CHALLENGER DISASTER. Perhaps no tragedy since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 had so riveted the American public as did the explosion of the space shuttleChallenger on 28 January 1986, which killed its seven-member crew. The horrific moment came seventy-three seconds after liftoff from Cape Canaveral, Florida, and was captured on live television and rebroadcast to a stunned and grieving nation.
Nearly nineteen years to the day after fire killed three Apollo astronauts during a launch rehearsal, the Challenger crew prepared for the nation's twenty-fifth space shuttle mission. Successes of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in shuttle missions had made Americans believe that shuttles were almost immune to the dangers of space flight. If not for the fact that a New Hampshire schoolteacher, Sharon Christa McAuliffe, had been chosen to be the first private citizen to fly in the shuttle, the launch might have received little attention in the nation's media.
The temperature on the morning of the launch was thirty-eight degrees, following an overnight low of twenty-four degrees, the coldest temperature for any shuttle launch. Liftoff occurred only sixteen days after the launch of the space shuttle Columbia, making this the shortest interval ever between shuttle flights. Sixty seconds after the launch, NASA scientists observed an "un-usual plume" from Challenger's right booster engine. A burn-through of the rocket seal caused an external fuel
tank to rupture and led to an unforgettable flash—and then the sickeningly slow fall of flaming debris into the Atlantic Ocean. In addition to McAuliffe, the dead included Challenger pilot Michael J. Smith, a decorated Vietnam War veteran; flight commander Francis R. Scobee; laser physicist Ronald E. McNair, the second African American in space; aerospace engineer Ellison S. Onizuka, the first Japanese American in space; payload specialist Gregory B. Jarvis; and electrical engineer Judith A. Resnick, the second American woman in space. The diversity of the crew, reflecting that of the American people, made the tragedy an occasion for national mourning.
A commission led by former secretary of state William P. Rogers and astronaut Neil Armstrong concluded that NASA, its Marshall Space Flight Center, and the contractor Morton Thiokol, the booster's manufacturer, were guilty of faulty management and poor engineering. NASA's ambitious launch schedule, it was found, had outstripped its resources and overridden warnings from safety engineers. The successful launch of the space shuttle Discovery on 29 September 1988, more than two and a half years after the Challenger disaster, marked the nation's return to human space flight. The Challenger explosion had sobered the space agency, prompting hundreds of design and procedural changes costing $2.4 billion. The agency devoted the shuttle almost exclusively to delivering defense and scientific payloads. The space program, long a symbol of U.S. exceptionalism, continued to receive substantial, if less enthusiastic, support from the public.
Hamilton, Sue L. Space Shuttle: Challenger, January 28, 1986. Edited by John C. Hamilton. Bloomington, Minn.: Abdo and Daughters, 1988.
Neal, Arthur G. National Trauma and Collective Memory: Major Events in the American Century. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1998.
Vaughn, Diane. The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture, and Deviance at NASA. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.
Bruce J.Evensen/c. w.
See alsoMoon Landing .
"Challenger Disaster." Dictionary of American History. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 24, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/challenger-disaster
"Challenger Disaster." Dictionary of American History. . Retrieved February 24, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/challenger-disaster
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"Challenger Disaster." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 24, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/challenger-disaster
"Challenger Disaster." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. . Retrieved February 24, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/challenger-disaster