The History of Space Shuttle Challenger

Space Shuttle
Robert Alexander / Getty Images

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.

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 an historic craft. 

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).

The next numerical space shuttle mission (though not in chronological order), STS-7, also flown by the Challenger, launched the first American woman, Sally Ride, into space.

ON STS-8, which actually occurred before STS-7, Challenger was the first orbiter to launch and land at night. Later, it was the first to carry two U.S. female astronauts on mission STS 41-G and 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.

Challenger's Untimely End

After nine successful missions, the Challenger launched on 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. 

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, sending flames out toward the shuttles LOX (liquid oxygen) tank. The seal design was faulty, and it had gotten unusually cold during unseasonably chilly temperatures in Florida just prior to launnch day. 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.

 

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. NASA 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. 

NASA immediately halted all launches for more than two years, and assembled the so-called "Rogers Commission" to investigate all aspects of the disaster. Such intense inquiries are part of any accident involving spacecraft. 

NASA's Return to Flight

The next shuttle launch was the seventh flight of the Discovery orbiter, which returned to flight on September 29th, 1988. Among other things, the flight delays caused by the Challenger disaster included a delay in the deployment of the Hubble Space Telescope, in addition to a fleet of classified satellites.

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.

Edited by Carolyn Collins Petersen.