan. 28, 1986, and Okamura, now 49, was a college-age guy at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida watching seven accomplished people climb happily into the space shuttle Challenger.

“A minute after takeoff we saw the explosion,” said Okamura, who now lives in Irvine. “At first, we thought it was the separation of the booster rockets.”

It wasn't. Instead, the burst of fuel and flame that started to engulf the Challenger 73 seconds into the flight was the worst accident in the history of the U.S. space program.

“But then, over the PA system in the viewing area, they told us what had happened.”

In an instant, the crowd's excitement became sorrow.

“People started crying and hugging,” he said. “It felt like a funeral.”

Shuttle launches had become ho-hum; the Challenger was on its 10th mission. But with Christa McAuliffe, a civilian, set to be the first American teacher in space, people across the country were paying attention to Challenger.

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