The Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster

By Benjamin Shapell, Sara Willen | January 26, 2016

January 26, 2016
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On January 28, 1986, the NASA Space Shuttle orbiter Challenger lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida at 11:38 EST and, 73 seconds into its flight, exploded nine miles above the Atlantic Ocean. All seven crew members were killed, including a bubbly 37 year-old schoolteacher, Christa McAuliffe, who had been selected from 11,000 applicants to be a “Teacher in Space.” Largely because of her presence, some 17% of Americans watched the live coverage of the shuttle’s horrifying disappearance into a plume of smoke. This August 1985 letter, written by McAuliffe just five months before the disaster – and less than a month after she had been chosen to be the first private citizen in space – reflects her delight and excitement with the coming voyage…

If Solomon himself had warned them, or Sophocles had come and told them, still, on the morning of the disaster, January 28, 1986, no one in charge at Cape Canaveral would have curbed their pride or hubris. So it was cold, they said: not to worry. No one knew whether the joint seals – called O-rings – would hold together below 40 degrees, and true, it was 36 degrees at launch time, but NASA’s brass was intent on launching the Challenger that very morning. There had been too many delays already: it was getting to be embarrassing. The schedule was cramped, anyway – other shuttle missions were planned and couldn’t be postponed. And if the day before blast-off, that nagging detail about the joint seals on the multi-stage booster rockets tending to stiffen and unseal in frigid weather came up again, well, all that had been known since 1977, to no ill-result. It had to be January 28th then, no later – and such feelings, thoughts, and worries which were not backed-up with complete, fully-documented, and verifiable data, simply had no bearing.  An unquantifiable wrinkle about eroding O-rings allowing hot gases to burn-through rocket casings igniting volatile fuel tanks rendering timely sensing infeasible, and abort impossible? An acceptable flight risk. The command was given to launch.

At nine o’clock that morning, Challenger Commander Dick Scobee, Mission Specialist Judith Resnik, Mission Specialist Ellison Onizuka, Pilot Mike Smith, Payload Specialist Gregory Jarvis, Mission Specialist Ron McNair and Teacher Christa McAuliffe stepped in the Orbiter to wait for lift-off. Strapped on their backs, they playfully complained about the weather. Resnik shivered loudly, exclaiming “Cowabunga!” Onizuka declared his nose was freezing. They waited, mostly, for the ice on the launch pad to melt – for five hours. Finally, at one-tenth of a second after 11:38 a.m., igniters at the top of each booster’s combustion tunnel blasted a flame earthward and the space shuttle burst upward.  At 73 seconds into the flight, nine miles above the earth and traveling at Mach 1.5, pilot Smith said “uh-oh…” – and the Challenger, engulfed in a brilliant mass of yellow and red flame, disintegrated into pieces. A single crackling noise was heard on the air-to-ground radio.

Later, in July, a forensic examination determined that because of the freezing temperatures, the O-rings in the right booster rocket’s lowermost field joint did not expand as they should have, which allowed searing propellant gases to seep out and ultimately, burn a hole in the shuttle’s 15-story external fuel tank  – causing it, of course, to explode. But there were those on the ground, on January 28th, at Mission Control, who had just 13 hours before the flight, pleaded that it be cancelled: the O-rings, they thundered, wouldn’t hold in cold weather. They warned, they told, and at 11:39:50 a.m. EST, some 110 seconds after launch, it showed. “Obviously,” said the stunned launch commentator, “a major malfunction.”

All of this was unimaginable when the smart, optimistic and vivacious New Hampshire high-school social studies teacher, Christa McAuliffe, wrote this letter less than a month after being chosen to be the first teacher in space.

“…I’m delighted that so many people are excited about my new venture. I do not have my official NASA photograph as yet but have placed your name on a list so one will be sent to you. I’m looking forward to my training in Houston and hope that you are able to tune in to my lessons which will be broadcast live during the shuttle flight.”

Most of McAuliffe’s training involved simple “everyday” tasks inside the shuttle: how to cook, how to use the bathroom, how to operate cameras – and how to avoid getting in the way of the “real” astronauts. Then too, she worked at preparing her lessons, of which she planned to televise two from space. She wanted to explain how astronauts lived aboard the shuttle: eating, sleeping, dressing, brushing their teeth – even how the toilets worked. She wanted students to see, she said. “A visual message,” she declared, “would have a greater impact on an American public than just the written word.”

The space shuttle Challenger exploding
Space Shuttle Challenger explodes shortly after lifting off from Kennedy Space Center. AP Photo/Bruce Weaver.

But what the American public really saw on January 28, 1986 – after the explosive fireball, and the white contrails arched through the sky – was hubris. It would take six months to become clear, when in July, the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident rendered its report, but by then the view was crystalline. “Failures in communication,” the Rogers Report concluded, “resulted in a decision to launch… based on incomplete and sometimes misleading information, a conflict between engineering data and management judgments, and a NASA management structure that permitted internal flight safety problems to bypass key Shuttle managers.”

President Reagan, in eulogizing the seven lost crew members, spoke movingly of their having “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God.” Those brave men and women, though failing in their mission high above the earth, merited that benediction – if only figuratively. For it was surliness, indeed – domineering arrogance – that cost them their lives.

Hubris of course leads nowhere faster, than to tragedy. Amid the flaming debris raining down on the Atlantic was, incredibly, the shuttle’s intact crew cabin, falling for 2 minutes and 45 seconds before hitting the ocean surface at 200 miles an hour. When the wreckage was brought up, there was evidence that the astronauts had been alive: three of their emergency oxygen packs had been activated. It was crashing into the sea, and not blowing up in the sky, that had killed them.


The loss of the Challenger was not, tragically, NASA’s first or last disaster. Almost 19 years before to the day, on January 27, 1967, the three astronauts of Apollo I – Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee – perished in a fire during a pre-flight test at Cape Canaveral. And the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated as it reentered earth’s atmosphere in 2003,  killing all seven crew members. Yet the space project which President Kennedy dedicated in 1961 as the most “impressive to mankind” – and the most “difficult or expensive to accomplish” – took place just 2 ½ years after the Apollo I disaster. In July 1969, the United States became the first and only nation to land men on the moon, and return them safely to earth.

CHRISTA McAULIFFE. 1948 – 1986. American schoolteacher chosen to fly as an astronaut; she perished in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.

Autograph Letter Signed (“S. Christa McAuliffe”), 1 page, quarto, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Washington, August 16, no year [1985]. To Dom J. Pucciarelli in Flushing, New York. With autograph envelope.

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