January 28, 1986, at 11:30 AM Eastern Standard Time. Millions of Americans are glued to their television screen, watching the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger.
Many of them are children. Onboard the shuttle is Christa McAuliffe, a high school teacher chosen to become the first teacher in space. Across America, teachers have rolled televisions into their classrooms so they can watch this historic moment unfold live.
An estimated 17 percent of Americans, or more than 40 million people, are watching and waiting – every one of them unaware that they are about to witness one of the greatest disasters in space history.
The shuttle blasts off. Over CNN’s broadcast, the anchor gleefully announces: “The 25th space shuttle mission is now on the way after more delays that NASA cares to count. This morning, it looked as though they were not going to be able to get off—”
But then he stops. The shuttle erupts in a ball of flame and smoke.
As millions watch, the few pieces left of the shuttle that was supposed to carry the first teacher and her six crewmates into space tumble toward the Atlantic Ocean, leaving nothing but streaks of white smoke in their wake.
Something has gone terribly wrong. And the only hint of what it might be comes from the baffled, shaky voice of ground control slipping into the broadcast:
“Obviously,” a man says, “a major malfunction.”
The Challenger Crew Assembles
Christa McAuliffe, a 37-year-old social studies teacher from New Hampshire, beat out 11,400 other applicants to win her spot on the Challenger. She was the lucky winner of Ronald Regan”s “Teacher in Space Project,” a campaign to bring more attention to the space program.
In that sense, at least, the Challenger was a complete success. McAuliffe’s announcement brought more people to their television screen than NASA had enjoyed in years.
Still, she was their Plan B, in a sense. Originally, NASA had wanted to send Caroll Spinney, the actor who played Big Bird, complete in his Big Bird costume, out into space on the Space Shuttle Challenger. The Big Bird costume, however, was too big to fit, and McAuliffe was sent in his place.
She had big plans for her launch. Up in space, she was going to give a televised tour of the spacecraft. She would teach science lessons in zero gravity for the kids across America, and, when she was back on earth, she planned on sharing a personal journal of her thoughts with the world.
Above all, though, she just wanted to see the universe for herself, to live out the dream she’d held since she was 11 years old, in the very early days of NASA.
“I want to look out the window a lot and experience the wonder of space,” McAuliffe told reporters as she prepared for the mission. “[This] is a unique opportunity to fulfill my early fantasies.”
McAuliffe would win the world’s hearts, but she was far from the only one on the Challenger with big dreams. Another astronaut, Ronald McNair, planned to record the first saxophone solo in space and perform a concert in the stars via live feed.
With them were Ellison Onizuka, the first Japanese-American in space; Judith Resnick, the second woman in space; and expert astronauts Gregory Jarvis, Dick Scobee, and Captain Michael Smith.
It was a major mission with a capable team, flying in a shuttle that had already safely completed nine missions.
How could anything have gone wrong?
The McDonnell Douglas Report On The Challenger Disaster
NASA had plenty of time to prepare for the Challenger disaster.
The shuttle, they would quickly learn, exploded because of a problem with its O-rings, the rubber seals that lined parts of the rocket boosters. But that was a problem they’d been aware of for nearly 15 years.
Back in September 1971, a paper by defense contractor McDonnell Douglas had warned that it was possible to burn through O-rings and that, if it occurred near a shuttle’s hydrogen fuel tank, it would spell disaster.
“Timely sensing may not be feasible,” the paper read, “and abort not possible.”
For a time, they dealt with it by doubling up the O-rings, but another test, in 1977, proved that that wasn’t enough.
The combustion of a space shuttle’s engine, they discovered, would cause the metal joints to bend away from each other, opening up a gap that would leak out gas and erode the O-rings.
The gases, they learned, could ignite a path of flames, setting off an explosion that would destroy the shuttle and everyone inside.
The engineers who discovered the problem wrote to the manager of the Solid Rocket Booster Project, George Hardy, explaining the problem. Hardy, however, never passed on the memo to Morton-Thiokol, the company that made the faulty field joints, and nothing changed.
By the end of 1981, the worry wasn’t just a theory anymore. That year, the orbiter Columbia returned from a mission with its primary O-ring eroded, just as the engineers had predicted. And over the next four years, seven out of nine shuttle launches would come back with the same problem.
The problem was labeled “Criticality 1” — a designation that meant, if uncorrected, it could cause “loss of mission, vehicles, and crew.”
NASA was fully aware of the problem, and they knew exactly how bad the results could be. Commissioner Richard Feynman had outright warned them that, by ignoring it, they were playing “a kind of Russian Roulette… You got away with it, but it shouldn’t be done over and over again.”
The worst, however, still hadn’t happened. The shuttle hadn’t exploded – and so the Challenger was sent off with the same faulty parts in place.
Bob Ebling And Roger Boisjoly
Even if they’d ignored the problem for 15 years, NASA was still given one last chance to stop the Challenger disaster. Two men, Bob Ebling and Roger Boisjoly, did everything they could to stop the launch.
In October of 1985, Ebeling sent out a memo with the title: “Help!” The Challenger launch, he warned, could end in a disaster. If it launched when the temperature was lower than 4 °C (40 °F), the ship could explode.
The problem was with the O-rings. In the past, NASA had survived its game of Russian Roulette because the melting O-rings had made a seal that stopped the gases from spilling out. In the freezing cold, however, they’d be too stiff to make a seal in time. If they launched in January, Ebeling warned, the crew wouldn’t make it far off the launchpad.
