Skip to main content
Select Source:

Challenger Disaster

CHALLENGER DISASTER

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.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

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 .

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Challenger Disaster." Dictionary of American History. . Encyclopedia.com. 25 Sep. 2018 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Challenger Disaster." Dictionary of American History. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 25, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/challenger-disaster

"Challenger Disaster." Dictionary of American History. . Retrieved September 25, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/challenger-disaster

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.

Challenger Disaster

Challenger Disaster the accident in which the US space shuttle Challenger was destroyed on takeoff in January 1986, exploding in mid-air and killing all seven astronauts on board (the crew members included a science teacher who had won a national competition to participate, and who had been going to give a lesson from space to her class). Shuttle missions were subsequently suspended until September 1988, while more rigorous safety systems were instituted.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Challenger Disaster." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. . Encyclopedia.com. 25 Sep. 2018 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Challenger Disaster." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 25, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/challenger-disaster

"Challenger Disaster." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. . Retrieved September 25, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/challenger-disaster

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.

Challenger Disaster

Challenger Disaster

The explosion of NASA space shuttle Challenger shortly after liftoff on January 28, 1986, shocked the nation. The twenty-fifth shuttle flight had been dubbed the "Teacher in Space" mission; the plan was to excite children about the possiblity of space travel by having a teacher deliver televised lectures from the orbiting shuttle. Christa McAuliffe, a high-school social studies teacher, was chosen for the expedition after a highly publicized nationwide search. Other crew members included Michael Smith (pilot), Dick Scobee (commander), Judith Resnik (mission specialist), Ronald McNair (mission specialist), Ellison Onizuka (mission specialist), and Gregory Jarvis (payload specialist). None survived the disaster. The cause of the explosion was eventually traced to faulty gaskets known as O-rings. Coming at a time when the United States space program had seemingly regained its footing after two decades of decline, it forced many to grapple with the risks associated with pioneering technologies. Nowhere was the need for explanation more pressing than in the nation's classrooms, where children had gathered to witness the wonders of space travel.

—Daniel Bernardi

Further Reading:

Coote, Rodgers. Air Disasters. New York, Thomson Learning, 1993.

Penley, Constance. NASA/Trek: Popular Science and Sex in America. New York, Verso, 1997.

"51-L (25)." http://www.ksc.nasa.gov/shuttle/missions/51-l/mission-51-l.html. January 1999.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Challenger Disaster." St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture. . Encyclopedia.com. 25 Sep. 2018 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Challenger Disaster." St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 25, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/media/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/challenger-disaster

"Challenger Disaster." St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture. . Retrieved September 25, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/media/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/challenger-disaster

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.