Most of America awoke on January 28, 1986 with great anticipation of a mission that would take a civilian for the first time into space. After 24 already completed missions, no one imagined that the crew on the Challenger would not return back to Earth. Although space travel still had dangers associated with it, people were focusing more on Christa McAuliffe than on the possibility of anything going wrong. However, on this day, the space world would be changed forever.
A Bit of History
The Challenger shuttle was really the workhorse of the NASA fleet. By 1986, NASA had launched 24 flights, with the Challenger having made 9 of those trips. Challenger made history on two of these journeys. The first event was in 1983 when the Challenger carried the first American woman, Sally Ride, into space. The second was when Guion Bluford, the first black astronaut, went to space.
It was a very cold morning on January 28, 1986. NASA officials and the Kennedy Space Center were getting ready to launch yet another mission. In fact, Mission 51-L would be the 25th time a shuttle would be launched into space. This would also be Challenger’s 10th mission. Many people were watching this event on television because it would be the first time that a civilian would be going into space. This civilian was schoolteacher, Christa McAuliffe.
After being postponed three times on account of bad weather, the Challenger shuttle was ready to launch. At exactly 11:38 a.m. Eastern Time, the shuttle left its pad along with seven crewmembers.
The Explosion and What Went Wrong
Just over a minute into the flight, the Challenger shuttle exploded, killing all seven astronauts on board. Most of the pieces from the shuttle landed in the Atlantic Ocean and were later recovered by a ship for NASA to examine.
Film of the Challenger launch was used to examine the unbelievable explosion. Before the shuttle exploded, there were three bright flashes, each lasting 1/13 of a second. These flashes shot directly across the wings of the shuttle. However, NASA did not think much of this because they had seen them before during other launches. Then, about one minute into the flight, a very small flame was spotted directly on the right Solid Rocket Booster (SRB). The magnified film showed that the flame was coming from the bottom of the SRB where it attached to the external tank. The external tank is the large blimp shaped tank underneath the shuttle. About ˝ second later, the small flame turned into a larger flame. Increasing in size every second, the flame began to spread onto the external tank. At this point, the liquid hydrogen and oxygen tanks inside the external tank burst causing the shuttle to become a ball of fire followed by the enormous explosion.
NASA later determined that the real cause of the explosion was a faulty joint which is sealed by two rubber O-rings. An O-ring is a rubber washer that holds things together. This seal was important because it kept the gases inside the SRB from leaking out. It was simple for NASA to figure out that this was what caused the explosion because the flame that they saw during the flight was burning gas. NASA also later concluded that the O-rings most likely failed as a result of the cold temperature. It was only 32 degrees Fahrenheit that morning, the coldest ever in the history of American space missions. The cold temperature allowed ice to form in the joints of the O-rings which caused them not to seal properly.
The Challenger 7
The seven people on board the Challenger were all very special people making history in a way that none of them could have ever imagined.
In the summer of 1984, President Ronald Reagan declared that a schoolteacher would be the
first private citizen of the United States to ever participate in the Space Flight Participant Program. Once this announcement was made, more than 11,000 teachers applied for the job of being part of the space mission on the Challenger shuttle. After narrowing their search down to 10 individuals, NASA chose Christa McAuliffe, a teacher from Concord, New Hampshire.
Christa McAuliffe was married to her husband, Steve, and had two children, Scott and Caroline. Together with Christa’s parents and sister, everyone watched in horror as the Challenger exploded, destroying all of Christa’s plans of sharing her adventure with her family and thousands of students across the United States.
Christa’s plan in space was to keep a journal that she would bring back and share with her class. Her journal would give her students a clear idea of what it would be like to travel in space. NASA also assigned Christa additional duties. She would broadcast two live lessons on television to school kids around the United States. She would explain the roles of the crew and the importance of space exploration.
Francis R. Scobee
The commander of the Challenger mission was Francis Scobee. This 46-year-old had already been on a mission in the Challenger in 1984. His purpose on that mission was to repair a solar satellite. He started his quest to be an astronaut in the Air Force. While working his way through the ranks, he logged more than 6,500 flying hours and flew in 45 different types of aircraft.
Michael J. Smith
The Navy commander, Michael J. Smith, was the pilot of the 1986 Challenger crew. Smith was also a skilled aircraft flyer just like Scobee. He was very excited to be part of this mission’s crew because it would be his first time in space. Smith was trained to be a pilot in the Naval Academy.
When he graduated, he went on to fly A-6 Intruder jets off decks of aircraft carriers during the Vietnam War. Because of his commitment to the U.S. armed forces, he received many honor awards for his accomplishments.
Dr. Judith A. Resnik
Dr. Resnik was one of the three mission specialists aboard the Challenger. She was chosen for this job because she was a trained electrical engineer. In 1984,
she became the first Jewish woman and the second American woman ever to go into space. She also logged around 145 hours in her space travel experience on the Discovery mission.
Dr. Ronald E. McNair
Dr. McNair was also selected as a mission specialist on the Challenger. He was an expert laser physicist and the second African-American to ever travel in space. His assignment on the Challenger was to launch a small, scientific platform, which would help him study Halley’s comet.
Ellison S. Onizuka
Mr. Onizuka was selected as the third mission specialist. He was an aerospace engineer who would be studying Halley’s comet as well. As a boy, this Japanese-American
dreamed of exploring space. His dreams finally came true in January of 1985 when he first went into space on the Discovery space shuttle.
Gregory B. Jarvis
Greg Jarvis was the last crewmember selected for the Challenger mission. This
41-year old man was very eager to make the trip to space because he had lost his place twice in the past on other missions. The first time, Florida Congressman Bill Nelson replaced him. The second time, U.S. Senator Jake Garn, took the mission in his place.
To Sum It Up…
As America went to bed on the night of January 28, 1986, sadness replaced the excitement that everyone felt that morning before the launch. The seven crewmembers that lost their lives on the Challenger will always be remembered as heroes because they risked their lives for the benefit of space exploration.
Kent, Zachary. The Story of the Challenger Disaster. Chicago: Regensteiner Publishing Enterprises, Inc., 1986.
Space Shuttle Challenger. <http://www.jlhs.nhusd.k12.ca.us/Classes/Social_Science/Challenger.html/> Last visited: February, 2002.
Space in the Spotlight Novi Meadows Elementary 2002
All pictures courtesy of NASA unless otherwise noted