Back row (L-R): Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnik. Front row (L-R): Michael J. Smith, Francis "Dick" Scobee, Ronald McNair.

Back row (L-R): Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnik. Front row (L-R): Michael J. Smith, Francis “Dick” Scobee, Ronald McNair.

One of those events that many people will always remember where they were and what they were doing when it happened.  I was home from work as I wasn’t feeling well, so typically I was lying on the couch watching television.

At 11:38 a.m. EST, on January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger lifts off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, and Christa McAuliffe is on her way to becoming the first ordinary U.S. civilian to travel into space. McAuliffe, a 37-year-old high school social studies teacher from New Hampshire, won a competition that earned her a place among the seven-member crew of the Challenger. She underwent months of shuttle training but then, beginning January 23, was forced to wait six long days as the Challenger‘s launch countdown was repeatedly delayed because of weather and technical problems. Finally, on January 28, the shuttle lifted off.

 Kennedy Space Center, Florida - Space Shuttle Challenger launches from launchpad 39B at the start of STS-51-L.

Kennedy Space Center, Florida – Space Shuttle Challenger launches from launchpad 39B at the start of STS-51-L.

Seventy-three seconds later, hundreds on the ground, including Christa’s family, stared in disbelief as the shuttle exploded in a forking plume of smoke and fire. Millions more watched the wrenching tragedy unfold on live television. There were no survivors.

On January 28, 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger and her seven-member crew were lost when a ruptured O-ring in the right Solid Rocket Booster caused an explosion soon after launch. This photograph, taken a few seconds after the accident, shows the Space Shuttle Main Engines and Solid Rocket Booster exhaust plumes entwined around a ball of gas from the External Tank. Because shuttle launches had become almost routine after twenty-four successful missions, those watching the shuttle launch in person and on television found the sight of the explosion especially shocking and difficult to believe until NASA confirmed the accident.

On January 28, 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger and her seven-member crew were lost when a ruptured O-ring in the right Solid Rocket Booster caused an explosion soon after launch. This photograph, taken a few seconds after the accident, shows the Space Shuttle Main Engines and Solid Rocket Booster exhaust plumes entwined around a ball of gas from the External Tank. Because shuttle launches had become almost routine after twenty-four successful missions, those watching the shuttle launch in person and on television found the sight of the explosion especially shocking and difficult to believe until NASA confirmed the accident.

The Challenger disaster was the first major shuttle accident.  In the aftermath of the explosion, President Ronald Reagan appointed a special commission to determine what went wrong with Challenger and to develop future corrective measures. The presidential commission was headed by former secretary of state William Rogers, and included former astronaut Neil Armstrong and former test pilot Chuck Yeager. The investigation determined that the explosion was caused by the failure of an “O-ring” seal in one of the two solid-fuel rockets. The elastic O-ring did not respond as expected because of the cold temperature at launch time, which began a chain of events that resulted in the massive explosion. As a result of the explosion, NASA did not send astronauts into space for more than two years as it redesigned a number of features of the space shuttle.

O-ring failure sequence, from “The State” newspaper

O-ring failure sequence, from “The State” newspaper

In September 1988, space shuttle flights resumed with the successful launching of the Discovery. Since then, the space shuttle has carried out numerous important missions, such as the repair and maintenance of the Hubble Space Telescope and the construction of the International Space Station.

On February 1, 2003, a second space-shuttle disaster rocked the United States when Columbia disintegrated upon reentry of the Earth’s atmosphere. All aboard were killed.

The crew of Space Shuttle Columbia consisted of 7 astronauts:  Rick D. Husband - Commander,  William C. McCool - Pilot, Michael P. Anderson, David M. Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Clark, Ilan Ramon - first Israeli in space

The crew of Space Shuttle Columbia consisted of 7 astronauts: Rick D. Husband – Commander, William C. McCool – Pilot, Michael P. Anderson, David M. Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Clark, Ilan Ramon – first Israeli in space

Despite fears that the problems that downed Columbia had not been satisfactorily addressed, space-shuttle flights resumed on July 26, 2005, when Discovery was again put into orbit.

The Space Shuttle program was extended several times beyond its originally envisioned 15-year life span because of the delays in building the United States space station in low Earth orbit — a project which eventually evolved into the International Space Station. It was formally scheduled for mandatory retirement in 2010 in accord with the directives President George W. Bush issued on January 14, 2004 in his Vision for Space Exploration.

A $2.5 billion spending provision allowing NASA to fly the Space Shuttle beyond its then-scheduled retirement in 2010 passed the Congress in April 2009, although neither NASA nor the White House requested the one-year extension.  The final Space Shuttle launch was that of Atlantis on July 8, 2011.

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2 responses

  1. I remember that day so vividly.

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