The day had started bright and clear in Florida as everyone waited in anticipation of the launch of the space shuttle Challenger into orbit. At 11:38 am EST on January 28th, 1986 the voice of mission control counted down to zero and NASA mission STS-51L roared off the launch pad at Cape Kennedy and into the Azure blue sky. Aboard the shuttle were Commander Francis R. Scobee, Pilot Michael J. Smith, Mission Specialists Judith A. Resnik, Ellison S. Onizuka, Ronald E. McNair and Payload Specialists Gregory B. Jarvis and Sharon Christa McAuliffe. After several delays all were eager to get this mission underway. Especially NASA’s first Teacher In Space Christa McAuliffe.
But just one minute and thirteen seconds later the Challenger disappeared amid a massive hydrogen fed fireball that expanded into the cold morning sky. As millions watched in stunned silence, live on network TV, flaming debris rocketed out of the super heated cloud of gas and fell painfully slow into the ocean below. Even the even toned NASA announcer was silent for several seconds before announcing to the world what all of us already knew. The shuttle had suffered a “Catastrophic Failure”.
A commission was formed to find out how such a disaster could occur. Their report cited “the cause of the disaster as a failure of an “O-ring” seal in the solid-fuel rocket on the Space Shuttle Challenger’s right side. The faulty design of the seal coupled with the unusually cold weather, let hot gases to leak through the joint. Booster rocket flames were able to pass through the failed seal enlarging the small hole. These flames then burned through the Space Shuttle Challenger’s external fuel tank and through one of the supports that attached the booster to the side of the tank. That booster broke loose and collided with the tank, piercing the tank’s side. Liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen fuels from the tank and booster mixed and ignited, causing the Space Shuttle Challenger to tear apart.”
The commission also found fault with the officials at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) who allowed the shuttle launch to take place despite concerns voiced by NASA engineers.
Many changes resulted from the Challenger disaster but not enough to prevent it from happening again to NASA’s quickly aging fleet of shuttles. On February 1st, 2003 the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated on re-entry somewhere in the skies over Texas. All aboard were lost.
Most in the United States have been watching NASA’s flawless launch and recoveries of manned space vehicles since Rear Admiral (Ret.) Alan Shepard’s famous ride, on May 5th, 1961, in his mercury capsule “Freedom 7”. Then on June 20th, 1969, just eight years later, Commander Neil Alden Armstrong became the first human being to walk the soil of another planet and utter those now famous words, “That’s one small step for man. One giant leap for mankind”. Those brave men and women made it look easy. So easy that the flights soon became routine, like a passenger jet taking off from any airport. We forgot how dangerous Manned Space Flight really is. We forgot how much each of those brave astronaut and cosmonauts risked every time they “light that candle”. So today is a day of remembrance of those brave men and woman we have lost along the way. They are heroes extraordinaire who truly have “gone where no one has gone before”.