The Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster 32 Years On


It was 32 years ago this week (January 29) that the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded. Most people still remember it vividly. In  schools across America kids were all gathered around TVs to watch the launch.

It was extra important because Christa McAuliffe, a teacher, was set to be the first civilian in space. The shock of the explosion is something that has stayed with me over the intervening three decades; it was the seminal moment of my — and, I suspect, many peoples’ — childhood.

President Ronald Reagan was supposed to give his State of the Union address that night.  After hearing about the explosion just before noon — the Christian Science Monitor did a nice look-back at Reagan’s day — he scrapped that plan and instead delivered what is widely regarded as one of the finest speeches of his presidency. (You can read it here.)\

 It was short — 650 words and less than five total minutes in delivery — but contains perhaps Reagan’s most-quoted line: “We will never forget them nor the last time we saw them … as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye … and slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God.

An O-ring failure blamed on cold weather doomed the shuttle before it even left the launch pad. Just a few seconds into the mission, a flame was seen breaking through the solid rocket booster that would ultimately lead to the catastrophic explosion that claimed the lives of astronauts Dick Scobee, Michael Smith, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnick and teacher Christa McAuliffe. Their names were added to the Space Memorial Mirror at the NASA Kennedy Space Center.

The incident resulted in a 32-month suspension of NASA’s shuttle program and the creation of the Rogers Commission, a group created by Ronald Reagan to examine what went wrong. Seventeen percent of Americans watched the tragedy unfold on live television. Many were watching because of crewmember McAuliffe, who would have been the first teacher in space. Dr. Story Musgrave, a retired NASA astronaut that flew on six shuttle missions, believes the crew was still alive after the blast.


The Space Shuttle Challenger disaster occurred on January 28, 1986, when the NASA Space Shuttle orbiter Challenger broke apart 73 seconds into its flight, leading to the deaths of its seven crew members.

“It’s a bang, and then it’s a two-minute ride down, and you’re conscious. We know that,” Musgrave said. Musgrave said the crew survived in the iconic white cloud seen after the explosion. It was Challenger’s fuel tank that exploded. The shuttle itself just broke apart. “Hundreds of fragments were noted exiting the (external tank) clouds. Those identified included the shuttle main engines, the left wing, crew cabin and both (solid rocket boosters),” a NASA commentator said.

The crew compartment, with it’s seven living occupants, was intact. “The initial path of the crew cabin from the vapor cloud carried it across the path of an adjacent contrail, clearly revealing it’s truncated form and attitude. The left wing became visible at 78.531 seconds. The main engines and crew cabin are also identifiable,” the commentator said. It took two minutes and 45 seconds for the crew cabin to hit the water. The impact speed was 207 mph. A statement from the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident indicated the crew probably survived.

“The forces to which the crew were exposed during orbiter breakup were probably not sufficient to cause death or serious injury,” the statement indicated. “NASA is unable to determine positively the cause of death of the Challenger astronauts but has established that it is possible, but not certain, that loss of consciousness did occur in the seconds following the orbiter break-up.” Musgrave, who is a medical doctor and surgeon, is quite certain.   Adapted WCVB

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