Jul 23, 2020

The Challenger Space Shuttle Disaster 35 Years Later

Omar Abubakar

he Challenger space shuttle tragically went down on live television on January 28, 1986. It was one of the saddest moments in American history, and it happened right in front of the whole nation. Although it wasn’t the first time the Challenger would go into space, January 28th’s mission was a momentous occasion that was watched by everyone at offices, schools, and homes because of the teacher-astronaut, Christa McAuliffe.

In April 1983, the space shuttle Challenger became the second shuttle to reach space. Quite famous for its trips, the Challenger completed nine milestone missions all together before the unfortunate incident after nearly three years of service.

Challenger remains a significant part of history for a few firsts. It was the spacecraft that hosted the first spacewalk of the space shuttle program. In addition to this, Challenger carried the first black astronaut and the first American female into space.

On January 28th, 1986, the shuttle was launched for the 10th time. Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff and killed seven crew members.


Creating the Challenger

Worker Painting the Challenger Name on the Space Shuttle

Rockwell International first began building the shuttle originally intended as a test vehicle in November 1975. In April 1978, the vehicle went to Lockheed Martin for structural testing. Unfortunately, technology was not advanced enough to calculate the stress levels of the shuttle during different phases of the flight tests. According to NASA, Challenger — originally STA-099 — was sent to a specially formulated rig for 11 months of vibration testing.

When the test vehicle did well enough, NASA awarded Rockwell International with the contract to turn the test vehicle into a space vehicle in 1979.

Two years later, Rockwell presented NASA with a spacecraft with stronger wings and a real cure cabin to replace the stimulated one, among other upgrades. Challenger was completed on October 23, 1981.

Challenger’s Travel History

The first space trip NASA scheduled the Challenger space shuttle for was on January 20, 1983, but the spacecraft experienced several technical malfunctions that made the launch impossible. The vehicle was supposed to release the first Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) in space. TSRS would become a part of a series of satellites that controllers use to stay in touch with astronauts in space. When NASA engineers examined Challenger, they discovered a hydrogen leak first in December 1982, and again in January 1983.

After removing engine 1, giving engines 2 and 3 a passmark, accompanied by several months of troubleshooting, the Challenger eventually launched in April of that year. Astronauts Story Musgrave and Donald Peterson were the first to execute the spacewalk of the shuttle program.

Furthermore, Challenger would go down in history as the vehicle that recorded some of the most monumental cultural and technological firsts in space technology. Sally Ride — the first American female astronaut — rode up to space in June 1983 on the shuttle. Challenger also took up the first black astronaut, Guion Bluford.

In 1984, on STS-41G, two more women and the first Canadian flew to space. Challenger can also be credited with the first-night launching and landing as well as the first successful and operational Spacelab flight (STS-51B).

In April 1984, on the STS-41C mission, the first astronaut repair of a satellite would take place, making for one of Challenger’s most memorable moments. Since the Solar Maximum Mission satellite (SMM) was nonfunctional,  astronaut George Nelson strapped himself into a Manned Maneuvering Unit and fired the jets on the satellite to stop the spinning SMM. Before this, the crew had maneuvered Challenger until it was only 200 feet from the satellite.

As soon as Nelson stopped the slow tumble, crewmembers used the shuttle’s Canadarm robotic arm to pluck SMM  out of empty space and reposition it in the payload bay.

The Challenger Space Shuttle Disaster

The Tragedy Was on Live TV

Challenger’s launch decision team scheduled the STS-51L mission to take place on January 28, 1986. It was a cold morning with the temperatures dipping below freezing points. Some of Challenger’s engineers felt concerned about the weather and integrity of the seals on the solid rocket boosters.

Despite their reservations, Challenger launched at 11:38 a.m. EST. Unlike prior lunches, this one took place with a lot of media attention. With the media involvement at its peak, NASA’s arrangement for Christa McAuliffe to give lessons while in orbit seemed to have gotten the warranted attention.

As the entire country watched, the Challenger space shuttle broke up and fell into the Atlantic 73 seconds after takeoff.

The Challenger Crew

After several weeks of continuous efforts, salvage crews recovered most pieces of the shuttle and the remains of the seven astronauts. Identifiable remains were turned over to family members, but the rest was buried in a Challenger crew monument at Arlington National Cemetery on May 20, 1986.

The seven astronauts who lost their lives on January 28, 1986, included Sharon “Christa” McAuliffe – Teacher in Space Participant, Gregory Jarvis – Payload Specialist, Judy Resnik – Mission Specialist, Commander Dick Scobee, Ronald McNair – Mission Specialist, Ellison Onizuka – Mission Specialist, and Michael Smith – Pilot.

The Aftermath of the Crash

The day Challenger went down on live television was a nationally proclaimed day of mourning. The incident forced NASA to re-examine all the processes surrounding or leading up to the crash. A presidential commission was put together to examine the causes of such a tragedy. This commission included Astronaut Neil Armstrong and Astronaut Sally Ride.

The commission reported that the technical cause of the accident was traced to the degrading seal on the solid rocket boosters by the cold weather. Arguably the most important effort of the report expounded on how the crash forced the commission to gain privy information that exposed cultural problems at NASA. These problems had hindered effective communication between the crew, the engineers and the launch decision team. Furthermore, the report revealed that the proposed flight rates for Challenger were probably unsustainable.

NASA went on to make significant technical changes on the shuttle, but also on the culture of its workforce. These changes resulted in overhauling several practices that could have hindered in-depth explorations on any project, shuttle or mission. After two years of hard work, the shuttle program resumed flights in 1988.

When the redefined space shuttle program re-opened in 1988, several things had changed, including shelving plans to fly civilians to space for another 22 years. Barbara Morgan — McAuliffe’s backup in 1986 — was the first to ride to space on Endeavour in 2007.

Besides, NASA tightened astronaut safety guidelines. For instance, astronauts were no longer responsible for repairing satellites. Another safety measure included shifting satellite launches from shuttles to reusable rockets.

Additionally, the families of the last Challenger crew founded the Challenger Center for Space Science Education Program. The program brings students along on simulated space missions. NASA also set aside a day in January to remember the different crews lost in the pursuit of space exploration.

Most of the Challenger pieces are buried in abandoned Minuteman missile silos at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station today. Also, visitors can view debris from Challenger’s last mission at the “Forever Remembered” exhibition located at the Kennedy Space Center.

No items found.
No items found.