Columbia Journalism Review (March/April 2003)

It is January 28, 1986 – a bitterly cold morning at Cape Canaveral. The countdown clock is ticking as seven astronauts aboard the space shuttle Challenger prepare for launch. Among them is Christa McAuliffe, the New Hampshire high school teacher who is set to become the first ordinary American in space.

Several hundred miles north, in Atlanta, a Federal Express messenger delivers an envelope to the headquarters of the Cable News Network, the only TV network set to cover the "routine" launch live. The countdown continues as shuttle commander Dick Scobee and pilot Michael Smith run through their preflight checklist.

T minus 25 minutes and counting. CNN is broadcasting a live progress report from the Cape when the anchorwoman in Atlanta suddenly breaks in: "We have an important announcement about the space shuttle. A panel of engineers from Morton Thiokol, which designed the craft’s solid-fuel rocket booster, has unanimously urged NASA to scrub this morning’s launch. According to a company memo provided to CNN, the rocket experts are afraid cold weather might cause problem-plagued rocket-booster parts call O-rings to malfunction, allowing hot gases to burn a hole through the booster. This, the experts say, could cause a catastrophic explosion. Incredibly, NASA is still going ahead with the launch."

The wire services, monitoring CNN, filed urgent bulletins quoting the network report. NASA is besieged with calls, including one from the White House. A T minus 15 minues, NASA announces a "hold" in the countdown and shortly thereafter reports that the mission has been scrubbed…