On the morning of January 28, 1986, NASA was busy preparing to launch Space Shuttle Challenger. Public excitement was high due to the Teacher in Space Project, a program created to inspire children to get involved in science. Christa McAuliffe captured the world’s imagination when she was selected from a pool of over 11, 000 applicants. Cameras followed each step of her progress and she became an instant celebrity. But as it turned out, the 25th space shuttle mission was doomed. Just 73 seconds after liftoff, Challenger exploded and crashed into the ocean at Cape Canaveral in Florida.
A series of technical glitches had previously delayed the launch date. The unusually cold weather dumped a significant amount of snow on the launchpad. Icicles formed on equipment. This impacted the O-rings that kept the solid rocket boosters in place. Made by Thiokol Chemical Corporation, the equipment was not certified to function at these temperatures. Despite their warnings, NASA allowed Space Shuttle Challenger’s launch, at below -1 °C, to go ahead.
McAuliffe was one of two payload specialists on the mission. The other crew members were:
- Dick Scobee – flight commander
- Michael Smith – pilot
- Gregory Jarvis – payload specialist
- Judith Resnik, Ellison Onizuka and Ronald McNair – mission specialists.
There was no internet in the 1980s, so everyone who wanted to see the launch had to find a live broadcast. Teachers across America brought TVs into their classrooms, and millions of children eagerly counted down to liftoff. Celebrations turned to confusion and then horror at what happened next. A tremendous explosion rocked Challenger. Flames engulfed the external tank and both solid rocket boosters spiralled out of control. The trail of smoke left behind its own version of skywriting. Nobody would ever forget what they saw.
Aftermath of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster
There were outpourings of grief around the world. The explosion was replayed for days on end. People talked about it at every opportunity. Social media was still decades away, but trolls found ways to spread cruel jokes (‘What’s NASA’s favourite soft drink?’ ‘7 Up!’). President Reagan made an emotional speech about astronauts touching the face of God. He soon appointed a special committee, the Rogers Commission, to investigate the incident. The cause was determined to be a violation of safety rules and inadequate precaution by NASA and Thiokol engineers.
The Space Shuttle Challenger disaster proved to be a major setback for NASA’s program. The damage to its image and operations was catastrophic. The entire fleet was grounded until 1988. New safety measures were put in place, and Discovery was launched in September of that year.
A generation of children lost their innocence on a cold day in January. It would be embedded in their memories of 1986 along with Top Gun, Madonna and Family Ties. Unfortunately for NASA, Space Shuttle Challenger would not be the last mission to end in tragedy. Despite their best efforts, disaster struck again on February 1, 2003. Columbia disintegrated on re-entry and all seven astronauts on board were killed.