The Shocking Loss of the Space Shuttle 'Challenger'
When the space shuttle Challenger charged beyond Earth’s atmosphere on April 4, 1983, its successful maiden voyage marked a new chapter in America’s space endeavors. Columbia, Challenger’s predecessor, had already accomplished much in the way of space exploration. The shuttle program was a source of pride and wonder for the nation. As the fleet’s second orbiter, Challenger gained fame for a number of firsts—many distinguished, one deadly.
Article continues after this newspaper image from the Jan. 30, 1986, issue of the St. Albans Messenger (Vermont)
Challenger had several technical improvements that distinguished it from Columbia. As a result, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) used Challenger for 85 percent of its missions in 1983 and 1984. When space shuttles Discovery and Atlantis were added to the fleet, Challenger continued its aggressive mission schedule. As NASA’s workhorse, Challenger carried the first American woman, African American, and Canadian into space. It was also the first shuttle to launch at night. In 1985, NASA held a contest to make Challenger the shuttle for another first: the first teacher in space.
Christa McAuliffe, a teacher from Concord, New Hampshire, was selected from more than 11,000 prospective educators to train with other astronauts and ride aboard Challenger. Due to the inclusion of a teacher on the craft, schools around the nation tuned in to watch the launch live in their classrooms. Originally scheduled to launch on Jan. 22, 1986, multiple mishaps, from technical to meteorological, caused NASA to “scrub” the launch several times. By the time the shuttle was finally cleared for launch on January 28, the astronauts and the nation were relieved the delays were done and eager for the great event to take place.
Jan. 28, 1986, was an unusually cold day at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The Space Center’s ice team had to work through the night to keep ice from building up on Challenger. Many NASA officials and even outside contractors expressed concerns about the conditions. However, the decision was made to go ahead with the launch. The astronauts strode assuredly, smilingly to the flight deck. Their positions in the orbiter secured, the countdown ticked along smoothly and the launch followed. For 73 seconds, Challenger climbed toward space with the eyes of the nation upon it. But in the blink of an eye, great plumes of smoke and shattered pieces of the shuttle were all that remained. Challenger had claimed its final first: the first space shuttle destroyed during a mission.
Americans mourned. The astronauts were memorialized. Schoolchildren who had watched intently as the shuttle climbed and fell were consoled. The government, through the Rogers Commission, investigated. Fingers were pointed, leads were followed, “O-rings” became a buzzword, and conclusions were ultimately reached. The United States’ space program would undergo slow and painful reform to ensure that such a disaster would never happen again; an assurance that held secure for almost two decades.
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