For NASA engineer, writing about Challenger tragedy was hard

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Flowers line the railing placed their by visitors at the Space Mirror Memorial during a ceremony to honor fallen astronauts at the Kennedy Space Center Visitors Complex, Thursday, Jan. 28, 2021, in Cape Canaveral, Fla. The memorial displays the names of astronauts that lost their lives furthering the cause of space exploration. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

MELBOURNE, Fla. – When engineer Roland Norris set out to write down the stories of his career spanning 40 years at NASA, he had one regret.

“I wish I’d kept a journal or made notes. Instead I wrote it all from memory,” Norris told FLORIDA TODAY.

He discovered quickly that he needed a quiet place to roam the corners of his mind and he found it in the cabin of his sailboat Captiva.

“I wrote almost all of it right there,” he said pointing to a cozy spot surrounded by his collection of videos about the various space programs.

It took him seven years to finish his nearly 200 page memoir “My Path to a Career in Aerospace and an Out of This World Job with NASA.”

But it was more than the lack of notes the made for slow progress. One chapter, in particular, was tough for Norris to write.

The chapter about the space shuttle Challenger, which exploded shortly after liftoff Jan. 28, 1986.

All seven astronauts on board were killed.

“It was the hardest chapter to write,” Norris said.

After graduating with a degree in mechanical engineering from Ohio State University and serving in the Air Force, Norris arrived at NASA just as the Gemini program was beginning in 1963. He worked on the Gemini, Apollo and Space Shuttle programs.

Like so many of his peers, he was a witness to history.

“I, like most of us working at the Cape, just did not realize what a unique opportunity it was to have been part of it as things went along. We worked with world famous astronauts on a daily basis during the day, then socialized with them in the evening. It was just part of the job.”

There’s the time he found himself in a launch simulation with Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins. When Norris arrived at work for the second shift the test was only half done.

“I sat down and began conducting the rest of the test for the Apollo 11 command service module interfacing with the crew over headset.”

Around midnight the whole team convened in a conference room and Norris lead the meeting to review all the data while sitting across from the astronauts.

“Definitely one of the highlights of my career.”

Knowing the astronauts as friends and co-workers rather than just national icons, is one of the things that made the Challenger disaster so painful for NASA employees like Norris.

He knew remembering the details of the Challenger tragedy would be difficult so he put off writing about it until the end.

“I will never forget the trauma everyone experienced as we watched the horrific scene develop,” Norris wrote.

At the time Norris was the chief engineer for shuttle contamination control and played no direct role in the Challenger launch but he observed it as a NASA insider.

Like many people who witnessed the launch of Challenger he remembers how cold it was that day. It was a bitter 36 degrees Fahrenheit, 15 degrees lower than the previous-coldest launch day.

At that time Norris’ office was in the Launch Control Center just a few feet from the away from the launch team. He and his colleagues often watched launches on the roof and that day was no different.

He was surrounded by NASA VIPs and close family members of the crew who had chosen to view the launch from there instead of the designated family viewing site at the Saturn V Center on the Banana River.

“What we saw from there was a beautiful launch on a very cold morning for 73 seconds and then things started happening.”

A minute and 13 seconds after launch, the Challenger spacecraft exploded and broke apart as millions across the country watched in person and on TV.

As Norris watched the horrifying event unfold, his mind raced to make sense of it.

“At first I thought, my gosh we’re actually going to have our first ‘Return to Launch Site Abort.’ This was a method to recover the shuttle from a failed launch by landing back on the main shuttle landing runway. But this could only happen after both solid rocket boosters had completed their burn and separated. I was just in a state of shock.”

Norris thought of his friend Commander Dick Scobee onboard the spacecraft. They had worked together during the days of Shuttle’s approach-and-landing tests that took place at Edwards Air Force base in California. In fact, Norris and his wife had recently run into Scobee with his wife at the Black Tulip restaurant in Cocoa just a couple weeks before.

After a lengthy investigation it was determined that an O-ring seal in the joint of the right solid rocket booster failed resulting in the catastrophic destruction of the spacecraft.

Norris said as the struts supporting the solid rocket boosters deteriorated, the boosters would have begun to move back and forth in a rolling manner. Because the tops of the boosters extend well above the crew module on both sides of the windows Norris is haunted by the idea that the crew actually saw the vehicle breaking apart.

“The pilot and the commander could have seen that if it actually did happen.” After a long pause Norris continued, “It’s all just too much to contemplate really.”

The last memory Norris has of that day is seeing NASA Public affairs officer Manny Virata gathering the family members of the crew.

“Watching Manny lead the family off that roof in that solemn atmosphere of what we had just seen. That’ll never leave my mind…very sad.”

Norris plans to pay his respects at an upcoming NASA event marking the 35th anniversary of the Challenger incident. In partnership with the Astronaut Memorial Foundation, the Day of Remembrance ceremony honors astronauts who have sacrificed their lives while furthering the cause of space exploration.

All Challenger crew members including Gregory Jarvis, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Francis “Dick” Scobee, Michael Smith and Christa McAuliffe who would have been the first teacher in space, are commemorated in the Forever Remembered exhibit at the NASA visitor complex.

For his part, Norris went on to be actively involved in the space shuttle’s return to flight and retired in 2003. His final accomplishment was finishing his memoir at age 83.

“To write on stuff like this you really have to totally immerse yourself in the time and the periods of things were happening. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.”

Norris’ advice for the young engineers at NASA, SpaceX and elsewhere working on the next generation of rockets that will send humans back to the moon and Mars is to keep a diary of their experiences.

“The reason is you can never tell by the work you’re doing today what the significance may be of it in the future.”