Date of mission January 28, 1986
On January 28, 1986, seven astronauts died in the midair explosion of the U.S. space shuttle Challenger. (A space shuttle is a craft that transports people and cargo between Earth and space.) Other American astronauts have lost their lives—in 1967 the three crewmembers of Apollo 1 (see entry) were killed in an accident on the ground, and in 2003 the shuttle Columbia broke apart over the western United States, killing the entire crew (see box on page 44). The Challenger mission, however, was the first to come to a fatal end while a vehicle was in space. Mourned by the nation, the loss of the crew and the shuttle resulted in an official investigation that called for far-ranging reforms in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
"We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for the journey and waved goodbye."
President Ronald Reagan
The Challenger crew
The seven-person Challenger crew was commanded by Francis Scobee (1939–1986), and the pilot was Michael Smith (1945–1986). Mission specialists were Ellison Onizuka (1946–1986), Ronald McNair (1950–1986), and Judith Resnick (1949–1986), who were responsible for deploying satellites (objects
that orbit in space) and conducting experiments. Payload specialist Gregory Jarvis (1944–1986) was in charge of a Tracking and Data-Relay Satellite (TDRS), and schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe (1948–1986) was to be the first civilian in space.
Francis R. Scobee
Commanding officer Francis R. Scobee was born in 1939 in Elum, Washington. The son of a railroad engineer, he grew up south of Seattle. At age eighteen, after graduating from Auburn High School, he enrolled in the U.S. Air Force. While working as an air force mechanic, he was able to attend night school and earn a bachelor's degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Arizona. He later became an air force pilot, flying thousands of hours in many different types of aircraft. He also flew missions in the Vietnam War. Scobee was selected as an astronaut in 1978. He had piloted the Challenger into space once before, in 1984, to retrieve and repair a damaged satellite.
The Columbia Accident
On February 1, 2003, the space shuttle Columbia broke apart over the western United States while returning to Earth from a sixteen-day mission. All seven crew members were killed, as pieces of the descending craft fell from the sky. The day after the accident NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe (1956–) organized the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB). On August 26 the CAIB issued a final report.
The most immediate cause of the crash was a piece of insulating foam that had separated from the shuttle's left wing during takeoff. This piece left a hole near a reinforced carbon panel. When the Columbia started on its descent to Earth, superheated air penetrated the hole and began melting the wing. Soon the spacecraft was becoming increasingly disabled, and as it entered the atmosphere over Dallas–Fort Worth, Texas, the damaged wing caused it to spin completely out of control.
Among the other CAIB findings was that the Columbia was not properly equipped for its final mission, a trip to the International Space Station (ISS; see entry). Built earlier than other existing shuttles—the Columbia was the first shuttle to leave Earth orbit—the vehicle had been used primarily for scientific
missions and for servicing the Hubble Space Telescope (see entry). On the flight to the ISS it was required to carry larger cargo, which the crew had difficulty handling because the Columbia did not have a space station docking system. The CAIB report concluded that the Columbia accident was caused in large part by deficiencies within NASA and by a lack of government oversight.
Michael J. Smith
The Challenger pilot, Michael J. Smith, was born in 1945 in Beaufort, North Carolina, and grew up on a fourteen-acre farm in that state. He attended Beaufort High School, where he was a quarterback on the football team and an honors student. He began piloting an airplane while still a teenager. Smith attended the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, and became a pilot. During the Vietnam War, he flew 225 combat missions. He was selected by NASA to become an astronaut in 1980, but he had never flown in space.
Ellison S. Onizuka
Mission specialist Ellison S. Onizuka was born in 1946 in Kealakekua, Hawaii, and grew up on the Kona Coast of Hawaii. The grandson of Japanese immigrants, he was the first Hawaiian and first person of Japanese descent to fly in space. He was an honors student in high school and an Eagle Scout. He later attended the University of Colorado and received undergraduate and graduate degrees in aerospace engineering. After completing his education he spent eight years in the air force as a test pilot. He was selected to become an astronaut in 1978. In 1985 he rode aboard the space shuttle Discovery, performing various tasks such as the filming of Halley's comet.
