The History of Space Shuttle Challenger

Space Shuttle
Robert Alexander / Getty Images

Each year in January, NASA honors its lost astronauts in ceremonies marking the loss of space shuttles Challenger and Columbia, and the Apollo 1 spacecraft. The space shuttle Challenger, which was first called STA-099, was built to serve as a test vehicle for NASA's shuttle program. It was named after the British Naval research vessel HMS Challenger, which sailed the Atlantic and Pacific oceans during the 1870s. The Apollo 17 lunar module also carried the name of Challenger.

Space Shuttle Challenger Liftoff. This spacecraft was lost on January 28, 1986, when it exploded 73 seconds after takeoff. Seven crew members lost their lives. Public Domain, NASA

In early 1979, NASA awarded space shuttle orbiter manufacturer Rockwell a contract to convert STA-099 to a space-rated orbiter, OV-099. It was completed and delivered in 1982, after construction and a year of intensive vibration and thermal testing, just as all its sister ships were when they were built. It was the second operational orbiter to become operational in the space program and had a promising future as a historic workhorse delivering crews and objects to space. 

Challenger's Flight History

On April 4, 1983, Challenger launched on her maiden voyage for the STS-6 mission. During that time, the first spacewalk of the space shuttle program took place. The Extra-Vehicular Activity (EVA), performed by astronauts Donald Peterson and Story Musgrave, lasted just over four hours. The mission also saw the deployment of the first satellite in the Tracking and Data Relay System constellation (TDRS). These satellites were designed for communications between Earth and space.

The next numerical space shuttle mission for Challenger (though not in chronological order), STS-7, launched the first American woman, Sally Ride, into space. For the STS-8 launch, which actually occurred before STS-7, Challenger was the first orbiter to take off and land at night. Later, it was the first to carry two U.S. female astronauts on mission STS 41-G. It also made the first space shuttle landing at Kennedy Space Center, concluding mission STS 41-B. Spacelabs 2 and 3 flew aboard the ship on missions STS 51-F and STS 51-B, as did the first German-dedicated Spacelab on STS 61-A.

Pictures of Mae Jemison - Spacelab-J Crew Training: Jan Davis and Mae Jemison
Challenger once carried a spacelab to orbit for astronauts to use for scientific missions. NASA Marshall Space Flight Center (NASA-MSFC)

Challenger's Untimely End

After nine successful missions, the Challenger launched on its final mission, STS-51L on January 28, 1986, with seven astronauts aboard. They were: Gregory Jarvis, Christa McAuliffeRonald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Dick Scobee, and Michael J. Smith. McAuliffe was to be the first teacher in space and had been selected from a field of educators from around the United States. She had planned a series of lessons to be conducted from space, broadcast to students throughout the U.S. 

Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster STS-51L Pictures - LOX Tank Rupture
Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster STS-51L Pictures - LOX Tank Rupture. NASA

Seventy-three seconds into the mission, the Challenger exploded, killing the entire crew. It was the first tragedy of the space shuttle program, followed in 2002 by the loss of the shuttle Columbia. After a lengthy investigation, NASA concluded that the shuttle was destroyed when an O-ring on a solid rocket booster failed. The seal design was faulty, and the problem was made worse by unusually cold weather in Florida just prior to launch. Booster rocket flames passed through the failed seal, and burned through the external fuel tank. That detached one of the supports that held the booster to the side of the tank. The booster broke loose and collided with the tank, piercing its side. Liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen fuels from the tank and booster mixed and ignited, tearing Challenger apart. 

Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster STS-51L Pictures - Challenger Wreckage Entombment
A piece of the space shuttle Challenger that was recovered, being placed into its final resting place at Kennedy Space Center. NASA Headquarters - GReatest Images of NASA (NASA-HQ-GRIN)

Pieces of the shuttle fell into the ocean immediately following the breakup, including the crew cabin. It was one of the most graphic and publicly viewed disasters of the space program and was filmed from many different angles by NASA and observers. The space agency began recovery efforts almost immediately, using a fleet of submersibles and Coast Guard cutters. It took months to recover all the orbiter pieces and the remains of the crew. 

In the wake of the disaster, NASA immediately halted all launches. The restrictions on flight lasted for two years, while the so-called "Rogers Commission" investigated all aspects of the disaster. Such intense inquiries are part of an accident involving spacecraft and it was important for the agency to understand exactly what happened and take steps to make sure such an accident didn't occur again. 

Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster STS-51L Pictures - 51-L Challenger Crew in White Room
Space Shuttle Challenger final crew. NASA Headquarters - GReatest Images of NASA (NASA-HQ-GRIN)

NASA's Return to Flight

Once the problems that led to the Challenger's destruction were understood and fixed, NASA resumed shuttle launches on September 29th, 1988. It was the seventh flight of the Discovery orbiter The two-year moratorium on launches put a number of missions back, including the launch and deployment of the Hubble Space Telescope. In addition, a fleet of classified satellites was also delayed. It also forced NASA and its contractors to redesign the solid rocket boosters so that they could be safely launched again. 

The Challenger Legacy

To memorialize the crew of the lost shuttle, the victims' families established a series of science education facilities called the Challenger Centers. These are located around the world and were designed as space education centers, in memory of the crew members, particularly Christa McAuliffe. 

The crew has been remembered in movie dedications, their names have been used for craters on the Moon, mountains on Mars, a mountain range on Pluto, and schools, planetarium facilities and even a stadium in Texas. Musicians, songwriters, and artists have dedicated works in their memories. The legacy of the shuttle and its lost crew will live on in people's memory as a tribute to their sacrifice to advance space exploration.

Fast Facts

  • Space shuttle Challenger was destroyed 73 seconds into launch on January 28, 1986.
  • Seven crew members were killed when the shuttle broke apart in an explosion.
  • After a two-year delay, NASA resumed launches after an investigation found underlying problems for the agency to solve.

Resources

  • NASA, NASA, er.jsc.nasa.gov/seh/explode.html.
  • NASA, NASA, history.nasa.gov/sts51l.html.
  • “The Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster.” Space Safety Magazine, www.spacesafetymagazine.com/space-disasters/challenger-disaster/.