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The Challenger Tragedy

By Patrick Mondout

Each generation lives through events that help define them. There is often a singular event that is so memorable that everyone remembers not only the details, but even where they were when we first heard about it. For our parent's generation, it was the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. For their parents, it was Pearl Harbor. For us (at least until 9/11), it was the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1986.

As Indian-born British writer Salman Rushdie said, "One of the extraordinary things about human events is that the unthinkable becomes thinkable."* Whether it was the unthinkable notion of the shuttle, whose flights had become so routine, exploding, or the fact that so many children of the Awesome80s watched it happen live at school because of the "Teacher is Space" program, it is the one event of the Awesome80s which will definitely generate a response to the question, "Where were you when you heard about it?"


The launch of flight 51-L of the space shuttle was originally set for 3:43 p.m. on January 22, 1986, but slipped several days due to weather both at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida and potential emergency landing sites in Senegal and Casablanca. Even on January 28, the launch was delayed two hours when a hardware interface module in launch processing system, which monitors fire detection system, failed during liquid hydrogen tanking procedures. The shuttle finally was launched at 11:38 a.m.. Just 73 seconds after liftoff, the shuttle exploded. Debris rained into the Atlantic Ocean for more than an hour afterward. You can learn more about the launch here.

A Diverse Crew

All seven members of the crew were killed in the accident. They were Francis R. Scobee, commander; Michael J. Smith, pilot; three mission specialists: Judith A. Resnik, Ellison Onizuka and Ronald E. McNair; payload specialist, Gregory Jarvis of Hughes Aircraft, and payload specialist, S. Christa McAuliffe, a New Hampshire teacher. She had planned to teach lessons during live television transmissions as part of NASA's highly publicized "Teacher in Space" program. Another important objective of this mission was the launching from space of the Halley's Comet Experiment Deployable, a free-flying module designed to observe tail and coma of Halley's Comet with two ultraviolet spectrometers and two cameras.

As a result of the extra attention this mission received, many Americans felt as though they knew many of the crew. The ethnic diversity of the Challenger Seven, which included two women - one of which was a Jew, an Asian-American, and an African-American, made it even easier for most to identify with the astronauts.


Official portrait of the STS 51-L crewmembers. In the back row (l.-r.) Mission specialist Ellison S. Onizuka, Teacher in Space Participant Sharon Christa McAuliffe, Payload Specialist Greg Jarvis and Mission specialist Judy Resnik. In the front row (l.-r.) Pilot Mike Smith, Commander Dick Scobee, and Mission specialist Ron McNair.


NASA photo



The importance of this story was not lost on the media. CNN and other news services worked non-stop on the story and many daily newspapers printed a late special edition carrying the latest information they had. Americans gathered around their televisions and saw unforgettable slow motion replays of the explosion and controversial images of the grieving family members watching the tragedy from the launch site. Few will forget hearing the last words from the pilot, "Roger. Go at throttle up," followed soon thereafter by a NASA announcer saying, "Obviously a major malfunction." Nor will they forget the images of the unleashed solid rocket boosters corkscrewing away from the area of the explosion.

President Reagan, who was schedule to deliver a televised State of the Union address that night, had instead to find the words to console a grieving nation. (You can read President Reagan's televised speech on the Challenger explosion here.) Reagan also spoke at the memorial service held at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas three days after the accident.


By executive order, Reagan created the "The Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle" on February 3, 1986 to investigate the accident independently from NASA. Appointees to this commission including former Attorney General William Rogers, Neil Armstrong, who was the first person to walk on the moon, Sally Ride, who was the American first woman in space, and Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman (you can read complete biographies of the commission members here). The commission determined the explosion was caused by a faulty seem (an "o-ring"), which was manufactured by defense contractor Morton Thiokol, in the solid rocket boosters. You can read their complete report here.

Source: NASA.


Share Your Memories!

What do you remember about Challenger Tragedy? Have you any compelling stories to share? Share your stories with the world! (We print the best stories right here!)

Your Memories Shared!

