The Challenger Explosion Viewed at
2006 January 28 marks the 20th anniversary of the second of three major tragedies of the American Space Program. It is also a cruel irony that all three tragedies occurred within one particular week of the calendar—between January 27 and February 1 --

1967 January 27: Fire in the Command Module of Apollo 1, which killed three astronauts while they were preparing for the launch of the first manned Apollo mission: Virgil "Gus" Ivan Grissom, Lieutenant Colonel, USAF (Commander), Edward Higgins White, II, Lieutenant Colonel, USAF (Command Module Pilot), and Roger Bruce Chaffee, Lieutenant Commander, USN (Lunar Module Pilot).

1986 January 28: Explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger ( Mission STS 51-L), shortly after launch, which included seven astronauts including the first Teacher-in-Space: Francis R. (Dick) Scobee (Mission Commander), Michael J. Smith (Pilot), Judith A. Resnik (Mission Specialist 1 and graduate of Carnegie Mellon University), Ellison S. Onizuka (Mission Specialist 2), Ronald E. McNair (Mission Specialist 3), Gregory B. Jarvis (Payload Specialist 1), and Sharon Christa McAuliffe (Payload Specialist 2 and first Teacher-in-Space).


2003 February 1: Explosion of the Space Shuttle Columbia (Mission STS-107), during re-entry, which included seven astronauts: Colonel Rick Husband (Commander), William McCool (Pilot), Colonel Michael Anderson (Payload Commander), Captain David Brown (Mission Specialist), Dr. Kalpana Chawla (Mission Specialist), Captain Laurel Clark (Mission Specialist), and Colonel Ilan Ramon (Payload Specialist).


At Pittsburgh’s original Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science (a.k.a. Buhl Science Center from 1982 to 1991), the staff was anxiously waiting for the launch, on 1986 January 28 (after several days of delays), of the first Teacher-in-Space, who American President Ronald Reagan had planned to be the first citizen space voyager. Also on-board this pioneering mission, as a Mission Specialist, would be Judith A. Resnik, Ph.D., who had received a Bachelor of Science degree in Electrical Engineering from Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University in 1970.


The Planetarium Department, for the first time, had specially leased a satellite dish (which was mounted just outside the emergency exit of the Little Science Theater/Lecture Hall) for coverage of the passage of the Planet Uranus by the Voyager 2 space probe the previous week, as well as for the Challenger Shuttle launch, so that these events could be watched live, from the “NASA Select” satellite channel. The projection television system, connected to the satellite dish, was mounted to project images on the large movie projection screen in the 250-seat Little Science Theater (Lecture Hall) of Buhl Planetarium.


Besides the NASA satellite channel ("NASA Select," which was not normally available to the public at that time), the Cable News Network (CNN) cable television channel was the only network to broadcast the Challenger Shuttle launch live (except in the Pacific Standard Time zone). In fact, both the American First Lady Nancy Reagan (in the White House residence), and U.S. Vice President George H.W. Bush (in his office) saw the explosion live on CNN. CNN did not broadcast the Voyager 2 coverage live. Neither the Challenger Shuttle launch (except in the Pacific Standard Time zone), nor the Voyager 2 coverage, was broadcast live on any of the over-the-air, commercial television broadcast channels.


Buhl Planetarium provided live coverage to the public of the Voyager 2 encounter with Uranus. The public could view the live NASA video feed, in the Little Science Theater on:


Wednesday, January 22 and Thursday, January 23—each day from 1:00 to 4:15 p.m. EST

Friday, January 24, Saturday, January 25, and Sunday, January 26—each day from 1:00 to 9:00 p.m. EST.


During the Voyager 2 encounter with Uranus, Buhl Planetarium staff members were available to answer public questions. This included Buhl Planetarium Lecturer Francis G. Graham (Founder of the American Lunar Society), who at that time also taught at the Community College of Beaver County (he is now a Professor of Astronomy and Physics at Kent State University, as well as a Steering Committee member of Friends of the Zeiss). During some hours, members of the Pittsburgh L5 Society were also available to field public questions.


