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January 28, 1986, the NASA shuttle orbiter mission STS-51-L — Challenger

January 28th 1986 found me sitting in the upstairs window of a design studio in Uplands Crescent, Swansea. I was cutting out black and white line drawings of cherries, pears, water melons and oranges, the kind you have on one-armed-bandit reels. The work was repetitive and dull, requiring concentration and consistency.

This was my first proper job after college. The business specialised in preparing artwork for fruit machines. It demanded creativity, technical ability, an eye for detail — and a knack for avoiding the demanding boss while putting in ridiculous hours in studio and darkroom.

The staff were mostly designers or illustrators but there were also a darkroom technician, receptionist and a typesetter. There was a clear hierarchy — the older pair of designers were both very solid citizens, able and creative and willing to help an inexperienced jobber. Then there were three to four designer/illustrators such as myself given all sorts of tasks but mostly cannon fodder artwork in the production of fruit machine glasses.

Everything was hand drawn, any text had to be marked up — calculated to fit galleys or columns using a typescale then taken down to the typesetter for production. These were pre-Mac days (just) and the compositing machine took up a whole room. The typesetter herself was a formidable woman, and it was essential to keep on the right side of her if you didn’t want to be kept hanging around for your roll of text to come off the machine.

We then had the ‘darkroom spider’ who lived in perpetual twilight and ammonia fumes from the dyeline printer. We fed him our linework and he’d ‘camera’ it and give us back printed copies so we could wax the backs, cut out and assemble them onto layout sheets before repeating the process to make film separations.

The work was OK, though we often put in 70 plus hours a week when there was a gaming machines exhibition coming up. To the boss’ credit, when the work was done and the exhibition at hand he would take us all up to London or Birmingham for a day of drinks and meals at his expense as a thanks for our efforts. These trips usually ended with a late train back and taxis to the office to finish off a case of wine or two. This was the eighties after all. We were still expected in work on time the next morning where he’d be back to his usual unsavoury self.

On the morning in question the spider popped in to distribute the pastie order for elevenses. I had my usual cheese and onion from the bakery opposite. I placed the crisp, warm pastie on the window sill next to me while I finished cleaning up some artwork with lighter fluid, the best for removing wax, cow gum or dirt prior to making camera negs. I put the fluid down and took the artwork in to the darkroom. When I came back I grabbed my pastie. The taste was memorable. Cheese, onion, potato and lighter fluid, which had leaked into, and saturated it.

Elevenses were a communal period where everyone would gather in the front office to listen to “Our Tune” on the radio. These often sad love stories read in a reverent tone by Simon Bates had us hiding our emotions in manly fashion until he played the “Tune”. This was invariably maudlin, trite or just plain awful garnering derisory comments to break the mood.

The radio in the background throughout the day was more or less ignored unless they played something everyone liked, in which case we’d all sing along, but this one day everyone stopped. They interrupted the afternoon show for a news bulletin, a rare occurrence, the announcement of which alone filled you with trepidation.

The Space Shuttle, Challenger, had exploded on take off from Cape Canaveral and had been destroyed with all seven crew. We would later see news footage on tv that showed the disintegrated craft splitting off in different directions tracing crazy white plumes of smoke and debris on a perfect blue sky.

The vehicle was the cutting edge of technology, the elite crew trained to the utmost, the ground crew experienced, unflappable, but it was not enough and in a spectacular instant they were gone. On this of all days one of the crew was a civilian teacher, which meant that many more people had tuned in to watch what would otherwise have been a by now commonplace launch.

We went back to work. I haven’t had a cheese and onon pastie since. I can still taste the lighter fluid.

Twelve years later I was invited by a friend to watch a Space Shuttle launch in Florida. He had an unlikely connection to one of the Astronauts and we had ‘Launch Guest’ status which meant we were seated with the crew’s families on the bleachers nearest the launch pad. It’s an unforgettable experience to feel the crackle of the engines rattle your lungs from three miles away and have your eyes seared by an incandescent rocket flame that propels the enormous vehicle to earth orbit.

You can but wonder as to the qualities of the people who would voluntarily put themselves on top of that Roman Candle. In my opinion they are the best of us and it was humbling to bear witness alongside people who’s loved ones were atop the spaceship. As with the vast majority of Shuttle missions it went without a snag, apart from the sunburn I got on my exposed kneecaps.

The Shuttle I watched rise successfully into space that day was Columbia. Four years later, on a subsequent mission, it disintegrated on re-entry with the loss of all on board.

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