"This by far was one of the single worst events of my life. I was all of 8 years old in the second grade when this occurred. I still remember the day. I was in class and we were actually discussing the launch. I remember most of the class wanting to be astronauts. But minutes later, the principle announced that the Challenger had exploded, we were all in dismay. I couldn't believe it. It was horrible, I remember my mother telling me she was in the shopping mall, televisions were on, and once it exploded she said everybody gasped in disbelief. What makes it even more awful was the fact that it could have been avoided. There were serious mechanical errors, that could have postponed the launch but because of politics they let it go up. Seven bright scientists and a teacher were sacrificed because of politics. Its no wonder now, if there is a slight gust of wind all shuttle launches are postposed or cancelled. I wish they had used that same logic then!"


"I was 5 years old, living in Las Vegas, and my mom and I were picking my little brother up from preschool. We had the radio on in the car and I remember someone breaking in and telling about the explosion. My mom pulled off the road and just sat there, staring at the radio. I didn't really understand, I kept looking up in the sky expecting to see smoke but of course there was nothing. We got my brother, and came home. That whole day was spend sitting in front of the TV, watching the footage of the shuttle over and over again. My mom cried every time she saw the explosion. Being an Air Force family, we have several friends who are astronauts and work with NASA. The whole tragedy hit close to home for us."


"I was at work and the owner's wife came through the back door to tell us all of the tragedy. It had been a long time since we had thought about any space program problems. It was heart felt and so sad. Over the next few weeks we get to know more about the people lost. After the grief of course, the jokes were abundant and cruel as with most disasters. Accidents happen when you least expect them."


"When I was a kid in the 30s, I read 'Flash Gordon' and imagined what it would be like if we had real space ships. I never thought it could happen in a million light years...but it did and I was thrilled! Waiting for the first shuttle to land at Edward's, was filled with much anticipation as the world waited to hear how it was to travel in space. As time went by, and astronauts vied for a spot on the shuttle, we wondered who would fly. I was disappointed to think a school teacher, who had won a contest that thrust her into the spotlight and onto the shuttle, should be so honored when that privilege should have gone to an astronaut. When the Challenger died before our eyes, and the crew including the school teacher were suddenly no more, I had a strange thought. Somehow, in my numbed mind as I watched the disaster unfold, it occurred to me that the teacher who came in second in that contest, was the luckiest man on earth. [Editor's note: For the record, it too was a woman.]"

--Claudine Willis

"I was living at Edwards AFB at the time this tragedy occurred. I was a sophomore in High School. I can remember the principal talking about it over the loud speaker and then they put a live news feed over the intercom system. Everybody was crying including the teachers. I guess it hurt us more so because Edwards is where the Shuttle landed. Many of our parents worked directly with the landings. I can remember everyone went home for lunch to watch the news on TV. I never made it back to school that day. It is a day that I will never forget."


"I remember I was about 8 years old when the Challenger Exploded. I was home sick from school that day. I called my mother at work, I was excited because I have always loved space shuttles. We watched the shuttle zoom into the sky and after those exciting 73 seconds my world stood still. I was shocked and I didn't understand what was going on. Then I heard "the vehicle has exploded" I cried because I didn't know if the 7 astronauts were alive. But it goes to show what happens when warnings aren't taken into consideration. My next door neighbor (in Utah) worked for Morton Thiokol. And he had told me what went wrong. But I have talked enough so I just want to say thank you for the chance to tell of my memory of the Challenger."

--Frankie Ellis

"I was very moved by the MSNBC program called, CHALLENGER: BEYOND THE TRAGEDY. I saw it Thursday evening, January 25th 2001, on MSNBC. There was a lot of information regarding Christa McAuliffe, as well as more information on the cause of the accident. The CHALLENGER mission continues today, not just with the CHALLENGER LEARNING CENTERS, but from me and several thousand other Americans, too. While in broadcasting school, I pieced together a fourteen minute videotape about the crew and their legacy. Set to six different pieces of music, as well as a few different sound bytes from President Reagan, and Mission Control, this video has been requested by several individuals in both the education field, and in engineering. I recently had a photograph of the crew, their portrait, reproduced at 24x36, mounted it, and plan to have it framed. I will place it on the wall in my apartment as a reminder that they are not only remembered, but a daily inspiration to me."


