Day of remembrance: Space Shuttle Challenger disaster

After 24 successful missions, shuttle launches seemed routine. That’s why those watching the launch of the space shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1986, started out excited, but soon were in a state of disbelief. Then NASA confirmed the worst.

Diverse bunch of 7 astronauts in blue flight suits holding space helmets, standing in training area.

A photo of the Challenger crew, taken on January 9, 1986, during training at the Kennedy Space Center. From left to right: Christa McAuliffe (teacher in space) with astronauts Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnik, Dick Scobee (mission commander), Ronald McNair, Mike Smith (pilot), and Ellison Onizuka. Image via NASA.

January 28, 1986. On this date 34 years ago, we lost the seven crew members of the Space Shuttle Challenger (mission STS-51-L) when the shuttle suffered a catastrophic structural failure just 73 seconds after launch. A failed O-ring seal in the right solid rocket booster caused the tragedy. The spacecraft disintegrated over the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of central Florida.

The Challenger crew were:
Gregory B. Jarvis, a payload specialist
Sharon Christa McAuliffe, teacher in space
Ronald E. McNair, mission specialist
Ellison S. Onizuka, mission specialist
Judith A. Resnik, mission specialist
Francis R. (Dick) Scobee, commander
Michael J. Smith, pilot

Later it was learned that the O-ring failure had caused a breach in the solid rocket booster joint it was supposed to seal. The breach allowed pressurized hot gas from within the solid rocket motor to reach the outside. The hot gas impinged upon the adjacent solid rocket booster attachment hardware and external fuel tank. And this impingement, in turn, led to the separation of the right-hand solid rocket booster’s aft attachment and the structural failure of the external tank.

Aerodynamic forces then broke up the orbiter.

Space shuttle Challenger launch on fiery pillar of rocket exhaust surrounded by clouds of steam.

Space shuttle Challenger lifted off from Launch Complex 39B, Kennedy Space Center, at 11:38 EST (16:38 UTC) on January 28, 1986. Image via NASA/ Wikimedia Commons.

Bottom line: The space shuttle Challenger suffered a catastrophic structural failure just 73 seconds into its flight, after an O-ring seal in its right solid rocket booster (SRB) failed at liftoff. R.I.P Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis and Judith Resnik.

Deborah Byrd