Challenger Fire/Explosion – Florida – January 28, 1986

All seven astronauts were killed and the accident gave rise to new, stringent, regulations about decisions on launching.

Shortly before noon on January 28, 1986 the space shuttle Challenger lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral. Seven people were on board, five of them astronauts and two civilians. In less than one minute into the flight a fire broke out and the shuttle tore away from the flaming booster rockets to plummet ten miles in free fall into the ocean. All seven died instantly on impact if not before.

By 1986, space travel had become almost routine. Americans had flown beyond the bounds of gravity more than fifty times and their safe return from every mission was now taken for granted. The Challenger shuttle had already been in space on a number of missions and was about to take off on one more in January of 1986. This time two civilians were going to accompany five astronauts. Christa McAuliffe, a teacher, was one of the two and a great deal of attention had been focused on her because of the role she was to play.

Classrooms around the nation were getting ready to receive signals from space. McAuliffe was to conduct two fifteen-minute lessons, describing the spacecraft and the duties of each of the seven on board. She called the first lesson the ultimate field trip. Her second lesson would go into more details of the experiments being conducted, pointing out at the same time the future scientific, commercial, and industrial benefits that would come from these activities. Behind the educational values were the hopes that this kind of activity would build broader public support for NASA’s shuttle programs.

Challenger was to have lifted off on January 20 but all kinds of delays cropped up over the following week. Again and again flight plans had to be canceled, sometimes just a few hours before takeoff. There were various reasons for the cancellations. Additional training for the astronauts was one unexpected stall. A second was a desert storm in Africa that made an emergency landing site unusable so the launch had to wait until that location was back to normal. Ships at stand by to pick up the booster rockets after they are jettisoned were grounded by high winds on one occasion. Once, an hour before launch, a sticky bolt prevented the removal of an exterior-hatch handle. All seven were in the shuttle at this time and the delay forced another cancellation.

Finally, on January 28, everything was in place for liftoff; everything, that is, except that temperatures had dropped below freezing on the previous night. There were serious concerns among the engineers who designed the o-rings, the seals that prevent leaks between sections of the rocket boosters. They were unanimous in their decision to stop the launch. These o-rings are sensitive to very cold weather because low temperatures might make them shrink and cause a leak of the highly flammable fuel. NASA’s management team, distressed by the week’s delay, pressured the o-ring manufacturer to let the Challenger go. They succeeded. NASA was anxious to get the shuttle aloft in order to measure the ultra-violet spectrum of Halley’s Comet before it moved too far away from the earth.

The liftoff sequence is always an impressive sight. Thousands come to Cape Canaveral to watch from a safe distance every time a new mission is about to be launched. The huge volume of fuel expended in getting the spacecraft into orbit leaves no room for mistakes. Once ignited the two booster rockets burn uncontrollably until all their fuel is gone. They then separate from the shuttle and plunge into the sea where they are picked up by NASA’s recovery ships. At T minus three minutes Columbia was ready to go. Its internal electrical system was operating independently. Captain Dick Scobee had completed his examination of all systems on board and given the green light to mission control. Two and a half minutes later powerful jets of water were directed at the launch pad to dampen the roar of takeoff and so prevent sound waves damaging the underside of the spacecraft.

America’s twenty-fifth space shuttle mission was a perfect launch, but almost immediately a tiny puff of smoke was caught on NASA’s cameras. At T plus forty-five seconds the puffs of smoke were more than just noticeable. The shuttle crew felt their craft being jostled and wondering what was wrong switched immediately to their emergency air. Thirty seconds later the shuttle was enveloped in a fireball and all control was lost. The boosters flew away from it in opposite directions. The crew cabin was now a free moving object with the seven astronauts inside. With the momentum of the trajectory it sped upward several thousand feet then plunged downward toward the ocean. Three minutes later it hit the water at two hundred miles an hour, killing all seven instantly. The crew cabin disintegrated and sank.

About an hour later, a lone parachute was observed coming down with a booster nose cap rather than the whole booster attached to it. Over the weeks following the tragedy no identifiable remains of the astronauts’ bodies were recovered from the sea but substantial pieces of wreckage did turn up. Recovery vessels found a twenty-five-foot-long section of the shuttle’s fuselage, parts of the shuttle’s wings, and a door from a cargo hold. One or two voice recorders from Columbia were recovered from the sea. They contained only trivial amounts of data. After their initial shock and reactions the astronauts were unaware of events until flames exploded around them, destroying all power and communications.

The impact across the nation and around the world was instant and massive. Classrooms in many states waited for their lessons from space so when the tragic news arrived whole communities were in shock. President Reagan was due to present the annual state of the nation address to Congress on the evening of the twenty-eighth and undoubtedly he planned to speak about the teacher in space. It was he who suggested to NASA that a teacher be the first civilian to go aloft. Christa McAuliffe’s comment about her career, “I touch the future. I am a teacher,” fitted perfectly into his state of the union speech. That speech was delayed for a week. Messages of sympathy arrived from nation after nation. One from Soviet Party Chief Mikhail Gorbachev was particularly significant because of the fierce competition existing between the United States and the Soviet Union in space exploration.

A final ceremony to honor the seven astronauts was held at the Johnson Space Center in Texas where the seven had lived and trained. It was attended by six thousand NASA employees, ninety Senators and Congressmen, and about two hundred relatives of those who died. President Reagan and his wife met family members and then the president spoke about the human cost, not the errors. His comments included the following: “The future is not free. Human progress is a struggle. America was built on heroism and noble sacrifice like our seven-star voyagers.” In addition to the ceremony in Texas, a Space Shuttle Challenger Memorial was placed in Arlington National Ceremony on March 21, 1987. It marked the common grave of the astronauts’ remains which were recovered but could not be identified.

The Challenger disaster could have been prevented. Engineers from the company that manufactured the o-rings tried to convince NASA to delay the launch and wait for better weather. Future designs, future methods, and future procedures were affected. A new ethic was reestablished at NASA. There would never again be a rejection of majority engineering advice and the final decision in cases of doubt would be taken by an astronaut.

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