Remembering the Challenger Disaster on its 33rd Anniversary

Thirty-three years ago today, much of America witnessed one of the most tragic chapters in space exploration history, as NASA’s Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart shortly after liftoff and plunged 60,000 feet into the Atlantic Ocean, killing all seven people on board.

Challenger, which had taken off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on the morning of January 28, 1986, began to disintegrate 73 seconds into its flight after an O-ring seal in its right solid rocket booster failed due to cold temperatures at the time of the launch.

This failure caused a breach in the booster joint it sealed, allowing pressurized burning from within the solid rocket motor to escape and impinge on the adjacent rocker booster’s aft field joint attachment and external fuel tank, ultimately causing a structural failure in the tank and bringing Challenger’s 10th mission to a sudden and horrific end.

“We were all standing there and we saw the cloud engulf the vehicle, the huge cloud of smoke. We were all standing there kind of looking at each other and looking up and scratching our heads and trying to figure out what had happened,” CNN correspondent John Zarrella, who had been covering the launch, recalled during an interview with CBS News. “There’s just no way to really describe it except to say it was just total chaos.”

Once that chaos subsided, the sad truth became evident: Commander Francis R. “Dick” Scobee, pilot Michael J. Smith, mission specialist Ronald E. McNair, mission specialist Ellison Onizuka, mission specialist Judith Resnik, payload specialist Gregory Jarvis and Christa McAuliffe, who would have been the first teacher in space, had all lost their lives during the explosion.

The legacy of the Challenger Seven

President Ronald Reagan, who had been scheduled to deliver his State of the Union address that day, instead postponed the speech to address the nation about the disaster, calling the night a time for “mourning and remembering” and adding that the astronauts “honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them.”

“On the day of the disaster, our nation held a vigil by our television sets. In one cruel moment, our exhilaration turned to horror,” he later said in a eulogy of the astronauts, who had come to be known as the Challenger Seven. “Sometimes, when we reach for the stars, we fall short. But we must pick ourselves up again and press on despite the pain. Our nation is indeed fortunate… that we are still blessed with heroes like those of the space shuttle Challenger.”

Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, now best known for his work on New Horizons, worked on two experiments onboard Challenger when it exploded and was friends with many of the crewmembers. He told National Geographic that he “had a really hard time” dealing with the tragedy, adding “I still think about them. But it gets easier. It’s the salve of time going by.”

In the aftermath of the disaster, Richard Scobee’s widow June Scobee Rodgers gathered together the family members of the fallen crew to discuss how to best honor their memory. They decided to launch the Challenger Center, which is an educational facility where students go to learn about science and engineering through simulated space missions. Nearly 4.5 million students have been taught at the now 40-plus Challenger Centers worldwide, according to reports.

While there is a small memorial to the Challenger Seven on the moon, Nat Geo suggested that perhaps it is time for a larger tribute to the fallen astronauts, possibly a Voyager-like craft or an orbiting memorial. Scobee Rodgers told the website that she would be in favor of that, but said that something like that should “serve a purpose… something like helping people to advance the space program.”

“What if every human spaceflight, every time, carried a memorial – the same memorial?” Stern suggested. “It would recognize everybody lost in spaceflight and be in solidarity with those pioneers. It could be very understated, but every astronaut on every spaceflight would know, and every space tourist would know, that they’re a part of saluting that.”

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Feature Image: NASA

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