Today is the 36th anniversary of the Space Shuttle Challenger tragedy, a disaster rooted in weather.
At 11:38am on January 28, 1986, the nation’s eyes were glued to the skies and to television sets as NASA launched the Space Shuttle Challenger carrying 7 brave individuals, including a teacher, into space.
73 seconds later, the unimaginable happened, with weather playing a key role in the disaster that followed. Temperatures at NASA’s Cape Canaveral dipped to a frigid 18 degrees that morning, well below the 40 degree minimum temperature launch rating that its solid rocket boosters were designed to.
In an address to the nation after the accident, President Ronald Reagan said, “The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave.”
These seven men and women perished in their inspiring pursuits to advance STEM:
Francis R. Scobee, Commander
Michael J. Smith, Pilot
Ronald McNair, Mission Specialist
Ellison Onizuka, Mission Specialist
Judith Resnik, Mission Specialist
Gregory Jarvis, Payload Specialist
Christa McAuliffe, Payload Specialist & Teacher
Disintegration of the vehicle began after an O-ring seal in its right solid rocket booster failed at lift-off. The failure of the seal caused a breach in the solid rocket booster joint it sealed, allowing extremely hot, pressurized burning gas from within the solid rocket motor to reach the outside and impinge upon the adjacent solid rocket booster and external fuel tank. In a matter of seconds, this led to the separation of the right-hand solid rocket booster’s aft field joint attachment and the structural failure of the external tank. Aerodynamic forces broke up the orbiter, sending the crew compartment at a high velocity into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida.
A study of the media influence of the launch/tragedy showed that 17% of Americans watched the incident on television as it happened; 85% of all Americans learned of the incident within an hour of its occurrence. Due to the extremely high profile nature of the tragedy, due in part to the participation of teacher Christa McAuliffe in the launch, NASA grounded the Space Shuttle fleet for nearly three years.
NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Visitor’s Center has an exhibit on display on Florida’s Space Coast paying tribute to those lost in the Challenger. The display also includes a memorial to those lost in the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster which happened several years later in February of 2003.
In January 2017, NASA’s Kennedy Space Center unveiled a new exhibit which features an artifact from the Apollo I disaster, which was NASA’s first major setback and loss of human life to put men into space. That exhibit is under a banner that reads, “Ad Astra Per Aspera”, a Latin phrase that translates to “Through Hardships, To the Stars.” The banner is appropriate for all the men and women that gave their lives for humankind’s progress into the sky and beyond.
The Space Shuttle Challenger disaster followed by the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster eventually doomed the overall Space Shuttle program. On July 8, 2011, Space Shuttle Atlantis launched; it would be the very last flight of a Space Shuttle before the program was permanently retired.
While the Space Shuttle was used to ferry crew back/forth to the International Space Station (ISS), its retirement meant that American astronauts would need to fly on Russian spacecraft to get to/from the ISS. That changed just months ago when Space X brought the first crew onboard the Crew Dragon atop a Falcon 9 rocket.
On May 30, 2020, SpaceX made history at 3:22:45 pm ET when they lifted-off astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley on-board. It launched successfully from NASA Kennedy Space Center on the “space coast” of Florida. While this launch was the first time since the end of the Space Shuttle program that astronauts were lifted into space from American soil, it was also the first time a private company, SpaceX, brought astronauts to space. SpaceX used a launch pad previously used by Space Shuttles to get into space.