"It was the first day of a new job for me managing a temporary personnel office in Queens, New York. I was quite busy being shown the ropes by my manager when one of the women in the office said she'd heard on the radio that the shuttle had "crashed". I really couldn't break away to get more details but rushed home that night to catch the 6:00 news. There was no need to wait for the news to come on since all the major networks were covering the tragedy. It was then that I saw the 73 second video of the ill-fated flight for the first of what now seems to be hundreds of times. I have not had a more profound sense of sadness save a few personal losses in my life. We lost true heroes who were made of "the right stuff", the best examples of what we offer as Americans."


"I was in my last year of college at Northern Illiniois University. I had just gotten out of a long, boring two and a half hour class and walkd off campus to the video store I worked part time at. It was a crystal clear and bitterly cold day there. The sun was bright and it had just snowed the night before. There was a long bank of televisions in the electronics sectiona dn al of them were showing news. I saw Dan Rather sitting at his desk. The sound was turned down low on all of them and I wondered what the hell. Then it hit me that something terrible must have happened somewhere in the world. what was it? An assassination? A major earthquake? As that thought entered my mind I saw Rather pull a model of the shuttle toward him on the desk andI knew then what happened. Then I saw the video playback that would be played thousands of times over the next few days and haunt me for the rest of my life. They were all dead. There was no way they cold have survived. The shining image of American astronauts made of "The Right Stuff" came to mind and that innocence was lost forever. America just didn't lose it's best and brightest this way. Not since 67' in Appollo 1. This was supposed to be a new era in exploration where everything was checked over so many times as to eliminate any possibility of a loss like this. And now it's happened again. Another seven of the best and brightest the world had to offer gone in a few nightmarish moments."


"I was in 7th grade social sciences class. I remember that a teacher that I knew came running in to the class in a hysterical manner. Her face was red, and tears streamed down her face. My teacher Mr. Collins had this extremely shocked expression on his face as did the rest of the class. The teacher that came in said that they were all dead. We were all silent for minutes, then the rest of the school day that was all that was talked about. Then I went home, and I can rememeber the horrifying visions of the explosions. It is something I will never forget."


"A known joker named Wade came into 2nd period Geometry just before the bell and said "Hey, did you hear the space shuttle blew up?" No one believed him. He tried to convince us he was serious. Shortly after the bell rang an announcement came over the intercom. It was true. We all just sat there in shock.

Later that day I watched the news constantly. I even taped some. I watched that explosion over and over again. I was 16 and it had a profound impact on me. For years I had a reoccurring dream that I was at an air show or watching an airplane in the sky and it would blow up and rain firey debris down on me. It was a real wake up sweating kind of nightmare. I attribute this to the Challenger tragedy. Of course now I have another shuttle disaster to add to my memory, unfortunately.

I'm still fascinated with space exploration and a supporter of the space program. No human advancement can be achieved without risk or consequence. Those willing to make the sacrifice deserve our respect."


"I was a busy housewife and mother back then. I had only watched one other space craft launched in my lifetime. I really had no interest in watching this launch. It just happened that the TV was on at the time. I sat down and was watching the spacecraft launching and then I saw it explode.

I sat there in shock and disbelief. I thought at first I was seeing something that was not real. Certainly this was not real. What was happening before my eyes, the horror I was witnessing could not be real. My mind tried to make sense of it in little increments of seconds of time.

Time stopped for me. Then the realizion of what I was witnessing sank in and I just sat there and cried for what seemed like forever. I have never watched another televised launch of a spacecraft since that day."


"I live in a town in Florida that has always made it possible to watch the shuttles lift off, even though we are on the other coast. I was a senior in high school, and the day the Challenger exploded my marine biology teacher had allowed my class to go outside to watch it take off. We all stood there gazing up into the sky, when suddenly we saw what we now know was the shuttle exploding. Someone said, "It blew up." But everyone else's reaction was delayed because none of us believed it could blow up. Some of us even said, "Nah." We just stood there, unsure of what was going on, and then our teacher had us go back inside where he had the TV turned on so we could find out what went wrong. Sure enough, the announcer was saying the shuttle had blown up, and none of us could say a word. I saw tears in my teacher's eyes and I felt sad. Then it suddenly dawned on me that I had just witnessed people dying and that was a really odd feeling.

