Former astronaut Marc Garneau recalls Challenger explosion

Former astronaut and current Transportation Minister Marc Garneau can clearly recall the horrific moment he saw the Challenger space shuttle explode over the Atlantic Ocean – the same shuttle he’d flown in just two years prior.

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Garneau spoke with CTV News Channel on Thursday, to look back on the tragedy on its 30-year anniversary and remember the seven astronauts who lost their lives aboard Challenger.

“I remember that day, being at the Johnson Space Center,” Garneau said. “We had trouble really processing what we were seeing with our eyes … we were in a sense playing tricks with our minds and trying not to believe something that inside ourselves we really knew what had happened.”

Garneau said the anniversary marks “a very sad day for me personally” because he had trained and become close friends with the astronauts who died. He had also journeyed aboard the Challenger in 1984 as the mission’s payload specialist.

The tragedy unfolded on Jan. 28, 1986 as Challenger launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The lift off appeared normal until the shuttle began to careen off course and, just 73-seconds into the flight, burst into flames.

The explosion was broadcast live around the globe, marking one of the darkest days for NASA and space travel as a whole. All seven crew members aboard were killed, including Christa McAuliffe, a school teacher who’d been specially chosen to fly in the mission.

“There had been 25 space flights with a shuttle and they’d all went well, but then, suddenly, this one went horribly wrong,” Garneau said.

The explosion took an immediate toll on the astronaut community, who were “very shaken” by the accident, Garneau said, despite the keen understanding of the possible dangers of space travel.

“That day we were reminded very, very clearly that things can go wrong. The important thing afterwards was to learn from the experience for everybody and to try to make sure that it didn’t happen again,” he said.

An investigation later determined that a faulty “O-ring” seal on a rocket booster allowed hot gas to escape, leading to the explosion. Cold temperatures are believed to have factored in to the explosion as well.

Garneau says that space travel will never be “100 per cent safe,” but important lessons were learned.

“I think NASA came out of it as a safer organization, that they had learned some important lessons and that in fact is what is most important here,” he said.

Despite the Challenger’ disaster, Garneau said the lure of space remained strong.

“I don’t think there was a single astronaut who had not flown who said ‘I’m quitting. I’m not going to be in this profession.’ I think that the lure for the individual of wanting to go into space is so powerful we are prepared to accept some risk,” he said.


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