Today is the anniversary of one of the most tragic days in space history. On January 28, 1986, the Challenger exploded 73 seconds into its flight, killing its seven crew members. The crew included teacher Christa McAuliffe. Millions of people, including children, watched the launch on live TV.
Those lost were Commander Francis R. “Dick” Scobee, Pilot Michael J. Smith, Mission Specialists Ellison S. Onizuka, Judith A. Resnik, and Ronald E. McNair, Prime Payload Specialist Gregory B. Jarvis and McAuliffe.
The flight was designated STS-51L, the 25th mission in the program and the space shuttle Challenger’s 10th flight, according to NASA. The six-day mission was set to deploy a large communications satellite among other objectives.
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Here’s what you need to know:
The Challenger Was a Highly Publicized Mission With the ‘First Teacher in Space’
The launch of the Challenger was highly anticipated and widely publicized as NASA sent up a crew including “the first teacher in space,” who was planning to hold lessons for school children from orbit, NASA wrote.
CNN writes that it showed the coverage live as a “little-known 24-hour news channel” in 1986.
“If you were an American kid in 1986, you probably remember exactly where you were: That’s because so many classrooms were watching the shuttle launch live via a special NASA satellite feed to showcase what would have been the first American teacher in space, Christa McAuliffe,” CNN writes.
John Zarrella was covering the launch live for CNN from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral.
“I just remember seeing the cloud of smoke and what looked like fireworks coming out from the vehicle,” he told CNN. “We were all just looking at each other wondering ‘OK, what’s happened here?'”
NASA writes that 1986 was set to be the space agency’s “most ambitious” year, with 15 launches scheduled. Those also included the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope and a mission to study Halley’s Comet. McAuliffe was selected from a group of 10 finalists who went through medical screenings in Houston after more than 10,000 teachers applied.
The day of the launch was uncharacteristically cold, according to NASA, and the launch was cleared despite heavy ice on the space shuttle that morning. There were discussions about the space shuttle’s O-rings leading up to the launch, which ultimately led to the disaster.
“For the first minute or so, the launch appeared to proceed normally, with the usual callouts between the crew and capsule communicator Richard O. Covey in MCC,” NASA wrote. “At 73 seconds after liftoff, controllers lost all telemetry from Challenger and noticed a fireball on television screens. Stunned controllers slowly came to realize that the vehicle had suffered a major malfunction that the crew likely did not survive.”
A Day of Remembrance Will Be Held for the Challenger Disaster
NASA holds a Day of Remembrance for its fallen astronauts on the last Thursday in January at each of its space centers to honor the astronauts lost in the Columbia disaster, the Apollo disaster and the Challenger disaster. The three disasters occurred decades apart but within the same weeklong period.
The Apollo 1 crew died in a fire during a training exercise January 27, 1967. Those killed were Commander Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Command Pilot Edward White, and Pilot Roger Chaffee. The space shuttle Columbia broke apart on re-entry 16 minutes before it was supposed to land on February 1, 2003, killing Mission Specialist 1 David M. Brown, Commander Rick D. Husband, Mission Specialist 4 Laurel Blair Salton Clark, Mission Specialist 2 Kalpana Chawla, Payload Commander Michael P. Anderson, Pilot William C. McCool, Payload Specialist 1 Ilan Ramon.
In 2022, NASA’s Day of Remembrance was scheduled for January 27. Speakers include Kelvin Manning, Deputy Director of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Lowell Grissom, brother of Apollo 1 Astronaut Gus Grissom, Sheryl Chaffee, Chair of AMF, daughter of Apollo 1 Astronaut Roger Chaffee, Kathie Scobee Fulgham, daughter of Space Shuttle Challenger Commander Dick Scobeee, and Evelyn Husband-Thompson, widow of Space Shuttle Columbia Commander Rick Husband.
A memorial grove of trees was planted for the Challenger astronauts outside the NASA Johnson Space Center, according to its website. Houston is also home to the Challenger Seven Memorial Park, named in honor of the seven astronauts in 1986, according to the Harris County website. A memorial honoring the heroes is a part of the park.