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Remembering Challenger 25 Years Later

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1986 was supposed to be a banner year for the United States in space—12 shuttle missions scheduled, the most to date, including launch of the Hubble Space Telescope.  The first five years of shuttle missions in Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, and Atlantis, had begun to establish the rhythm of routine spaceflight. The 25th mission, STS 51-L on Challenger, would be a major milestone.

Challenger

Final Challenger launch on January 28, 1986

Then the unthinkable happened. Before our eyes, in person and on television, Challenger and its crew disappeared in a fireball, with eerie vapor trails tainting the sky like bizarre fireworks.  As pre-launch excitement turned to puzzlement and then to horror, we were shocked into realizing that spaceflight is not, and may never be, routine.

Challenger Disaster

Launch went terribly awry 73 seconds into ascent

Seven special Americans lost their lives barely a minute into their ascent toward space the morning of January 28, 1986. Each had a story, a rich life, and dreams for the future—all curtailed too soon.

Challenger Crew

The crew of the STS 51-L “Challenger” mission, the 25th shuttle flight in 5 years

Vietnam veteran and Air Force test pilot Dick Scobee was commanding his first shuttle mission, having been pilot on the very challenging Solar Max repair mission (STS 41-C) in 1984.

Mike Smith, Navy combat and test pilot who had flown primarily A-6 Intruders, was on his first mission as a shuttle pilot.

Ellison Onizuka, an Air Force test pilot turned scientist-astronaut, had handled payload operations on the first Department of Defense mission (STS 51-C) in 1985.

Judy Resnik, Ph.D. in electrical engineering, had proved her skills using the robotic arm to deploy satellites on a 1984 mission (STS 41-D) and was ready to do the same task on her second mission.

Ron McNair, a Ph.D. physicist, had served as chief scientist on a 1984 mission (STS 41-B) and was eager to carry out more research in space.

Christa McAuliffe, a high school social studies teacher selected to be America’s first teacher in space, was primed to broadcast in-orbit classes to classrooms around the country.

Greg Jarvis, engineer and satellite designer for Hughes space division, was flying as a guest astronaut to conduct experiments related to liquid propulsion systems.

This last Challenger crew was the most diverse crew to date, a group of talented, high-achieving individuals from various backgrounds and professions whose lives intersected for this particular seven-day journey. They seemed to reflect the multi-faceted face of America. They personified one of the promises of the shuttle era—that as spaceflight became more routine, more people would be able to fly in space safely, including people like Jarvis and McAuliffe, who were not part of the astronaut corps.

After 24 missions, the media and the public had grown rather blasé about shuttle launches, but the teacher in space program had drawn inordinate attention to this mission. The media turned out in force, and educators around the country arranged for their students to gather around televisions in classrooms and auditoriums to watch the big event. It was to be, in today’s lingo, a “teachable moment” that would raise awareness of spaceflight and inspire young people to dream big dreams. The intended message: “This might be you. Someday you could do this, too.”

That message went awry as Challenger broke apart and the astronauts plummeted to their death sealed inside the crew cabin.  As the media repeatedly ran the footage of the doomed ascent, the event elevated into a national tragedy. The teachable moment brought different lessons about risk and grief, and then about decision-making.

As mourner-in-chief, President Ronald Reagan sought to comfort the crew’s families, the NASA family, and the nation at large. His brief televised address that day was a proper elegy, eloquent and uplifting. He put this tragedy into the context of history and the future, linking it to familiar themes of the frontier and exploration. He called the crew heroes and pioneers, and assured us that their loss would not be the end of exploration. “The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we’ll continue to follow them. … Nothing ends here; our hopes and our journeys continue.”