Meanwhile, Roger Boisjoly, an engineer at Morton-Thiokol, called a meeting with NASA officials where he warned them of the same thing. If they tried to launch in the winter, Boisjoly told them, it would end in “a catastrophe of the highest order.”
“My God,” NASA’s Lawrence Mulloy replied. “When do you want me to launch – next April?” It wasn’t a sincere question. To NASA, the idea of pushing back the launch was ridiculous. They weren’t just ignoring Boisjoly. They were openly mocking him.
“I am appalled. I am appalled by your recommendation,” said George Hardy — the very man who’d ignored the first warnings of the problem back in 1977.
Ebeling and Boisjoly’s warnings amounted to nothing, no matter how they tried.
“I fought like hell to stop that launch,” Boisjoly would say years later. “I’m so torn up inside I can hardly talk about it, even now.”
The men had to go home knowing that the people inside that shuttle were in their coffins and nothing they could do would save their lives.
Ebeling laid restless in bed the night before launch. He told his wife: “It’s going to blow up.”
The Last Moments Of The Challenger
The crew aboard the Challenger left in high spirits. At T-1:44, as the vent hood was raised, Ellison Onizuka joked: “Doesn’t it go the other way?”
The crew laughed. “God,” Capt. Michael Smith said. “I hope not, Ellison.”
Judith Resnick reminded her crewmates to get their harnesses on, but Smith shrugged her off, convinced nothing could possibly go wrong.
“What for?” he asked.
“I won’t lock mine,” Dick Scobee agreed. “I might have to reach something.”
The countdown started, the engines ignited, and the Space Shuttle Challenger took off.
“Here we go!” Smith yelled out, as excited as a little boy. “Go, you mother!”
Down on the earth below, Boisjoly and his engineers were watching the shuttle rocket into space. And for a brief moment, Boisjoly believed he was wrong and that everything was going to be okay.
Boisjoly had predicted that, if the shuttle failed, it would explode right on the launch pad. When he saw it take off without disaster, he and his men took it as proof the mission would succeed.
They watched it go up for a full minute before one of his engineers felt at ease enough to say what they were all hoping was true.
“Oh, God,” he said. “We made it. We made it!”
It was at that exact moment that a flame burned through an open gap in the casing that had split apart exactly how McDonnell Douglas had predicted 15 years before. A great white plume of smoke started to spill out of the shuttle, and the right solid rocket booster started to pull out of place.
For a brief moment, the people inside felt nothing but a sudden acceleration.
“Feel that mother go!” Smith exclaimed, before letting out a loud “Woohoo!”
Then something happened. Perhaps an indicator showed him that the main engine was failing or that pressure was falling in the external fuel. Nobody knows for sure.
All we know is the very last words the crew cabin recorder caught him saying:
The Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster
Outside of the crew cabin, the shuttle’s hydrogen tank had rammed into its liquid oxygen tank. At the same time, the right rocket booster, which had started rotating, hit the structure that connected the two tanks together.
Both tanks ruptured. The chemicals inside mixed together, ignited, and burst into a massive fireball that enveloped the entire shuttle.
The shuttle was 15 km (48,000 ft) above the earth when it was torn apart. Most of it began to disintegrate, with only little pieces of metal still large enough to be seen falling from the sky.
The millions watching from home believed that they’d just witnessed the deaths of seven people. But they were wrong. The crew of the Challenger, it’s believed, were still alive after the explosion. For them, the worst was yet to come.
The crew cabin survived the explosion. It detached from the shuttle, all seven crew members still inside, and began its free-fall down toward the earth below.
At least some of the crew were conscious when the freefall began. After the explosion, Resnick and Onizuka activated their Personal Egress Air Packs, devices that would give them six minutes of breathable air. Somehow, they must have thought the air packs could keep them alive.
One of them even took the time to put on Michael Smith’s pack for him. When their bodies were found, his was activated using a switch on the back of his seat that he wouldn’t have been able to reach himself.
They couldn’t have understood what happened. Smith pulled a switch meant to restore power to the cockpit, apparently unaware that the cabin he was in a free fall, no longer connected to any other part of the shuttle.
It’s not clear how long they stayed conscious or how long they stayed alive, though the packs stayed on for another two minutes and 45 seconds. For all that time, the astronauts may still have been awake and breathing, bracing themselves as they fell to their deaths.
They hit the ocean surface at 333 km/h (207 mph), colliding with a force worse than any accident.
Smith and Scobee were right. Their belts were useless. The crew were likely torn from their seats, smashed against the collapsing walls, and killed instantly.
A Cover-Up In NASA And Elsewhere
It took weeks to find the crew’s remains, which had been scattered in the cold ocean. They found notebooks, tape recorders — and a helmet containing ears and a scalp.
But NASA did everything it could to hide just how horrific – and preventable – the Challenger disaster really was. In conversations with the press, they insisted that the crew had died instantly and that they still had no clue what could have gone wrong.
The truth only came out when a presidential commission led by William P. Rogers and joined by the likes of Neil Armstrong, Sally Ride, Chuck Yeager, and Richard Feynman delved deep into the source of the problem.
Feynman, furious at NASA’s negligence, demanded that the report include a page of his own personal commentary — one that’s wildly different from the words President Reagan shared with America when the explosion first occurred.
“Sometimes painful things like this happen. It’s all part of the process of exploration and discovery,” Reagan had told the schoolchildren of America in a live TV broadcast. “The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave.”
Feynman, however, summed up the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in very different words:
“Reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”