Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster

The Space Shuttle Challenger lifting off at the Kennedy Space Center.

Kennedy Space Center Photo Archive / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

At 11:38 a.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 28, 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger launched from the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida. As the world watched on TV, the Challenger soared into the sky and then, shockingly, exploded just 73 seconds after take-off.

All seven members of the crew, including social studies teacher Sharon "Christa" McAuliffe, died in the disaster. An investigation of the accident discovered that the O-rings of the right solid rocket booster had malfunctioned.

Crew of the Challenger

  • Christa McAuliffe (Teacher)
  • Dick Scobee (Commander)
  • Mike Smith (Pilot)
  • Ron McNair (Mission Specialist)
  • Judy Resnik (Mission Specialist)
  • Ellison Onizuka (Mission Specialist)
  • Gregory Jarvis (Payload Specialist)

Should the Challenger Have Launched?

Around 8:30 a.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 28, 1986, in Florida, the seven crew members of the Space Shuttle Challenger were already strapped into their seats. Though they were ready to go, NASA officials were busy deciding whether it was safe enough to launch that day.

It had been extremely cold the night before, causing icicles to form under the launch pad. By morning, temperatures were still only 32 degrees F. If the shuttle launched that day, it would be the coldest day of any shuttle launch.

Safety was a huge concern but NASA officials were under pressure to get the shuttle into orbit quickly. Weather and malfunctions had already caused many postponements from the original launch date, which was January 22.

If the shuttle didn't launch by February 1, some of the science experiments and business arrangements regarding the satellite would be jeopardized. Plus, millions of people, especially students across the U.S., were waiting and watching for this particular mission to launch.

A Teacher on Board

Among the crew onboard the Challenger that morning was Sharon "Christa" McAuliffe. She was a social studies teacher at Concord High School in New Hampshire who had been chosen from 11,000 applicants to participate in the Teacher in Space Project.

President Ronald Reagan created this project in August 1984 in an effort to increase public interest in the U.S. space program. The teacher chosen would become the first private citizen in space.

A teacher, a wife, and a mother of two, McAuliffe represented the average, good-natured citizen. She became the face of NASA for nearly a year before the launch. The public adored her.

The Launch

A little after 11:00 a.m. on that cold morning, NASA told the crew that the launch was a go.

At 11:38 a.m., the Space Shuttle Challenger launched from Pad 39-B at the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida.

At first, everything seemed to go well. However, 73 seconds after lift-off, Mission Control heard Pilot Mike Smith say, "Uh oh!" Then, the people at Mission Control, observers on the ground, and millions of children and adults across the nation watched as the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded.

The nation was shocked. To this day, many remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard that the Challenger had exploded. It remains a defining moment in the 20th century.

Search and Recovery

An hour after the explosion, search and recovery planes and ships searched for survivors and wreckage. Though some pieces of the shuttle floated on the surface of the Atlantic Ocean, much of it had sunk to the bottom.

No survivors were found. On January 31, 1986, three days after the disaster, a memorial service was held for the fallen heroes.

What Went Wrong?

Everyone wanted to know what had gone wrong. On February 3, 1986, President Reagan established the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident. Former Secretary of State William Rogers chaired the commission, whose members included Sally Ride, Neil Armstrong, and Chuck Yeager.

The "Rogers Commission" carefully studied pictures, videos, and debris from the accident. The Commission determined that the accident was caused by a failure in the O-rings of the right solid rocket booster.

O-rings sealed the pieces of the rocket booster together. From multiple uses and especially because of the extreme cold on that day, an O-ring on the right rocket booster had become brittle.

Once launched, the weak O-ring allowed fire to escape from the rocket booster. The fire melted a support beam that held the booster in place. The booster, then mobile, hit the fuel tank and caused the explosion.

Upon further research, it was determined that there had been multiple, unheeded warnings about the potential problems with the O-rings.

The Crew Cabin

On March 8, 1986, just over five weeks after the explosion, a search team found the crew cabin. It had not been destroyed in the explosion. The bodies of all seven crew members were found still strapped into their seats.

Autopsies were done but the exact cause of death was inconclusive. It is believed that at least some of the crew survived the explosion since three of four emergency air packs found had been deployed.

After the explosion, the crew cabin fell over 50,000 feet and hit the water at approximately 200 miles per hour. No one could have survived the impact.

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Rosenberg, Jennifer. "Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Rosenberg, Jennifer. (2021, February 16). Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster. Retrieved from Rosenberg, Jennifer. "Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster." ThoughtCo. (accessed April 1, 2023).