Challenger disaster crew

35 Years Ago on This Day, Mankind Witnessed One of the Deadliest Space Disasters.

“We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of Earth’ to ‘touch the face of God”

…This is what President Ronald Reagan said while addressing one of the most unfortunate incidents in the history of space missions: The Challenger Disaster. Today marks the 35th anniversary of the fatal Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster that occurred on the hapless day of January 28, 1986, and took away the lives of all of its seven crew members, including five astronauts and two payload specialists. Let’s look at some of the facts regarding the mission and how the events unfolded, leading to the Challenger disaster on a tragic day!

Space Shuttle Challenger

Built by Rockwell International’s Space Transportation Systems Division in Downey, California, Space Shuttle Challenger was the second orbiter of NASA’s Space Shuttle program put into service after Columbia. Challenger began its maiden flight on April 4, 1983. It was responsible for taking the first American woman, African-American Dutchman, and Canadian into space. It also carried three Spacelab missions, enabled the first astronaut-run satellite repair, and performed the first night launch and night landing of a Space Shuttle.

Over a period of 3 years, the orbiter successfully launched and landed nine times before becoming the victim of a disaster, where it disintegrated after being 73 seconds into its tenth mission. During its tenth mission, the shuttle carrying seven crew members and the Spartan Halley spacecraft aiming to observe Halley’s Comet during its closest approach to the Sun engulfed into layers of fumes, thereby causing a nerve wrenching accident in 1986.

The Crew Onboard

The Challenger mission was one of the most anticipated missions, especially due to the crew’s unique nature that was going to make a historic journey via it. The most celebrated passenger of the mission was Christa McAullife, a teacher from New Hampshire who was going to become the first civilian ever to fly in space. Christa earned her spot on the shuttle by winning the Teacher in Space Project, a contest launched by President Ronald Reagan and NASA.

The second crew member was Ellison Onizuka, who had earlier offered his services to the military and then became the first-ever Asian American person of Japanese descent to travel into space. The third on the list was Ronald McNair, whose determination helped him become the second African American to dive into space. His first flight was aboard the Challenger in 1984, and on that journey, he became the first person to play music in space. Well, he had also planned to become the first person to play a concert via live feed during the Challenger mission of 1986, which sadly never made it past the Earth’s atmosphere!

The crew that became a victim of the Challenger disaster 
(front row) Smith, Scobee, McNair; (back row) Onizuka, McAuliffe, Jarvis, Resnik
The crew that became a victim of the Challenger disaster
(front row) Smith, Scobee, McNair; (back row) Onizuka, McAuliffe, Jarvis, Resnik

The fourth crew member was Judith Resnik, who had joined NASA just a year after receiving her doctorate and trained for five years to be an astronaut. She was also the first Jewish woman and first American Jew to make it to space in 1984. The list was followed by Dick Scobee, who was the commander of the Challenger on that fateful morning, and Gregory Jarvis, who was an engineer and the only crew member not to have undergone traditional astronaut training.

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The last one on the list was Michael J Smith, who piloted the fifth Challenger mission. It is said that Smith seemed to have realized instantly upon Challenger’s liftoff that they were in trouble, because his voice was the last one captured on the flight deck recorder, and he was heard uttering an “Uh oh.” 

What Happened on the Fateful Day of January 28, 1986?

The launch of Challenger had already been postponed several times. However, when the final launch approached, central Florida got swept by a severe cold wave the night before. The cold wave deposited thick ice on the launch pad. On the launch day, Challenger’s liftoff was delayed until 11:38 AM. However, everything appeared to be normal until after the shuttle emerged from the period of greatest aerodynamic pressure. The Mission Control told Scobee, “Challenger, go with throttle up,” and just 73 seconds after the liftoff,  the vehicle disappeared in an explosion covered with dense fumes at an altitude of 14,000 meters (46,000 feet).

The tragic event was nothing less of a nightmare for those who observed it live and even for those watching the telecast on television. Since a teacher was going to space for the first time as part of the mission, some schools had also planned to show the telecast to the students, so one can imagine the panic that those little ones watching the liftoff went through!

Did Challenger Actually explode?

The Challenger Explosion (Image: NASA)
The Challenger Explosion (Image: NASA)

Although the space shuttle was engulfed in a cloud of fire just 73 seconds after liftoff and apparently looked like an explosion, a later investigation showed no actual explosion contrary to what it appeared to be. Rather, a seal in the shuttle’s right solid-fuel rocket booster designed to prevent leaks from the fuel tank during liftoff had weakened, thanks to the frigid temperatures during the time of liftoff. It led to the seal’s failure, and eventually, hot gas began pouring through the leak. Following this, the fuel tank itself collapsed and tore apart, and the resulting flood of liquid oxygen and hydrogen created the huge fireball that created the visuals of an explosion.

Did The Crew Members Die Instantly?

Even after the shuttle’s fuel tank collapsed, it continued moving upwards. However, without its fuel tank and boosters beneath it, the powerful aerodynamic forces soon pulled the orbiter apart. The shuttle trails, including the crew cabin, reached an altitude of some 65,000 feet before falling out of the sky into the Atlantic Ocean below. It is believed that the Challenger’s crew had likely survived the initial breakup of the shuttle but lost their consciousness due to loss of cabin pressure and probably died due to oxygen deficiency pretty quickly.

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Moreover, when the cabin hit the water’s surface at more than 200 mph, it is unknown whether any of the Challenger disaster victims had regained consciousness in the final few seconds of the fall or not. In March 1986, the remains of the astronauts and the payload specialists were found in the crew cabin’s debris. The remains that could be identified were turned over to the families, while the rest were buried in a monument to the Challenger crew at Arlington National Cemetery on May 20, 1986.

The White House Controversy Regarding the Challenger Disaster

After the unfortunate Challenger disaster, some stated that NASA officials were apparently pressurized to launch the shuttle despite the terrible weather conditions,  specifically by the Reagan White House to connect the shuttle or its astronauts directly in some way with the State of the Union in the speech that he was going to give on January 28, 1986 evening. However, there was no direct evidence supporting this claim. However, in the aftermath of the tragedy, President Reagan addressed the nation regarding the sorrowful event with a 650-word speech that was regarded as his presidency’s best speech.

The Challenger disaster made NASA realize the loopholes present in the engineering and execution of the mission. Following this, NASA made major technical changes to the shuttle and worked to change its workforce’s safety and accountability culture. Although the disaster played a major role in upgrading safety standards at NASA, even after 35 years, when one recalls the Challenger Disaster, it doesn’t fail to send chills down the spine. 

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