Within days, the probable technical cause of the launch tragedy was identified. A rubber seal between two segments of one solid rocket booster had failed, and propellant gases and flame had burned through the side of the booster like a blowtorch. As the flame began to impinge on the lower external tank, the booster also began to twist on its attachments to the tank. These two events caused the tank to collapse, and the liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen instantly mixed, igniting in a flash. What looked like an explosion was actually the result, not the cause, of the catastrophe. As the tank collapsed, the orbiter broke free and then broke apart from aerodynamic stresses. The crew cabin remained intact, as it was designed to do, and was later recovered from the ocean floor with the crew still strapped into their seats. It is a mistake to say that Challenger (the shuttle orbiter) exploded; it did not. It broke apart under stress.

Months later, when the Presidential Commission on the Challenger Accident released its report, a more complex set of causes was identified.

Most of them had to do with human error in understanding data, communicating, making decisions, and becoming complacent about safety. The commission determined that the Challenger tragedy had been “an accident waiting to happen” that was not averted because NASA had a “broken safety culture.”  These findings prompted widespread changes in spaceflight operations to better ensure that safety issues received due attention, without shortcuts or poor assumptions.

The Challenger tragedy triggered expressions of public mourning as people left flowers, flags, and other mementos at sites associated with the space program. Here at the Museum we found flowers and other small tributes near the large Space Shuttle model, creating an impromptu memorial there.  (Another spontaneous memorial appeared here after the 2003 Columbia tragedy.)  Since 1987 we have displayed a memorial plaque given by NASA to each of the crew families and to the Museum. It includes portraits of the last Challenger crew, a mission patch, and a small U.S. flag recovered from the vehicle debris.

Challenger Plaque

“Challenger” crew memorial plaque given by NASA to the National Air and Space Museum

Before long, schools and streets were named for the Challenger crew, individually or as a group, and then memorials appeared in their hometowns and elsewhere. The Challenger tragedy inspired installation of the Space Mirror memorial sculpture at the Kennedy Space Center.  The Challenger families decided to establish a Challenger Learning Center for space science education in the crew’s honor, and today the popular franchise has spread to some 50 locations where students, teachers, and families participate in simulated space missions and learn more about spaceflight.  The Challenger crew thus lives on in public memory. And, as President Reagan reassured  us, the way to honor their lives was to continue the journey—as we have done in more than 100 shuttle flights since 1986.

Perhaps only the engineers and technicians who worked closely with the orbiters actually mourned the loss of the vehicle, but for them losing Challenger was cause for grief. In an instant, one-fourth of the shuttle fleet—the orbiter they had tended for ten missions— was destroyed. In an instant, the flight rate that had accelerated from two to six to nine missions a year was stalled and the fleet was grounded for more than two years. It was a sobering event for the organization that took pride in preparing the shuttles for flight and an event still remembered with pain.

What was learned from the Challenger tragedy? Some of the lessons were obvious in retrospect, and they were basic principles of rocket engineering, but they reminded us how easy it is to become comfortable, even careless, with responsibility. Spaceflight is inherently risky, and there are no shortcuts to the management of risk.  Vigilance is the price of safety, and vigilance cannot be relaxed. Pay attention if something isn’t right; it may be telling you something important. Communicate clearly and be disciplined in decision-making. Spaceflight is still largely experimental.  Routine spaceflight may be a wishful rather than a realizable goal.

STS-26 Crew Portrait

One noticeable change after the “Challenger” tragedy: Crews wore pressurized survival suits during launch and reentry in case of emergency.

Twenty-five years later, I still remember that morning at work in Huntsville, Alabama. Called from my desk to the conference room to watch the launch, standing around chatting with colleagues as the countdown continued, cheering the liftoff, and then being stunned by the appearance of those deviant exhaust trails. As the realization set in, needing silence and fresh air, I left the building to walk alone. Later that day, the mail delivery included a postcard from NASA indicating that my application packet for the Journalist-in-Space program had been received. I knew that flight would not happen anytime soon. It never did.

Dr. Valerie Neal is a curator in the Space History Division of the National Air and Space Museum.

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10 thoughts on “Remembering Challenger 25 Years Later

  1. I remember sitting there in my kindergarten class and all the teachers racing to the televisions to turn them off. Still a very vivid memory. God bless.

