This Day In Space (January 28, 1986): The Space Shuttle Challenger disaster

On the morning of January 28, 1986, the world watched as the Space Shuttle Challenger launched from Cape Canaveral with a crew of seven onboard. Little did anyone know that the mission would end with a catastrophic failure that would claim the lives of seven and change NASA forever.

The mission was designated STS-51-L and was the 25th mission of the United States Space Shuttle program. The mission’s main goals were to deploy the second in a series of tracking and data relay satellites and observe Hailey’s Comet. Unfortunately, 73 seconds after launch, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded and broke apart, leading to the deaths of all seven crew members. After the mid-air explosion, the spacecraft disintegrated over the Atlantic Ocean, just off Florida’s coast.

This particular launch had an unusually high amount of viewers due to one of the crew members, Christa McAuliffe, being a high-school teacher. Her death made the disaster that took place that day even more devastating than it already was.

Salvage crews were sent out and spent weeks searching for and recovering various pieces of the shuttle and the seven crew members’ remains. The remains that could be identified were given to their respective families, while the rest were buried at a monument to the Challenger crew at Arlington National Cemetery.

The Challenger memorial at Arlington National Cemetery

An investigation determined that a joint in the right solid rocket booster had failed at liftoff. O-ring seals used in the joint were not designed to withstand the cold conditions on that day, causing the seals to fail, leading to the joint’s failure. This ultimately caused the separation of the solid rocket booster’s field joint attachment and the external tank’s structural failure.

The Challenger disaster drastically changed the space shuttle program in many ways, and any plans to fly civilians in space, such as teachers, were canceled for the next 22 years. Every January, NASA, along with the rest of the country, pauses to remember the brave last crew of Challenger.

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