1986 was a busy year for Astronomy and Space Sciences. Coverage of the Voyager 2 at Uranus and Challenger Shuttle launch events occurred during a “hiatus” of the year-long “Halley Watch.” During the Autumn of 1985 and the Spring of 1986, thousands of people waited patiently in line (sometimes the wait in line was more than one hour!) to view Halley’s Comet’s rare passage of Planet Earth at Buhl Planetarium; Halley’s Comet could not be viewed in January of 1986, as it was on the other side of the Sun.


Visitors viewed Halley’s Comet in Buhl Planetarium’s third floor Observatory, using either the historic 10-inch Siderostat-type Refractor Telescope or the portable 13-inch Dobsonian Reflector Telescope (the Dobsonian Telescope, known as a “light bucket” that can gather enough light for viewing a dim comet, was purchased specifically for “Halley Watch”). While Halley’s Comet was not visible in telescopes for some of the Winter, Buhl Planetarium continued providing a planetarium show for the public, in the 425-seat Theater of the Stars utilizing the historic Zeiss II Planetarium Projector, titled, “Comet Halley: Once in a Lifetime.”


Although the third floor Observatory was one of the few areas of the Buhl Planetarium building which had not been made handicapped-accessible by 1982 utilizing a special Federal grant (funneled through the City of Pittsburgh), wheelchair patrons were not prevented from viewing Halley’s Comet. When a patron in a wheelchair wished to view the Comet, several staff members simply carried the patron, in the wheelchair, up the four staircases to the Observatory and back down to the first floor!


Shortly after the nearly year-long apparition of Halley’s Comet (public observing ended in May of 1986, as the Comet became too distant for the public to easily view in a telescope), on 1986 June 13 Buhl Planetarium started weekly (weather permitting) Friday evening public observing sessions, 7:30 to 10:30 p.m. in the third floor Observatory. Although evening public Observatory sessions had been scheduled on a regular basis by the Amateur Astronomers’ Association of Pittsburgh, when the Observatory first opened on 1941 November 19, over the years the scheduling of these public sessions had become sporadic, due to Pittsburgh’s always troubling weather and staffing and funding priorities of Buhl Planetarium. The new Friday evening public sessions in the Observatory (open every Friday evening, weather permitting, year-round) lasted until the Buhl Planetarium closed as a public museum on 1991 August 31.


For the Challenger Shuttle launch, Buhl Planetarium Public Relations Director Jo Lee had arranged for a group of elementary school students, from nearby St. Peter’s Elementary School (now known as Cardinal Wright Regional School), to view the launch live in Buhl Planetarium’s Lecture Hall. Normally, weekday mornings were reserved for such school groups; the building was not open to the public until 1:00 p.m. Although if the occasional tourist sought admission in the morning, they were usually admitted, provided that the building was occupied with school children (and, the visitor realized they would have to see what planetarium show was scheduled by the school groups if there were additional seats in the Theater of the Stars).


I arrived at Buhl Planetarium a little earlier than usual, on that Tuesday morning of January 28, in anticipation of the special NASA launch. I assisted Buhl Planetarium Computer Lab Technician Christian Ludwig with setting-up the video tape equipment, so that we would have a good tape recording of the launch.


Shortly before the launch, the school children and about twenty Buhl Planetarium staff members (with about a half-dozen children of some of these staff members) assembled in the Little Science Theater. The launch of the spacecraft went well, for the first minute or so. Then something happened, and, at first, no one could be quite sure what it was. At about the time the solid rocket boosters were to be jettisoned (for parachuting to the ocean for later retrieval), there was an explosion—but, at first, this seemed normal for jettisoning the boosters. But, then we could no longer see the spacecraft moving on.


The audio on the NASA satellite channel was silent—for what seemed several minutes.