Because I still live in the same town and I now have two sons, I always take them outside whenever we know there is a launch. I turn on the TV so we know when liftoff has occured, then we race outside. We look toward the east and eventually a small, bright, white-orange ball emerges over the tree line and hurtles off into space, leaving a long, white, puffy trail. After that, I let out my breath. And sometimes, as we stand and watch the vapor trail begin to change shape, I tell them about the time I saw the Challenger blow up."


"I was in Junior High at the time, in class, sociology to be exact. We were all watching the coverage on an old TV set. As the shuttle took off, we all watched in anticipation, excited. I remember one of the kids in class saying that she had grown up next to one of the astronauts on board, and used to play with her kids. Then, the explosion. I just remember dead silence...then some screams, some paralyzed faces. Then the tears of horror. Our teacher was too afraid to move, she just sat there and stared at the screen. Then the intercom clicked and the Dean made an anouncement. I can remember this as clear as day. It was a moment I can not forget."


"I was a freshman in college at the time. My high school boyfriend and I had broken up a few weeks before, and I was trying to re-enter the dating scene with few successes. That morning I was brooding over this situation while I entered the campus hangout and ordered a Diet Coke on my way back to my dorm. I was feeling pretty moody when I walked past the big screen TV in the dining area and glanced at Challenger on the launching pad. I thought, "Aw, I don't have time to stay and watch," and went on back to my dorm. In the 5-10 minutes it took me to walk back to my dorm, the explosion happened. As I got on to the elevator to get to my room, a particularly pesky dormmate of mine came up to me and asked me if I had heard of what happened to Challenger. I said, "Yeah, I knew it was going to launch," and she said, "Nooo! It blew up!" I really didn't take her too seriously since she had a tendency toward the dramatic; but in the hours and days to come, it was all very real to me and put things in perspective."


"I can remember that day like it was yesterday. It was a defining moment in my life, like September 11 was to my childrenís life and Pearl Harbor was to my grandparentís life. Devastating, but we learned a hard lesson that will never happen again. Hopefully.

I remember going downstairs to the TV on the 22nd to watch it. When I flipped the television on the newscaster told the viewers, including myself, that it would be postponed for a later date, due to weather. It was postponed until the 28th when the weather had finally cleared up. I should have known that it was a terrible sign. After waiting a week I positioned myself in front of the TV around 11 oíclock, anticipating the event that would take place before my very eyes.

The seven of them took their positions. They waved to the crowd, who cheered back as they boarded. They crawled inside and the countdown began. Finally they lifted off into the blue sky. White smoke spewed from the bottom of the ship, pushing it into the air. All eyes were on that ship. Then suddenly the whole ship just exploded. The two pieces split, one going in one direction, the other piece a different way. Two trails of smoke filled the sky. I just sat there in front of my television, mouth agape and tears in my eyes. I was taken aback back this event that happened on my television. They must be joking, I thought, but I knew it wasnít true. The Challenger, which all Americans have been hearing about for months, just exploded. The announcer just repeated what I had just saw and they repeated the explosion over and over. I shut the TV off at that point. Afterward I trod to my room and cried. What about the people in the ship? Everyone was lost. The diverse group of people in that ship had just been taken from the world for science. All I kept thinking about were those people, including the first civilian and schoolteacher, Sharon Christa McAuliffe. She worked so hard to get that far and her dream was just shattered, as well as her life.

Later that day, President Reagan spoke to us, the grieving people of America, about the tragic event that just took place on that day. He tried to console us, but only covered up our sorrow for only a few minutes. All I could keep thinking was that they were all dead, and there was no way to bring them back and right the wrong that happened.

Some nights, I still cry myself to sleep. Sometimes in disbelief, sometimes out of anguish that it had happened to such good of people. But I know they are watching. As they watch us down from heaven, I know that everything will be all right once again with the world. If you look on the bright side of the whole picture (if there is a sunny side) it is that even in the toughest times people can band together to get through it. Even people that donít like one and other can still put aside their differences and be allies. Maybe everyone in this world needs a tragic event, only bigger; to bring us together has one nation. One can only hope."

