By 1986, NASA had enjoyed a pretty impressive 25-year safety record, considering space flight’s level of risk. Three astronauts from Apollo 1 had died in a 1967 launch test rehearsal. In 1970, Apollo 13 suffered an inflight malfunction, but through the calm courage of the astronauts and the ingenuity of NASA engineers, all three crew members returned safely. For many of my 7th grade students, space travel had become almost as ordinary as catching a bus. Then there was the fateful launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1986.
First Period, January 28, 1986
The day promised to be an eventful one for many Americans, especially my 7th grade social studies students. One of the crew members was Christa McAuliffe, a history and civics teacher and the first civilian astronaut. She was scheduled to conduct experiments and teach two lessons from the Space Shuttle Challenger. My students were eager to see a teacher fly off into space. Something a few had wished for me, but under different circumstances.
The school’s entire inventory of one television set was in my classroom. As students filed in, CNN reporters were biding time before the launch with the news of the day: President Ronald Reagan preparing his State of the Union address; American POWs and MIAs still in Vietnam; and a Middle East peace plan in jeopardy. At about three minutes to launch, CNN cut to the Kennedy Space Center.
Someone listening to the news (probably me) began shushing the students and telling them to sit down. The three news anchors made brief mention of the difficulty in launching the space shuttle in winter weather and the significance of having a teacher on board. As the countdown began, my students grew quieter. The voice of Hugh Harris, at Launch Control, narrated the launch:
T-minus 10, 9, 8 . . .
The three rocket engines on the shuttle roared into action.
We have main engine starts.
. . .4, 3, 2, 1 . . .
And lift off! LIFT OFF of the 25th space shuttle mission and it has cleared the tower.”
My students smiled at each other with a sense of pride and a few even applauded.
The launch assembly (the two solid rocket boosters, the external fuel tank, and the space shuttle orbiter) climbed quickly into the sky fire and smoke spewing out in a long trail behind. It then began the familiar roll to the left, positioning the orbiter to its eventual upside down position.
In his monotone voice, Mission Control spokesperson Steve Nesbitt, in Houston, reported on the shuttle’s progress, "Velocity 2,257 feet per second. Altitude 4.3 nautical miles. Downrange distance 3 nautical miles..."
As the image of the space shuttle grew smaller, a few students sat back in their chairs, stretched, and looked around to see what was next. I was just about to wrap up the event and get students back to class.
The CNN commentator Tom Minter summarized, “So the 25th Space Shuttle mission is now on the way after more delays than NASA cares to count. This morning it looked as though they were not going to be able to get off . . .”
And then his voice abruptly stopped short. On the screen was a large plume of smoke.
One of my students shouts out, “All RIGHT!!!” and another, “Whoa Dude!!! Did you see that!!??”
I am dumbfounded by the absurdity of the image on the screen and the voice of Mission Control spokesperson Nesbitt saying, “One minute 15 seconds. Velocity 2,900 feet per second. Altitude nine nautical miles. Downrange distance seven nautical miles."
Then. CNN’s Tom Minter spoke: “Looks like a couple of the, ah, solid rocket boosters, ah blew away from the…side of the shuttle… in an explosion."
Mission Control spokesperson Nesbit continues with no emotion in his voice: "Flight controllers here are looking very carefully at the situation. Obviously a major malfunction…We have no downlink.”
My students were stunned into a catatonic silence, staring at the image of a giant smoke-filled scorpion filling the television screen, its pincers ever-growing as the two errant solid rocket boosters sped blindly out of control. Images of debris streaked downward in menacing arcs across an otherwise passive blue sky.
Steve Nesbitt came back on with no emotion in his voice: “We have a report from the dynamics officer that the vehicle has exploded. The flight director confirms that. We are a now looking at ah . . .checking with the recovery forces to see ah . . .what can be done at this point.”
