Thirty years ago today, the space shuttle Challenger blasted up towards space. Just 73 seconds after take off, the shuttle exploded, killing the seven passengers aboard. It was a truly tragic day in the history of our space program, but it's a day that NASA never forgets — and we shouldn't, either.
What happened to Challenger?
The Space Shuttle Challenger took off on January 28, 1986. 73 seconds into the flight, a seal on its right solid rocket booster failed. The flaming gas from inside the booster escaped, reaching the joint that attached the booster to the external fuel tank. This led to the structural failure of this tank, allowing aerodynamic forces to destroy the rest of the orbiter. It exploded over the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast from its take off point in Cape Canaveral, FL.
Who was onboard?
There were five NASA scientists and two payload specialists onboard. The astronauts included Francis R. (Dick) Scobee, mission commander; Judith A. Resnik, mission specialist; Ronald E. McNair, mission specialist; Mike J. Smith, pilot; and Ellison S. Onizuka, mission specialist. The payload specialists were Gregory Jarvis and Sharon Christa McAuliffe. McAuliffe would have been the first teacher and the first private citizen in space.
Were they killed in the explosion?
No one knows the crew's exact cause of death. It is possible that the crew was still alive until their cabin crashed onto the ocean's surface. There was no launch escape system, which NASA considered costly and impractical. Things such as ejection seats and full pressure suits were only included on test flights, not operational missions.
What happened after Challenger?
Following the Challenger tragedy, NASA grounded the Space Shuttle program for three years. During that time, it reexamined safety procedures, redesigned its solid rocket boosters, and developed a new policy for management decision-making during shuttle launches.
If Challenger had succeeded, the space program could look a lot different today. NASA had developed a journalist-in-space program and was looking to send up one journalist on a subsequent flight. Washington Post reporter Kathy Sawyer, who saw and covered the Challenger launch in person, was one of the finalists. This never ended up happening.
What's NASA doing today?
NASA holds a ceremony each year to honor the astronauts whose lives were lost on missions into space: its Day of Remembrance. This year, it's being held on the 30-year anniversary of the Challenger tragedy. It's also honoring lives lost in the Apollo I mission, where three astronauts lost their lives in a cockpit fire in 1967, and the space shuttle Columbia tragedy of 2003, which saw the shuttle disintegrate upon reentering the atmosphere over Texas.