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  3. I cannot believe it’s been 25 years…

    I remember it well… I was 24 years old… I was watching the launch… then the explosion happen… my first thought was that the space center added a special effect for their sent off… then to my surprise… the worst happen…!!!

    Wanted to know if the Air & Space Museum in DC would be doing anything special… on this 25th Anniversary… to honor the Challenger…???

  4. Reading through this article was like being back 25 years ago and watching the launch and then that incredible explosion. The faces of those who were present trying desperately to make some sense of what they had just seen. Christy McAuliff’s little boy being spirited away by someone, his face registering shock not yet fully aware of what had just happened to his mother. He had seen the whole thing of course and so had the families of the other 6 Astronauts. How horrible must it be to watch someone you love die like that? My heart goes out to those families today because I’m sure they still carry that vision with them every day of their lives.

    As I write this I am so far the only person who has responded to this article and that’s something I just don’t understand. How can you not have something to say, something to remember about that day? I remember staring at the TV screen in utter disbelief, things like this just do not happen, not right in the public eye like that. That little boy’s face has stayed with me for 25 years, a little boy who’s all grown up now, who’s had to grow up without his mother and with his memory of that day crowding out all the good memories he has of her. How can you not still feel the horror, the tragedy, and the disappointment of that day 25 years ago. Surely there must be something in your heart that needs saying, needs releasing.

    Dr. Neal thank you for this article and for helping us pay tribute to these 7 brave people who paid the ultimate price in service to their country and to the people they loved. To their families I say, thank you for the sacrifice you’ve made and know that whether we say it or not our hearts and our prayers are with you. We grieve along with you and in spite of the way things may look right now, we will never forget the 7 members of the crew of the Challenger. God bless you all.

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  6. I was busy working at NASA Lewis (now Glenn) Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio. I knew a launch was occurring but had work to do. I then heard some hallway conversation like “… and it just blew up …”
    I hurried to the conference video to see the first replay.
    Such an awful tragedy.
    Reagan gave such an uplifting speech afterwards.

  7. An excellent article from both a personal and historic perspective. I had just arrived at NASA/MSFC right after the launch. What I remember is people sobbing openly in the halls.

  8. In my country, a channel was trasmiting the lunch due for the teacher McAuliffe, probably expecting the class in space. i was surprised for the explosion. it is like shocking to be the witness of such a terrible event in human history.

  9. 25 years ago I was an eighth grader at a small parochial school in the Akron suburbs. Our class gathered to watch the launch on TV not just becuase of Chrsita McAuliff, but also because Akron native Dr. Judy Resnik was making her second flight. It was very festive – they wheeled in the TV on the Audio/Visual cart and we spun around in our desks and we counted down with the TV.

    I don’t remember the actual launch from that day; I just have a vivid memory of sitting at my desk, hearing Dick Scobee’s “Roger, go at throttle up”, and then watching the exhaust trails from the SRB’s careening madly through the sky as pieces of the orbiter began their long fall to the ocean. Our classroom passed from shock, to disbelief, and then to sadness and sobbing as the TV replayed the disaster over and over while the commentators tried to find something to say.

    Our homeroom teacher, Mr. Slattery, walked to the TV and turned it off and then addressed the class. It couldn’t have been easy, but he managed to calm a large group of emotional teenagers somehow. I don’t remember his exact words, but his theme was that exploration comes with a cost and it’s for the explorers to decide if that risk is worth it. And that, unfortunately, sometimes you pay the ultimate price.

    Our class went on to dedicate the school yearbook to the astronauts; a small gesture, but something that had meaning for us. Some years ago I visited the John F. Kennedy Space Center with my family and was able to see the Space Mirror Memorial. As I stood there and read through the names from STS-51-L a small part of me bacame that thirteen year old again. Non est ad astra mollis e terris via; There is no easy way from the earth to the stars.

  10. I’d like to thank everyone at NASA for keeping our dreams and those of the Challenger’s crew of 1986 alive.

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