Mission specialist Ronald McNair was born in 1950 in Lake City, South Carolina. He attended North Carolina A & T University in Greensboro and went on to earn a Ph.D. in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After receiving his doctorate, he worked at Hughes Research Laboratories in California. In the late 1970s, NASA began looking for a new breed of astronaut, a "scientist-astronaut" whose background was in science training rather than test piloting. In 1977 McNair applied for admission to the space program as a scientist-astronaut and was accepted to the program in 1978. In 1984 McNair became the second African American man in space (the first was Guy Bluford [1942–]; see entry). On that mission he flew aboard Challenger and helped to launch a communications satellite.
Judith A. Resnik
Judith A. Resnik, the third mission specialist, was born in 1949 in Akron, Ohio. She attended Firestone High School in Akron, and excelled in mathematics and at playing the piano. She later attended Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, and received a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the University of Maryland. After earning her doctorate, Resnik went to work for Xerox Corporation. In 1978 she was selected from thousands of applicants as one of the first six female astronauts. (Also in that group was Sally Ride [1951–], the first American woman in space; see entry.) Resnik became the second American woman in space in 1984, when she rode aboard the shuttle Discovery. Her duties aboard that flight included operating the Discovery's remote-control arm.
Payload specialist Gregory Jarvis was born in 1944 in Detroit, Michigan, and grew up in Mohawk, New York. After graduating from Mohawk High School, he attended the State University of New York at Buffalo and received a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering. He then earned a master's degree in engineering from Northeastern University. Joining the U.S. Air Force in 1969, he became a specialist in tactical communications satellites. In 1973 he went to work for the Hughes Aircraft Corporation and continued to work on satellite design. The Columbia mission was Jarvis's first trip in space.
Christa McAuliffe was born on September 2, 1948, in Framingham, Massachusetts, the daughter of an accountant. She attended high school in Framingham and later graduated from Framingham State College in 1970. In the early 1970s McAuliffe and her husband moved to Washington, D.C., where she earned a master's degree in education from Bowie State College while her husband earned a law degree. They later moved to Concord, New Hampshire, where she became a high-school social studies teacher. McAuliffe was selected from among eleven thousand applicants to be the first "Teacher in Space." She was an instant media celebrity and promoted as a role model for American women.
Setbacks plague mission
The Challenger crew was embarking on a routine mission when they entered the spacecraft at Cape Canaveral. By that time there had already been a series of setbacks. NASA had scrambled to meet an ambitious schedule for 1986: In January the space agency announced that it would launch fifteen missions, using all four of its shuttles—Columbia, Challenger,Atlantis, and Discovery—during the next twelve months. The year did not get off to a good start. During the month of January, NASA had to postpone at least seven missions of various shuttles and to abort yet another.
In the days that followed, everyone worked feverishly to prepare the Challenger for a January mission. Challenger had completed its ninth flight in November 1985, slightly more than two months earlier. NASA was under pressure because this mission would involve the much-publicized "Teacher in Space" program. McAuliffe would be broadcasting live satellite reports about space travel to students throughout the world. NASA was also launching the TDRS and the high-priority Spartan-Halley comet research observatory into space. The flight was scheduled to last six days, during which time the Spartan observatory would be recovered from orbit. Because of tight schedule requirements, the Spartan could be orbited no later than January 31.
The Challenger launch was set for January 22, but it was delayed. Additional postponements followed on January 24 and January 25. Then a forecast of bad weather on the 26th held up the flight until Monday the 27th. On this date a further delay was caused by a problem with a hatch bolt. During the night of January 27, the temperature at Cape Canaveral dropped as low as 19°F (-7.2°C). This prompted a late-night meeting of NASA managers and engineers with managers from Morton Thiokol, the government contractor that manufactured the O-rings on the booster rockets. (A booster rocket is fired to propel the spacecraft into space. The booster rocket is built in sections and then strapped onto the shuttle. The rubber O-rings are required to seal the sections together.) The Thiokol engineers were concerned that the O-rings would stiffen in the cold, causing the seal to fail. Since the O-rings had never been tested at low temperatures, the Thiokol managers overruled the engineers. They signed a statement claiming that the boosters were safe for launch at a temperature lower than 53°F (11.6°C).
