Thirty years ago on January 28, 1986, the U.S. Space Shuttle Challenger met a disastrous end 73 seconds after lift-off from Cape Canaveral, Florida. I recall clearly what I was doing when I heard the terrible news – I was at home with my youngest child when I received a telephone call from my husband telling me what happened. In those days, I usually did not have the television on so I had no idea that such a horrible thing had happened. However, I turned on the TV to see for myself and confirm the shock and sadness I was feeling. I’ve always been a ‘space fan’ from the very beginning, following the race to space in the early 1960s, the first landing on the moon (I wrote about it here) in 1969, and other events that followed as I was busy becoming an adult and mother.
I remember some debate about this particular space shuttle launch. The Challenger’s 10th mission had been delayed for weeks and on the night before the scheduled launch, temperatures in central Florida dropped to record lows in the mid-20s Fahrenheit (-4 C). They were chopping ice off the launch pad that morning!
When they first started going into space, all the space shuttle launches and landings where televised live and interested people like me could keep informed and watch them. But after a few years, public interest waned, I guess, or it simply became ‘normal’ and the TV networks stopped televising the space ship launches. Most TV stations were not covering this particular Challenger launch live on that tragic day. But THIS space shuttle was carrying the first civilian passenger, high school teacher Christa McAuliffe, who was chosen from over 40,000 applications by NASA to be the first ‘Teacher in Space’. Thousands of impressionable school children were watching the live broadcast that day, in schools across North America. Most other people were in school or at work on that Tuesday morning and cable news networks or satellite dishes were relatively new at that time.
Challenger Crew. Back row, L-R Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnick. Front row L-R Michael J. Smith, Francis “Dick” Scobee, Ronald McNair.
Shockingly, 73 seconds after lift-off at an altitude of around 50,000 feet, an explosion in the shuttle’s fuel tank and rocket booster devastated Challenger and tore it apart, claiming the lives of all seven astronauts. This was clearly witness by family and spectators on the ground and on TV sets in schools. Investigations afterwards concluded that the shuttle’s crew cabin remained intact until it crashed into the Atlantic Ocean 2 minutes and 45 seconds later and it’s speculated, sadly, that some of the crew may have been still alive, although unconscious. After 30 years, I was shocked to discover something new during my research for this post that I wasn’t aware of before: those poor 7 souls did not die instantly when the booster rocket exploded …..
In March 1986, the remains of the astronauts were found in the debris of the crew cabin at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. The major parts of the shuttle were recovered, but most of it remains on the ocean floor. Ten years after the disaster, two large pieces from the shuttle’s left wing flap washed ashore. The Shuttle debris, around 5,000 pieces, were placed in two abandoned missile silos.
I can’t conclude this post without recognizing the other Space Shuttle Columbia disaster which occurred on February 1, 2003, when Columbia disintegrated over Texas and Louisiana as it re-entered Earth’s atmosphere, killing all seven crew members. During launch, a suitcase-size piece of foam insulation broke off from the Space Shuttle’s external tank and struck the left wing of the shuttle, creating a 6-to-10-inch (15 to 25 cm) diameter hole. Hot gases generated during re-entry entered the wing and cause structural collapse. After the disaster, Space Shuttle flight operations were suspended for more than two years, similar to the aftermath of the Challenger disaster.
I know this has been a pretty negative and sad post but I really wanted to pay tribute to the memory of those 4 women and 10 men who didn’t make it home: Challenger – Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnick, Michael J. Smith, Francis “Dick” Scobee, Ronald McNair. Columbia – Rick Husband, David Brown, Laurel Clark, Kalpana Chawla, Michael Anderson, William McCool, Ilan Ramon.
L-R Columbia Commander Rick Husband, David Brown, Laurel Clark, Kalpana Chawla, Michael Anderson, William McCool, Ilan Ramon