Finally, the NASA commentator, Steve Nesbitt (known as the “Voice of Mission Control”) said something about there being a problem: “Flight controllers are looking very carefully at the situation. Obviously a major malfunction. We have no (radio) downlink.” Then more silence. In an interview published the next day in the San Angelo (Texas) Standard-Times (Mr. Nesbitt’s previous employer), Mr. Nesbitt said, “There were fragments dropping and falling away. I said that there appeared to have been a major malfunction. We were looking at it from a television camera, and I wasn’t certain. I didn’t want to say something before it was totally confirmed.”


In Buhl Planetarium’s Little Science Theater, no one knew what to make of the situation. As Public Relations Director Jo Lee told a reporter for The Pittsburgh Press (published in that afternoon’s edition): “There was just a pall. They’re just standing around the TV not saying anything.” She also mentioned that some of the pre-school children (ages 4 to 6, whose parents worked at the Buhl Planetarium) did not appear to understand what happened.


Fortunately, that morning I had brought my transistor radio with me, to hear pre-launch news reports (via KQV-AM 1410 NewsRadio) while traveling into the city on the subway (although I could not receive any radio stations while actually in the subway tunnel). I rushed downstairs to my locker to get the radio, and immediately brought it back to the Little Science Theater. Then, we learned of the awful tragedy.


The students were quickly moved out of the Little Science Theater. Audrey Williams, one of the Planetarium Lecturers and a graduate student in the Department of Geology and Planetary Science at the University of Pittsburgh who managed Buhl Planetarium’s chapter of the Young Astronauts, had prepared some special activities for the students following the launch. So, these special activities went on as scheduled to take the students’ minds off of the explosion.


It was a terrible day for me, and the others who viewed the explosion live at Buhl Planetarium.



Recollection of Challenger Tragedy from Eyewitness at Cape Canaveral


The Challenger Disaster Viewed at Pittsburgh’s Buhl Planetarium
Recollection of Challenger Tragedy from the West Coast
More Information on Challenger
History of Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science, Pittsburgh
Science & Space News, Astronomical Calendar
SpaceWatchtower Blog


The following remembrance of the Challenger Disaster comes from an eyewitness, an employee at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, who had a close affiliation with Buhl Planetarium in the 1940s as a member of the Amateur Astronomers' Association of Pittsburgh. Clark C. McClelland worked as a SpaceCraft Operator (ScO) at Cape Canaveral from 1958 to 1992.

SpaceCraft Operators are responsible for the pre-checkout of Space Shuttle missions, as well as other rocket launches. Through his career, Mr. McClelland was involved in 623 rocket launches! SpaceCraft Operators actually "fly" the mission in simulation to be certain all systems are operating correctly.

SpaceCraft Operators were also considered for actual mission status until the U.S. Congress cut the shuttle budget. Mr. McClelland says, "I came within a hair of having my dream come true. At least my student, Astronaut Jay Apt flew. I and others taught Jay astronomy at Buhl."

Mr. McClelland was born on Pittsburgh's North Side and was a Boy Scout in Troop 56 at the Community House; he later moved to the Pittsburgh northern suburb of Millvale. He moved to Cape Canaveral in 1958.



"Clark C. McClelland"



From Clark McClelland "Challenger"


Fri, 27 Jan 2006 17:11:08 -0500

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Use this for your members to read if you wish.

Hi Glenn:

Yes, this day I will never forget. I had an office at the KSC HQ Building and had worked on the Challenger 51-L mission.

I knew Judy Resnik very well. I had invited her back to Pittsburgh from training at NASA, Houston to accept a speaking engagement at Carnegie-Mellon University. She accepted and she and I did two separate presentations at the campus. She was very happy to be back in Pittsburgh. We also did two CBS TV shows at KDKA TV that went nationwide.

The day she and the crew were launched at KSC, I recall watching the Space Shuttle Challenger liftoff. As it was gaining altitude, I heard a strange chatter from the SRB solid rockets and wondered why it had not appeared during many other shuttles I had viewed prior.