Commission investigates disaster
Other problems arose on the morning of January 28 because a thin layer of ice had formed on the shuttle and the launch pad. Liftoff was delayed twice because officials at the
site were concerned about icicles potentially breaking off during launch and damaging insulation tiles that protected the shuttle from intense heat as it reentered Earth's atmosphere. Inspection teams examined the Challenger and reported no abnormalities. Countdown proceeded, and at 11:38 a.m. the Challenger lifted off into the blue sky. After two explosions—the first at fifty-four seconds into launch and the second at seventy-three seconds—the shuttle disintegrated, vanishing in a trail of smoke as a crowd on the ground and millions of television viewers throughout the world watched in disbelief. Among the spectators on the ground were McAuliffe's husband and two children and a group of her students.
A few days after the disaster, President Ronald Reagan (1911–2004; served 1981–89) praised the Challenger crew during a televised memorial ceremony at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. On February 3, 1986, he established a presidential commission to investigate the accident, appointing former secretary of state William B. Rogers (1913–2001) as head. Six weeks after the crash the shuttle's crew module was recovered from the floor of the Atlantic Ocean. The crew members were subsequently buried with full honors. There was considerable speculation about whether they had survived the initial explosion. Evidence gathered later by NASA indicated that they had survived the breakup and separation of the boosters from the shuttle. They had also begun to take emergency action inside the crew cabin. Whether all seven astronauts remained conscious throughout the two-minute, forty-five-second fall into the ocean remains unknown. NASA investigators determined that at least two were breathing from emergency air packs they had activated.
On June 6, 1986, the Rogers Commission released a 256-page report stating that the explosion was caused by destruction of the O-rings. After checking into the history and performance of the sealing system, the commission discovered that the O-rings had failed regularly, though only partially, on previous shuttle flights. Both NASA and Thiokol were concerned about weaknesses in the seals, but they had chosen not to undertake a time-consuming redesign of the system. They regarded O-ring erosion as an "acceptable risk" because the seal had never failed completely. But when the Challenger flew in the dead of winter, frigid temperatures made the O-rings so brittle that they never sealed the joint. Even before the shuttle had cleared the launch tower, hot gas was already seeping through the rings. Investigators blamed NASA and Thiokol management procedures for not allowing critical information to reach the right people. The U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science and Technology then conducted hearings on the matter. The committee determined that NASA and Thiokol had sufficient time to correct the O-ring problem, but the space agency and the manufacturer had sacrificed safety to meet flight schedules and cut costs.
NASA suffers setbacks
The charges had a grave impact on NASA. Public confidence was shaken, and the astronaut corps was highly concerned. Astronauts had never been consulted or informed about the dangers posed by the O-ring sealing system. The Rogers Commission made nine recommendations to NASA, among them allowing astronauts and engineers a greater role in approving launches. The other recommendations included a complete redesign of the rocket booster joints, a review of astronaut escape systems, regulation of scheduling of shuttle flights to assure safety, and sweeping reform of the shuttle program management structure.
Following these decisions, several top officials left NASA. A number of experienced astronauts also resigned as a result of disillusionment with NASA and frustration over the long redesign process that delayed their chances to fly in space. An American shuttle was not launched again until September 29, 1988. NASA eventually built the Endeavour to replace the Challenger, and it flew for the first time in 1992.
For More Information
Lewis, Richard S. Challenger: The Final Voyage. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988.
McConnell, Malcolm. Challenger: A Major Malfunction. New York: Doubleday, 1987.
"Looking for What Went Wrong." Time (February 10, 1986): pp. 36–38.
"NASA Faces Wide Probe." U.S. News and World Report (February 17, 1986): pp. 18–19.
"Out of Challenger's Ashes—Full Speed Ahead." U.S. News and World Report (February 10, 1986): pp. 16–19.
"Seven Who Flew for All of Us." Time (February 10, 1986): pp. 32–35.
"What Happened?" Newsweek (February 17, 1986): pp. 32–33.
"Information on the STS–51L/Challenger Accident." NASA.http://www.hq.nasa.gov/office/pao/History/sts51l.html (accessed on June 29, 2004).
"Jan. 28, 1986: The Challenger Disaster." http://www.chron.com/content/interactive/special/challenger (accessed on June 29, 2004).
"Space Shuttle Columbia and Her Crew." NASA.http://www.nasa.gov/columbia (accessed on June 29, 2004).