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Challenger Disaster: What Happened To The Space Shuttle And Why Did It Fail?

1980s | January 28, 2021

Space Shuttle Challenger explodes shortly after take-off. (NASA/Wikimedia Commons)

On a clear, blue January morning in 1986, NASA's space shuttle Challenger blasted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida. It was a mission unlike any before, as an average U.S. citizen had won a spot on the shuttle, but with all eyes (and cameras) on the sky, everything went wrong.

Teachers In Space

At the time, the Space Shuttle program, which was the first NASA program using spacecraft that were designed to be reusable, was still in its infancy. On April 12, 1981, NASA launched their first shuttle, Columbia, with a crew of two astronauts, mostly just to make sure the thing worked. (It did, for a while.)

Three years later, emboldened by the program's success, President Ronald Reagan announced the Teacher in Space Project, designed to shift the focus of space travel from military and business applications back to education and exploration and maybe generate some publicity (and funding) for the Space Shuttle program. Ironically, he also wanted to demonstrate to the public that space travel was safe.

Christa McAuliffe training for the Challenger. (NASA/WIkimedia Commons)

Christa And The Challenger

More than 11,000 teachers from across the United States submitted their applications, including Christa McAuliffe, a social studies teacher at Concord High School in New Hampshire. That fall, Christa McAuliffe didn't return to her classroom, instead taking a one-year leave of absence to prepare for her journey into space. She said goodbye to her husband and two young children before embarking on a rigorous training program and throwing herself into developing a series of video lessons she planned to deliver from space to millions of children across the country. She was also thrust into a whirlwind media tour, including appearance on The Today Show, Good Morning America, and The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

What McAuliffe tragically didn't know was that the shuttle she and her crew were preparing to launch, the Challenger, had a history of technical issuesIn 1983, technicians found a hydrogen leak in the main engine compartment, and upon inspection, they discovered cracks in the engine that needed immediate repairs which took several months in addition to several other problems. NASA officials didn't want any setbacks of their prestigious mission, however, so they angrily dismissed the defects until technicians stopped reporting them.

Ice on the launch tower hours before the Challenger launch. (NASA/Wikimedia Commons)

The Challenger Disaster

On January 28, 1986, temperatures in Florida unexpectedly dipped below freezing. NASA engineers worried the cold snap would shrink the materials sealing the solid rocket boosters, but under pressure from NASA officials, the White House, and the watchful eye of the news media, the launch went on as scheduled at 11:38 A.M.

Just 73 seconds later, disaster struck. An explosion rocked the shuttle at an altitude of approximately 46,000, splitting into two different paths as the rocket booster went one way and the shuttle went the other and everything became engulfed in an enormous white plume of smoke. Debris rained down into the Atlantic Ocean as onlookers gasped in shock and confusion. There were no survivors.

A subsequent investigation showed that Christa McAuliffe and the other seven members of the crew likely survived the initial explosion but quickly fell unconscious after the loss of cabin pressure. They may have died from lack of oxygen, but they may have survived until the shuttle plummeted to the ocean below. It struck the water at a speed of more than 200 miles per hour. 

Memorial service on January 31, 1986, at Houston, Texas, attended by President Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan (left). (National Archives and Records Administration/Wikimedia Commons)

What Went Wrong?

Just as NASA engineers feared, the seal, or O-ring, on the shuttle's right solid-fuel rocket booster was compromised by the frigid temperatures. After losing its seal, heated gas leaked from the fuel tank, which collapsed upon itself, forming the massive fireball that the onlookers saw. The dangerously lax safety standards at NASA were exposed, but they didn't fully learn their lesson until the Space Shuttle Columbia broke apart upon reentry in 2003, killing its crew.

Following the Challenger disaster, President Reagan postponed his annual State of the Union Address, the first and only time that's happened in U.S. history. Instead of discussing the economy and other issues as planned, Reagan took to the airwaves to share his grief with the nation. He ended his remarks with a line from a poem, "High Flying," by American pilot John McGee, Jr., which read, "They slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God." It's widely considered the best speech of his presidency.

Tags: 1980s | disaster | outer space

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.