The Challenger climbed out and I heard "Go with throttle up". Shortly thereafter the craft exploded and I and others were in deep shock. I watched the crew compartment falling at great speed and viewed it hitting the Atlantic Ocean. I could hardly believe what I had watched.

I heard other KSC workers saying that it would circle around and land at the shuttle landing strip. Wishful thinking by those who could not accept the obvious truth. People were crying, walking as if they were zombies past me staring into the void.

I finally drove my car home across the river with tears in my eyes the entire distance. I called my Mother and Father in Pittsburgh and said my friends were gone, Judy and the entire crew.

Each year at this time, I still go through a couple of days of total sorrow and recall all that I had experienced.

My former crew at KSC was also involved in the Columbia loss.

To explore the unknown, it has great risks and terrible loses, I know, I was there.

Clark C. McClelland, ScO, Space Shuttle Fleet, KSC, Florida 1958 to 1992

Recollection of Challenger Tragedy from the West Coast


The Challenger Disaster Viewed at Pittsburgh’s Buhl Planetarium
Recollection of Challenger Tragedy from Eyewitness at Cape Canaveral
More Information on Challenger
History of Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science, Pittsburgh
Science & Space News, Astronomical Calendar
SpaceWatchtower Blog


The following remembrance of the Challenger Disaster comes from Noreen Grice, the Founder of You Can Do Astronomy LLC, an accessibility design and consulting company with a focus on making astronomy and space science accessible to people through universal design.

For most of the country, live television coverage of the launch of Space Shuttle Challenger, on 1986 January 28, only came from the Cable News Network (CNN) and the NASA Select Satellite Channel. However in the Pacific Standard Time zone, the three major television network morning news programs were still airing (the last half-hour of their two-hour morning broadcast). Most networks were pretty good at broadcasting Space Shuttle launches live, IF the launch occurred during a regularly-scheduled news broadcast, but they would not normally interrupt entertainment programs for a launch.

Here is Noreen Grice's remembrance from an electronic mail message transmitted 2012 November 4, 7:49 p.m. EST:

The Challenger launch was broadcast on TV live in San Diego. I was a graduate student at San Diego State University and was watching TV that morning, getting ready to head off to campus. The Challenger shuttle was about to launch and I decided to wait a few minutes and watch the launch. I watched it live....explosion and all....

I remember feeling stunned and upset and after several replays on TV, turned off the TV, got on my bicycle and rode to school. I told my professors and classmates in the astronomy department what I had seen. One of the astronomy professors had watched it too and was upset and talked to his class about it.

More Information


The Challenger Disaster Viewed at Pittsburgh’s Buhl Planetarium
Recollection of Challenger Tragedy from Eyewitness at Cape Canaveral
Recollection of Challenger Tragedy from the West Coast
History of Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science, Pittsburgh
Science & Space News, Astronomical Calendar
SpaceWatchtower Blog


Challenger Center for Space Science Education

Jay Barbree, NBC’s Cape Canaveral correspondent,
retraces the Challenger tragedy

Teacher-in-Space Mission Completed:
STS-118 Space Shuttle Endeavour Expedition
to the International Space Station - 2007 August

Walsh, Glenn. "U.S. Flag That Survived Challenger Disaster: Romney Displays." Blog Post.
SpaceWatchtower 2012 Nov. 4.

Walsh, Glenn. "Challenger Explosion: Closer Amateur Video." Blog Posting.
SpaceWatchtower 2012 March 9.
Amateur video about 10 miles from Cape Canaveral rediscovered in 2012 March.

Walsh, Glenn. "Rare amateur video captures Challenger tragedy." Blog Posting.
SpaceWatchtower 2012 Feb. 22.
Amateur video from Orlando Airport rediscovered in 2012 February.

Return to History of The Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science, Pittsburgh

The Challenger Disaster Viewed at Pittsburgh’s Buhl Planetarium
A Personal Remembrance From 20 Years Ago
By Glenn A. Walsh

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