It’s been 31 years since the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff killing a crew of seven astronauts, including Christa McAuliffe, who was to be the first civilian and school teacher in space. It was Jan. 28, 1986, and many Americans still remember where they were and what they were doing on that morning 39 minutes after 11 a.m. when the Challenger erupted into a mass of smoke and fire 10,000 feet above the earth.
NASA recently held a commemorative event on Jan. 31 called a Day of Remembrance to honor the Challenger, and also the Apollo I fire that killed three astronauts in 1967. Memoralizing the Columbia, the Space Shuttle that exploded in 2003 killing seven crew members, rounded out the day’s observance.
Huge Live TV Audience
The Challenger was the first catastrophic disaster for the Space Shuttle program since this class of launch system first flew in 1981. The first operational flight for the Space Shuttle, or STS, was in 1982. After four years of successful missions NASA was confident enough to add its first non-astronaut to a flight crew.
Christa McAuliffe was a school teacher from Concord, New Hampshire, who was selected from a field of 11,000 applicants for the NASA Teacher in Space Program. The fact that McAuliffe was aboard made the mission an extremely high-profile event – tens of thousands of school children were tuned in around the nation to watch the launch on live TV. An estimated 17% of all Americans were tuned into the event.
Also killed were astronauts Dick Scobee, Michael Smith, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis, and Judith Resnick. The Challenger disaster is considered America’s greatest space disaster, although The Columbia also killed seven astronauts after it broke up upon re-entry in 2003. However, the presence of McAuliffe on the Challenger gave added poignancy to the event in addition to being the first fail catastrophically.
Grounding And Investigation
The entire Space Shuttle fleet was grounded for 32 months after the Challenger exploded. A special commission was appointed by President Ronald Reagan to investigate the cause of the event. The Rogers Commission was headed by former Secretary of State William Rogers. It included such famous members as Neil Armstrong, first man on the moon, and world famous physicist Richard Feynman, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics.
The Commission ultimately concluded that the explosion was due to the failure of an O-Ring that served as a seal for a joint in the Challenger’s right solid rocket booster. Hot fuel burned through the ring which then allowed flames to contact the fuel in an external tank. The result was an explosion powerful enough to break up the entire STS launch complex.
Part of the reason the O-Ring failed was because temperatures were unusually cold at the Florida launch site on Jan. 28. Icy temperatures made the material in the O-Rings brittle and less responsive to changes in pressure and temperature. This facet was famously illustrated by Feynman before news cameras when he dropped a sample O-Ring into a glass of ice water.
Controversy Over NASA Deaths
While many assumed that all seven astronauts died instantly in the catastrophic explosion, most experts believe the crew survived the blast and lived at least for the two minutes and 45 seconds it took for the crew cab to fall back to the Atlantic Ocean. The impact speed of contact with the water was 207 mph.
The ultimate cause of death for the crew has never been released – although NASA astronaut and medical doctor Story Musgrave said it is likely the crew remained conscious and aware after the blast, and lived at least until they impacted the water.
Image source: kennedyspacecenter.com