The Challenger space shuttle disaster of January 28, 1986, forever changed NASA and the space industry. The disaster not only claimed the lives of seven astronauts (including what would have been the first teacher in space, Christa McAuliffe) but grounded the American space industry for two years, opening the industry to considerable scrutiny. Challenger’s fateful launch at 11:39 a.m. was already shrouded in delays and snap cold weather at Cape Canaveral over the previous 6 days. The unseasonably cold weather, initially raised as a concern but ultimately ignored, was highlighted as a potential risk to the O-rings that sealed the joints between the shuttle’s solid rocket boosters. Video of the launch clearly shows considerable ice buildup at the launch site. Communication between mission control and the commander of the mission, Francis Richard “Dick” Scobee, even made light of the cold morning conditions and the fact that the coldest launch site was chosen inadvertently.
73 seconds after liftoff the space shuttle Challenger exploded and disintegrated in a plume of smoke what shocked family, friends, and onlookers at the launch. Millions also watched the events of January 28th unfold on television including students and staff at Christa McAuliffe’s high school in Concord, New Hampshire. It has been speculated that the control capsule (the flight deck and control section of the shuttle) did detach after the initial explosion of the shuttle at which time some of the crew may have remained conscious. The extreme g-forces and the speed of impact with the ocean were “unsurvivable” by NASA estimates. While most pieces of the wreckage were found, two large pieces of the shuttle washed up on shore nearly 10 years after the incident. The devastation caused by the Challenger disaster traumatized people around the globe and plunged NASA’s shuttle program into a time of great uncertainty and confusion. All launches were grounded until 1988 when the shuttle Discovery reignited NASAs space program and infused new life to America’s quest for space dominance.
The night of the disaster President Ronald Reagan was to deliver a State of the Union address. The president chose instead to deliver an address to the nation in a speech that would be remembered for its most memorable line: “The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God.” Click here to watch the full address by President Reagan.
A post-disaster Presidential Commission tasked with investigating the Challenger accident concluded that “the loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger was caused by a failure in the joint between the two lower segments of the right Solid Rocket Motor. The specific failure was the destruction of the seals that are intended to prevent hot gases from leaking through the joint during the propellant burn of the rocket motor. The evidence assembled by the Commission indicates that no other element of the Space Shuttle system contributed to this failure.” – Chapter IV, Report of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident
After the accident, NASA halted all shuttle missions for more than two years as it addressed technical issues pertaining to the presidential commission report. While shuttle missions returned in 1988, a similarly horrific accident in 2003 with the space shuttle Columbia which disintegrated on reentry to Earth left NASA and the space industry in lasting disarray. Now 30 years since the Challenger disaster humankind can be proud of incredible strides in space exploration and technology. Often when we reach for the stars we fall short. It is important that we recognize the inherent dangers of space travel, and recall that the seven astronauts aboard Challenger were indeed pioneers of the space industry. Our loss of these heroic individuals ushered in a safer space program overall. In our pursuit of ever greater and more ambitious goals in space travel and exploration, we must accept that disaster can and will happen again. However, we must also come to understand that each collective step we take, further and further into the unknown, advances humankind. We still have many landmarks to reach in space. We can only hope that we will never give up in our quest and that we remember that each of those future benchmarks will be built on the footsteps of those brave souls who came before.
In honour of the crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger.
Francis R. (Dick) Scobee
Michael John Smith
Ellison S. Onizuka
Mission Specialist One
Judith Arlene Resnik
Mission Specialist Two
Ronald Erwin McNair
Mission Specialist Three
Payload Specialist One
Gregory Bruce Jarvis
Payload Specialist Two
For more information about the Challenger disaster please consult the following sources:
NASA’s Challenger STS 51-L Accident Website
Remembering the Challenger Crew
President Ronald W. Reagan Address to the Nation on Jan. 28, 1986
President Reagan’s Challenger Disaster Speech
Report of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident
Space Shuttle Challenger Explosion (Graphic Video)
TIME – How the Challenger Disaster Happened
Cover photo: The crew of STS-51-L: Front row from left, Mike Smith, Dick Scobee, Ron McNair. Back row from left, Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, Greg Jarvis, Judith Resnik. Retrieved from https://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/imagegallery/image_feature_256.html