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

By | January 26, 2021

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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.

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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.