20th Century · Accidents · Airplanes · Exploration · Modern Marvels · NASA · Rockets · Science · United States

January 28, 1986 – NASA Space Shuttle Challenger Explodes After Launch

My prayer is that I honor these brave men and women who I have held dear to me these last 30 years.

“Space, the final frontier… to boldly go where no man has gone before” – Star Trek

This is the first history blog post that I was a witness to. I was in high school in 1986 and had a dentist appointment and had not gone to school for the day. It could be me — I will admit freely that I am a nerd — I enjoyed watching shuttle launches regardless what the Simpsons might show.

I clearly remember that morning. The family television was just off of my parents bedroom and my mom was in her room getting ready. I remember looking on in pure shock as Challenger exploded, and the booster rockets went off on their paths.

I have always been fascinated with space and space exploration. Exploration is not without incidents and tragedy. There are 24 names on the Space Mirror Memorial at Kennedy Space Center of fallen NASA astronauts. The Soviet Union lost eight Cosmonauts to accidents.

On January 27, 1967 — 19 years and 1 day prior to Challenger — the crew of Apollo 1 were in the process of test launch when an electrical fire started in the cabin. Because of the pure oxygen in the capsule Virgil “Guss” Grissom — one of my heroes –, Edward H. White, and Roger Chaffee died.

Back to Challenger.

Florida had some unusually cold weather in January 1986 and unbeknownst to NASA that cold weather had damaged seals on an external fuel tank.

On the morning of January 28, 1986, the crew of STS-51-L sat on the launchpad preparing to embark on their 6-day mission. This was the tenth space flight for Challenger and the 25th for the Shuttle Program.

STS-51L Crew (l-r): Payload Specialists Christa McAuliffe and Gregory B. Jarvis, Mission Specialist Judith A. Resnik, Commander Francis R. Scobee, Mission Specialist Ronald E. McNair, Pilot Michael J. Smith, Mission Specialist Ellison S. Onizuka. Credits: NASA

STS-51-L was originally scheduled for 3:43 PM launch on January 22, 1986. Because of delays from the weather the launch was scheduled for 9:37 AM On January 27, 1986. There was a mechanical difficulty that caused a 24-hour hold on launch. And even on the 28th, there was a 2-hour delay because of a bad sensor.

At around 11:30 AM on January 28, 1986, Challenger launched on her 10th trip into space. 73-seconds into the 6-day mission, Challenger and her crew’s mission came to a violent end.

Challenger Explosion Image Source: CBS News

The Crew of STS-51-L

Francis “Dick” Scobee – Shuttle Commander Image Source: Wikipedia
Micahel J. Smith – Shuttle Pilot Image Source: Wikipedia
Ellison Onizuka – Mission Specialist 1 Image Source: Wikipedia
Judith Resnik – Mission Specialist 2 Image Source: Wikipedia
Ronald McNair – Misson Specialist 3 Image Source: Spacefacts


Gregory B. Jarvis – Payload Specialist 1Image Source: Datamanos
S. Christa McAuliffe – Payload Specialist 2 – the first teacher in space Image Source: Wikipedia

I still have the Seattle PI from the next day. I still remember the horror that I shared with the rest of the nation on January 28, 1986.

These heroes were the fist NASA astronauts to die during a space flight, but they were not the last.

Challenger Explosion Video – HEARTBREAKING!

President Reagan’s address to the nation.

Ladies and gentlemen, I’d planned to speak to you tonight to report on the state of the Union, but the events of earlier today have led me to change those plans. Today is a day for mourning and remembering.

Nancy and I are pained to the core by the tragedy of the shuttle Challenger. We know we share this pain with all of the people of our country. This is truly a national loss.

Nineteen years ago, almost to the day, we lost three astronauts in a terrible accident on the ground. But we’ve never lost an astronaut in flight; we’ve never had a tragedy like this. And perhaps we’ve forgotten the courage it took for the crew of the shuttle; but they, the Challenger Seven, were aware of the dangers, but overcame them and did their jobs brilliantly. We mourn seven heroes: Michael Smith, Dick Scobee, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe. We mourn their loss as a nation together.

For the families of the seven, we cannot bear, as you do, the full impact of this tragedy. But we feel the loss, and we’re thinking about you so very much. Your loved ones were daring and brave, and they had that special grace, that special spirit that says, “Give me a challenge and I’ll meet it with joy.” They had a hunger to explore the universe and discover its truths. They wished to serve, and they did. They served all of us.

We’ve grown used to wonders in this century. It’s hard to dazzle us. But for 25 years the United States space program has been doing just that. We’ve grown used to the idea of space, and perhaps we forget that we’ve only just begun. We’re still pioneers. They, the members of the Challenger crew, were pioneers.

And I want to say something to the schoolchildren of America who were watching the live coverage of the shuttle’s takeoff. I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It’s all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It’s all part of taking a chance and expanding man’s horizons. The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we’ll continue to follow them.

I’ve always had great faith in and respect for our space program, and what happened today does nothing to diminish it. We don’t hide our space program. We don’t keep secrets and cover things up. We do it all up front and in public. That’s the way freedom is, and we wouldn’t change it for a minute.

We’ll continue our quest in space. There will be more shuttle flights and more shuttle crews and, yes, more volunteers, more civilians, more teachers in space. Nothing ends here; our hopes and our journeys continue.

I want to add that I wish I could talk to every man and woman who works for NASA or who worked on this mission and tell them: “Your dedication and professionalism have moved and impressed us for decades. And we know of your anguish. We share it.”

There’s a coincidence today. On this day 390 years ago, the great explorer Sir Francis Drake died aboard ship off the coast of Panama. In his lifetime the great frontiers were the oceans, and an historian later said, “He lived by the sea, died on it, and was buried in it.” Well, today we can say of the Challenger crew: Their dedication was, like Drake’s, complete.

The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God.”



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