Gradually, I could hear sniffling and some sobbing, but no one said a word. I was still frozen at my desk, stunned beyond belief, not sure what to do. Finally, I located the adult in me and discreetly walked over to the television and gently tuned it off. I had 25 pairs of eyes staring, pleading for me to say something that would make it all better. I had nothing for them. Then a voice came out of me softly saying, “I think we’ll return to our classes now.”
The Space Shuttle Challenger disaster was the most devastating event in NASA’s history and shook a nation’s confidence. That evening, President Reagan postponed his State of the Union address and paid tribute to the fallen astronauts from the Oval Office. He finished his speech incorporating verses from the poem “High Flight” by John Gillespie Magee, Jr:
“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.”
The Failed Mission and Recovery
Mission STS 51-L Challenger was launched at Kennedy Space Center, Florida, on January 28, 1986, on an unusually cold morning. The launch had been delayed six days due to weather and technical problems. NASA was under intense pressure to meet its promise of routine, affordable space travel. Eager to prove the program a success, officials went on with the launch despite the concerns of many engineers that the cold temperatures could compromise the space shuttle’s operation.
On board were seven astronauts: Dick Scobee, the mission’s commander, from a small town in Washington state. Gregory Jarvis, payload specialist, worked for the aerospace industry. Ronald McNair, mission specialist and accomplished physicist, was scheduled to record a saxophone solo aboard the Challenger. Christa McAuliffe, payload specialist, was selected from over 11,000 applicants to be the first teacher in space. Ellison Onizuka, mission specialist, was the first Asian-American in space. Michael J. Smith, a Vietnam War vet, piloted the space shuttle, and Judith Resnik, mission specialist, was a biomedical engineer.
Shortly after the Challenger disaster, President Reagan ordered an investigation to determine what when wrong and make recommendations for improvement. The Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident (also known as the Rogers Commission, after its chairperson, William Rogers) was formed to investigate the disaster. Meanwhile, on March 10, 1986, the Challenger’s crushed crew cabin and the astronauts’ remains were recovered 15 miles east of Cape Canaveral at about 1,200 feet below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean. Autopsies could not accurately determine the cause of death, due to the conditions of the bodies.
The Rogers Commission submitted its report on June 9, 1986. After analyzing video, film and telemetry data, and hearing testimony from many officials, the commission determined that the Challenger accident was caused by a failure in the O-rings sealing the lower joint of the right-side solid rocket booster. Video taken of the launch revealed a small, but growing, plume of fire emitting from the booster seconds after the launch and making contact with the main fuel tank. The report also determined that NASA and contractor Morton Thiokol failed to respond to the design flaw of the O-ring. NASA and Thiokol officials testified that the O-rings were made to operate under a wide range of temperatures. However, in a dramatic demonstration, Professor Richard Feynman, a physicist and member of the commission, showed that when an O-ring was twisted in a C-clamp and placed in a cup of ice water for a few minutes it did not return to its original shape for several seconds. This proved that the O-ring seal on the Challenger’s solid rocket booster had become stiff in the cold temperatures, not allowing it to hold a proper seal.
The commission also determined that there was no explosion, but rather, the shuttle assembly broke up due to an imbalance in the aerodynamics as the external fuel tank expended its contents. The shuttle orbiter was not destroyed when the assembly broke up, but was smashed upon impact with the ocean surface at over 200 mph. Further analysis determined that three of the astronauts’ emergency oxygen packs had been activated after the break-up, suggesting they may not have lost consciousness until impact.
NASA suspended all space flights for nearly three years and redesigned a number of the shuttle’s features. Flights began again in September 1988 with the successful launch of the space shuttle Discovery. The space shuttled carried out numerous important missions including the repair and maintenance of the Hubble Space Telescope and construction of the International Space Station as well as launching may communication and surveillance satellites. On February 1, 2003, space shuttle Columbia disintegrated upon reentry, killing all on board. It was later determined that one of the tile shields on the underside of the shuttle had failed causing the space craft to overheat upon reentry. The space shuttle program was retired in 2011.