Biography of Michael J. Smith, Challenger Astronaut

Michael J. Smith astronaut
Michael J. Smith, NASA astronaut, former Navy pilot; he died aboard space shuttle Challenger in 1986.


Michael J. Smith was the pilot aboard the space shuttle Challenger, which exploded on January 28, 1986. It was his first flight as an astronaut. His death ended a distinguished career as a Navy pilot and a future in space flight. Michael J. Smith's voice was the last one heard from the shuttle just before the explosion, replying to Mission Control: "Go at throttle up."

Fast Facts: Michael J. Smith

  • Born: April 30, 1945 in Beaufort, North Carolina
  • Died: January 28, 1986 in Cape Canaveral, Florida
  • Parents: Robert Lewis and Lucille S. Smith
  • Spouse: Jane Anne Jarrell (m. 1967)
  • Children: Scott, Alison, and Erin
  • Education: Bachelor's degree in Naval Science from the U.S. Naval Academy, master's degree in Aeronautical Engineering from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School
  • Career: Navy pilot, served in Vietnam. He was selected for the astronaut program in May 1980; Challenger was his first flight.

Early Life

Michael J. Smith was born on April 30, 1945, to Robert Lewis and Lucille S. Smith, in Beaufort, North Carolina. He attended East Carteret High School and learned to fly while still a teenager. He enrolled in the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, where he received a Bachelor of Science in Naval Science. He then pursued a master's degree in Aeronautical Engineering at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, which he completed in 1968. After graduation, Smith went on to train as a naval aviator. From there, he became a flight instructor, before taking an assignment in Vietnam. During his deployment, he flew A-6 Intruders and participated in bombing efforts against the North Vietnamese.

After Vietnam, Smith returned to the U.S. and entered Naval Test Pilot School. As many other astronauts did, he worked with up-and-coming aircraft, as well as cruise missile guidance systems. His next assignment was as an instructor, before heading out to the Mediterranean for two tours of duty aboard the USS Saratoga. Smith logged a total of 4,867 hours of flying time, piloting 28 different types of civilian and military aircraft.

NASA Career

Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster STS-51L Pictures - 51-L Challenger Crew in White Room
Space Shuttle Challenger crew in the White Room prior to launch. They are (L-R): mission specialist Christa McAuliffe and astronauts Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnik, Mission Commander Dick Scobee, astronaut Ronald McNair, pilot Michael J. Smith, and astronaut Ellison Onizuka. NASA Headquarters - GReatest Images of NASA (NASA-HQ-GRIN)

Michael J. Smith applied to the NASA astronaut program and was selected for duty in 1980. He spent the next five years in training and working in various capacities in the agency, focusing on flight operations, night landings, and other areas. His duties also included command of the Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory, as well as stints with aircraft operations, and a series of assignments working with flight operations and testing. Eventually, Smith was selected to be the pilot on STS-51L, aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger, which was his first flight to space. He was already assigned as pilot for Space Shuttle Mission 61-N, scheduled to launch in the fall of 1986. 

The launch of Challenger on January 28, 1986, ended in disaster, and the deaths of Smith, mission commander Dick Scobee, Ron McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Gregory Jarvis, and teacher-in-space mission specialist Christa McAuliffe. 

Personal Life

Michael J. Smith married Jane Anne Jarrell in 1967, just after his graduation from the Naval Academy. They had three children, Scott, Alison, and Erin. Smith was an athletic type and played tennis and squash. He also played football and participated in boxing while at the Naval Academy. Although he loved being in the Navy and served with distinction, he told his wife and friends that moving to NASA would give him more time with his family.

American Space Shuttle Astronauts Before Tragic Flight
The Space Shuttle 51L crew is shown during simulation at the Johnson Space Center before their ill fated flight. (L to R) Mike Smith Ellison S. Onizuka, Judith A. Resnik and commander Francis R. (Dick) Scobee. The other three members of the crew would be seated on a lower deck during takeoff. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Honors and Awards

Michael J. Smith, as with the other Challenger astronauts who perished with him, is recognized at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Center memorial wall. The airport in his hometown is named for him. Smith was awarded the Congressional Space Medal, as well as the Defense Distinguished Service medal (both posthumously). For his service in the Navy, he was given the Navy Distinguished Flying Cross, the Navy Commendation Medal, the Vietnam Cross of Gallantry, plus other medals for his work in the service. Upon his death, he was raised to the rank of Captain.

Memorial plaque
Memorial plaque at the Astrononaut Memorial wall in Florida. This Dignity Memorial bears the names of all who have died in space-related mishaps. Seth Buckley, CC BY-SA 3.0

Smith's widow joined other Challenger families to create the Challenger Centers, educational institutions designed to bring math and science alive for students across the United States and Canada. A total of 25 centers were built on three continents (four countries and 27 U.S. states).


  • “Home.” Challenger Center,
  • Jones, Tamara. “A SPACE IN THE HEART.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 27 Jan. 1996,
  • “Michael J. Smith.” The Astronauts Memorial Foundation,
  • Patterson, Michael Robert. Chin Sun Pak Wells, Specialist, United States Army,
  • “Smith, Michael John.” Weapons in the War of 1812 | NCpedia,
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Petersen, Carolyn Collins. "Biography of Michael J. Smith, Challenger Astronaut." ThoughtCo, Feb. 17, 2021, Petersen, Carolyn Collins. (2021, February 17). Biography of Michael J. Smith, Challenger Astronaut. Retrieved from Petersen, Carolyn Collins. "Biography of Michael J. Smith, Challenger Astronaut." ThoughtCo. (accessed April 1, 2023).