JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The 30th anniversary of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster this week has a deep meaning for college professor Mike Reynolds. At the time, he was a teacher at Fletcher High School and a finalist for the ill-fated Challenger mission.
Reynolds was picked out of thousands of educators nationwide, to fly in NASA's teacher-in-space program, which was announced by President Ronald Reagan in 1984. It was teacher Christa McAullife who was ultimately chosen and perished during takeoff with the entire crew.
Reynolds witnessed the Challenger explosion from the Kennedy Space Center viewing area.
"It was so surreal. It took probably a minute, even for someone like myself who is familiar with launches, to really sink in what had happened," Reynolds said.
Even though it's been 30 years, he remembers it like it was yesterday: the moment he realized all seven onboard the Challenger were dead, and one of them could have been him.
"And in retrospect, it's one of these things were you say, 'If not for the grace of God, maybe I would have been aboard that orbiter,'" Reynolds said.
Reynolds, now a professor at Florida State College at Jacksonville, was a leading candidate for the teacher-in-space program while working at Fletcher High School. He beat out 12,000 candidates from across the world, but NASA chose McAullife based on her qualifications. She was a high school teacher in Concord, New Hampshire, at the time.
Reynolds remembers meeting her, as the two competed for the same position.
"I got to know her quite well. We did a variety of activities and meetings and training together. So before she was selected, I got to know her. She was very passionate about history and a great teacher, very bubbly and would have done a wonderful job in orbit teaching students," Reynolds said.
Reynolds, who had been enamored with space and astronomy as a child, covered launches for newspapers and worked at a planetarium. And even though he wasn't selected to fly on the Challenger, he hoped to fly in future flights that NASA had planned.
On Jan. 28, 1986, Reynolds and other teacher-in-space finalists watched the Challenger prepare for takeoff from NASA's viewing area, located 3 miles away from the shuttle itself. Reynolds remembers the red flags that would later lead to disaster.
"That morning, NASA had the monitors at the press site and they were showing videos of huge icicles hanging off the orbiter and everyone kept on saying, 'You're really not going to fly are you?' So I think everyone was stunned, and we didn't know about the warnings behind the scenes, and then they picked up the count and they launched," he recalled.
As the shuttle lifted off, no one at NASA, including Reynolds, was prepared for what would happen next. Exactly 73 seconds into the flight, a catastrophic failure, originating in the solid rocket booster, led to the disintegration of the orbiter Challenger, and the deaths of the seven people onboard.
"I think people were so much in shock at what had happened. In the U.S., we had never seen this before," said Reynolds. "It really didn't sink in that we had lost the entire crew until maybe an hour after, because you always had the hope that the compartment itself would have separated and maybe we didn't see the orbiter go through, those sort of things."
Reynolds said the days and months that followed were the most painful in his life, but he made friends with families of the seven onboard, including Capt. Dick Scobee's wife, June Rodgers Scobee, and Greg Jarvis' parents. Reynolds said the horror the nation witnessed on that day deeply affected him.
"It's really affected me, knowing that every day on this earth is a gift, so use that time wisely and stick to your mission and God's given gifts, and that's why I stayed in education," he said.
Reynolds said that even after the Challenger disaster, he still had a desire to fly in a space shuttle, but a conversation with his mother, who was terrified of him taking that risk, made him realize how his actions could effect others.
The Challenger disaster resulted in a 32-month hiatus in the shuttle program and the formation of the Rogers Commission to investigate the accident.