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One Day After the Challenger Explosion, This Man Was Sent to Recover It

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Like so many Americans, John Bubenik remembers exactly where he was when Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart 73 seconds into its flight on January 28, 1986.

And one day later, he was off to recover its debris.

Bubenik was one of 100 U.S. Navy divers sent immediately to Cocoa Beach, Florida, to help in a massive recovery effort.

“It’s one of those times you’re very proud you’re a U.S. Navy diver, picking up all the pieces of the Space Shuttle,” he said.

John Bubenik Space Shuttle Challenger

Courtesy John Bubenik

Bubenik joined the Navy in 1984 as a 17-year-old. Less than two years later, he graduated from Navy dive school in Pearl Harbor and was off to Key West, Florida, for his first duty station.

But he wasn’t there long.

“I arrived there and they basically turned us back around and said, ‘we’re going to Cocoa Beach,’” he recalled.

Though Bubenik was still mourning with fellow Americans, he knew he had a job to do.

“All of us (divers) being so young, we were pretty aggressive,” he said. “You really were in the mode of ‘let’s get everything we can get right now.’”

RadioFan at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

Bubenik spent two months on the NASA-owned Freedom Star, a solid-fuel rocket booster recovery ship used following the launch of Space Shuttle missions. Each day, he and a team of divers loaded equipment and went into the Atlantic diving for missing pieces.

Divers shared the ship with a NASA engineer who brought a complete set of shuttle drawings. As Bubenik helped recover items from depths of 60-80 feet, NASA would map together what was retrieved and mark them off on drawings.

Though days were lengthy, his 6-person team rotated to conduct about two dives apiece every day, each around an hour long.

Bubenik said that divers knew when they came across shuttle pieces – the ocean was all sand and there was “not really anything else out there.” A few items from the shuttle’s exterior, such as foam heat reflectors, were floating on the ocean’s surface.

Most everything else had sunk to the ocean floor.

Depending on size, he brought up pieces by hand, bag, or small crane.

“We found so many pieces I couldn’t even tell you what was major or not major,” he said.

And yet divers knew there was no chance of survival, given the widespread pieces – both large and small – scattered across the vast ocean.

“Our crew never really felt that we’d find a body alive,” he said.

Courtesy John Bubenik

Bubenik’s team was a few miles away when he heard the fuselage – the shuttle’s main body section – was found on the ocean floor on March 7-8, 1986. The severely crushed and fragmented crew compartment contained the remains of all seven crew members.

The entire recovery experience had a major impact on Bubenik’s career, because it helped dictate his future work with rescue services. He helped with many other airline crashes in the Atlantic Ocean and other incidents outside his service in the Navy.

Today, Bubenik, now 52, serves as the diving program manager for Pacific Gas and Electric in California – managing and overseeing all underwater natural gas and electric operations.

He remains proud of his part in history, helping Americans to find answers and healing.

“You definitely knew it was big,” he said. “It was unbelievable, really.”

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