--Anne American

"I remember being at work when it happened. It was terrible! I have an original Challenger mission patch that I keep on my desk. "


"As a leadman on the West Coast Move, Mate and Recovery Team, I had just returned from Edwards/Dryden following the turn-around of the Columbia earlier that month. I was sitting in the OMCF (Orbiter Maintenance and Checkout Facility) at Vandenberg AFB working on getting things ready for our first Shuttle launch and expecting to go home that night and pack up to go to Edwards for Challenger's landing as almost all landings took place at Dryden at that time. All of a sudden, someone came running in and said that the Challenger had just blown up. I followed him to a group of people gathered around a radio and listened in disbelief. I remember my only comment. . . The B--tards actually did it. I said that because in November 85, I had been to KSC for some Close-out Crew training and payload ops. While working in the OPF, I had a conversation with one of the long time SCO's (Shuttle Craft Operator)who had been there since Apollo days. He told me that he was very concerned that "we would blow one of these up" someday. He said that he was seeing how everyone was becoming complacent. I had worked for Rockwell at the Palmdale Final Assebly Plant from 81-84 as an Experimental Stuctures and Assembly Mechanic and knew just how critical everthing was on the Orbiters. It wouldn't take much for something to go horribly wrong and hearing him say that really scared me. I finished my trip there and headed for home for a change of cloths and a quick trip to Edwards for pre-flight preparations for Columbia's flight.

Memories of that day still haunt me. After many years, I have finally learned to deal with it although on every January 28, I still wear my LSOC jacket that was issued to us at Vandenberg as a tribute.

Thankfully, the memory that I charish the most though is having the opportuntiy to sit in the Commanders seat of Challenger when it was stacked inside the VAB prior to its slow MLP trip to the pad. I remeber sitting there, cabin lights out and all of the instument panel lights on. I looked out the window and thought to myself. . a person would have to have some really big "eggs" to sit here and have the boosters light off on take that ride.

On Feburary 1, 2003, my sistet called me and asked if I was watching the news? I hadn't but quickly turned it on to see Columbia burning it's way back to earth. I was devastated but there was a certain feeling of exceptance as I had been through this before.

Allan Shapiro
LSOC, Orbiter Operations, Vandenberg AFB
Leadman, West Coast Move, Mate and Recovery Team (1984-1986)"

--One of Nick's (knuckledragger) Animals

"I was in the fifth grade when the Challenger Tragedy happened. It was a horrible day for the entire country but none felt it more then those of us from New Hampshire as we were all excited about Christa going up in space.

We for some reason were not watching the shuttle launch and now at almost 30 years old I thank God for that as I don't know if I could have wrapped my mind around a tragedy of that magnitude at such a young age."


Space References (Books):
Dickinson, Terence. Nightwatch: A Practical Guide to Viewing the Universe. Firefly Books, 1998.
Greene, Brian. Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory. Vintage, 2000.
Hawking, Stephen. Illustrated Brief History of Time, Updated and Expanded Edition. Bantam, 1996.
Hawking, Stephen. Theory of Everything: The Origin and Fate of the Universe. New Millenium, 2002.
Hawking, Stephen. The Universe in a Nutshell. Bantam, 2001.
Kaku, Michio. Hyperspace: A Scientific Odyssey Through Parallel Universes, Time Warps and the Tenth Dimension.
Kranz, Gene. Failure Is Not an Option: Mission Control from Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond. Berkley Pub Group, 2001.
Sagan, Carl; Druyan, Ann. Comet, Revised Edition. Ballantine, 1997
Sagan, Carl. Cosmos, Reissue Edition. Ballantine, 1993
Sagan, Carl. Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space. Ballantine, 1997

Space References (Videos):
Cosmos. PBS, 2000.
Stephen Hawking's Universe. PBS, 1997.
Hyperspace. BBC, 2002.
Life Beyond Earth PBS, 1999.
The Planets
. BBC, 1999.
Understanding The Universe. A&E, 1996.


White House

Reported in the typically low-key NASA way as a 'major malfunction' to the crowd watching in Florida.

Courtesy of NASA

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