Remembering the Challenger Crew

Remembering the Challenger Crew

On this day in 1986, seven brave astronauts — five NASA astronauts, a payload specialist from the private sector, and a school teacher — lost their lives in the space shuttle Challenger tragedy (STS 51-L).

  • NASA Commander Dick Scobee
  • NASA Pilot Mike Smith
  • NASA Mission Specialist Judy Resnik
  • NASA Mission Specialist Ellison Onizuka
  • NASA Mission Specialist Ron McNair
  • Payload Specialist Greg Jarvis (from Hughes Aircraft)
  • “Teacher in Space” Christa McAuliffe

Fate ordained that the three tragedies that have taken the lives of astronauts in mission-related accidents occurred within a few days of each other on the early winter calendar: Apollo 204 on January 27, 1967; the space shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1986; and the space shuttle Columbia on February 1, 2003. NASA has a “Day of Remembrance” for all three jointly on January 29, but it seems fitting to mention each of them individually here.

Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff when a rubber “O-ring” in one of its Solid Rocket Boosters (SRB) failed because of unusually cold temperatures. A Presidential Commission chaired by former Secretary of State William Rogers found that the O-ring failure was the technical cause of the tragedy, but flawed decision-making was a contributing cause:

“The decision to launch the Challenger was flawed. Those who made that decision were unaware of the recent history of problems concerning the O-rings and the joint and were unaware of the initial written recommendation of the contractor advising against the launch at temperatures below 53 degrees Fahrenheit and the continuing opposition of the engineers at Thiokol after the management reversed its position. They did not have a clear understanding of Rockwell’s concern that it was not safe to launch because of ice on the pad. If the decisionmakers had known all of the facts, it is highly unlikely that they would have decided to launch 51-L on January 28, 1986.”

The tragedy resulted in far reaching changes not only to the shuttle program, but to U.S. space launch policy (see “From Shuttle Only to Mixed Fleet” in this CRS report for a brief synopsis of the policy changes).

The families of the Challenger astronauts created the Challenger Center for Space Science Education, which has 47 Challenger Learning Centers in the United States and other countries.

STS 51-L was the 25th space shuttle launch. Beginning with the 10th shuttle launch, NASA had instituted a numbering system in which the first number designated the fiscal year in which the mission was supposed to launch (in this case FY1985), the second number designated whether the launch was from the east coast (“1”) or west coast (“2”), and a letter sequentially in the alphabet. Since launch schedules often changed so the first number sometimes did not match the fiscal year in which the launch actually occured and the letter might not be sequential, and plans to build a west coast launch site for the shuttle were abandoned after this accident, NASA returned to a simple numbering system when flights resumed after Challenger.

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