MARQUETTE - Steve Hughes was 24 years old when history exploded in front of his eyes.
Hughes was standing on the deck of a small boat in Port Canaveral, Fla., taking photos of what was going to be a routine launch when the Challenger Space Shuttle blew up Jan. 28, 1986, stunning the world.
Hughes, then a Marquette resident, had traveled to Florida with friend Jim Knape.
In this Jan. 28, 1986 picture, the space shuttle Challenger lifts off from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. Below, the shuttle explodes with a crew of seven aboard. (AP photos)
"I raced sailboats with Jim through the 1980s," said Hughes in a telephone interview. "In the fall of 1985 we were wrapping up the racing season and I told him I would be his crew if he took his boat down to Florida."
Knape and Hughes sailed Knape's boat to Florida, arriving in Port Canaveral the first week of December.
In January 1986, Hughes was working on painting a boat in the Port Canaveral boat yard.
"From the boat you could see these warehouses and between two of the buildings, you could see the shuttle about seven miles away on the launch pad," Hughes said.
"I remember that morning, Jan. 28, I was alone on the boat. I thought it was too cold and they wouldn't launch again," Hughes said. "But I climbed up on the deck and got ready to take photos. I had not seen a launch before so my mind was telling me it was normal. I thought they'd send the tanks, the solid rocket boosters, off at some point.
"I was taking photos, it was a clear blue sky and the shuttle itself was a speck," he said. "First there was a flame and then something exploded. I thought it was just the boosters, not realizing what was going on.
"Then there were other people in the harbor watching and they were shouting that it blew up," Hughes said. "I thought they didn't know what was going on. There were contrails and stuff in the sky, but I thought that was normal.
"These other people had been watching these launches for so long, they knew," he said. "It really put a pall over that community."
After the explosion, Hughes got off the boat and walked around.
"There was debris falling and that raised some hope that maybe something good was happening, that maybe there had been some kind of escape hatch or something," he said. "We were hoping. That's what the human mind does, it leads you in that direction of hope. But there really wasn't any hope for those astronauts."
Hughes and his friends had gotten to know the Port Canaveral area in the weeks they had spent in the small Florida community.
"We were on an austere budget and would go out to happy hour every Friday night at a particular bar," he said. "The Friday night after Challenger was quite subdued. We went there a couple times after that and it was never the same."
Hughes, who now lives in Duluth, Minn., and is a relief captain for Interlake Steam Co., vividly remembers something else from the days after the Challenger tragedy.
"There was a memorial on the beach," he said. "Everyone brought flashlights and shined them toward the ocean, then joined hands. It took your breath away. As far as you could see, there were lights everywhere."
After a few weeks, Hughes, who had a keen interest in astronomy in his youth, left Florida but always wanted to return.
"In the aftermath of Challenger, I said I wanted to get back there someday to see what a launch is supposed to look like. But I never did."
Hughes said he hasn't looked at his Challenger photos in years.
"They are in a shoebox somewhere," he said. "I guess I should dig them out."
Renee Prusi can be contacted at 906-228-2500, ext. 253. Her
e-mail address is rprusi@ miningjournal. net.