Remembering Challenger and Crew

Images credit & copyright: NASA.

“I cannot join the space program and restart my life as an astronaut, but this opportunity to connect my abilities as an educator with my interests in history and space is a unique opportunity to fulfill my early fantasies.” -Christa McAuliffe

STS-51-L Challenger Crew: (Clockwise from top-left).

Ellison Onizuka: Born: June 24, 1946: Air Force Veteran, first Asian American & first of Japanese ancestry to reach space as a member of STS-51-C. He held a Masters in Aerospace Engineering from U Colorado at Boulder.

Christa McAuliffe: Born: September 2, 1948: she was the winner of the teacher in space contest, from Concord NH with a bachelors in Education and History from Framingham State College and a Master of Arts degree from Bowie State University. This was to be her first spaceflight.

Gregory Jarvis: Born: August 24, 1944: Air Force veteran with a Masters in Electrical Engineering from Northeastern University, Boston MA. This was to be his first space flight.

Judith Resnik: Born: April 5, 1949: PHD in Electrical Engineering from U Maryland and second U.S. female astronaut in space with shuttle mission STS-41-D.

Ronald McNair: Born: October 21, 1950: Physicist from MIT, black belt karate instructor and veteran of STS-41-B whose mission was delivery of two Hughes 376 communication satellites as well as the mission that saw the first use of the Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU) and first use of the Canadarm which was operated by McNair himself.

Dick Scobee: Born: May 19, 1939: Veteran of the Air Force, aerospace research pilot with a BS in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Arizona and veteran of STS-41-C.

Michael Smith: Born: April 30, 1945: NAVY Pilot, and Flight Instructor. He attended US Naval Post-Grad at Monterey CA. This was to be his 1st space flight.

“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.” Thank you. – Ronald Regan in his address to the nation.

The primary mission for STS-51-L was to release the second of NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay, (TDRS) Satellites. Working in concert with the first TDRS, the two were expected to provide 85 percent real time coverage of each orbit to spacecraft. Challenger Pilot Michael Smith said, “It will give us almost global coverage for Shuttle missions of the future. That’s going to be a big improvement not only for the shuttle, but also for the space station when it gets up later on.” The satellite was scheduled to be deployed on the first day of the flight.

Also included in the mission were to be upwards of 40 hours of Halley’s Comet observations. Goddard Space Flight Center and the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics had produced a low-cost spacecraft that could measure the ultraviolet spectrum of comet Halley when it was too close to the sun for other observatories to do so. The project, named Spartan-Halley, would help scientists determine how fast water is broken down by sunlight. The data was to be saved on what was then a very robust 500 megabytes of storage.

Launching from Launch Pad 39-B this mission was also the first launch of a Space Shuttle from that launch pad as it had not been used since the launch of Apollo-Soyuz on .

January 28, 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger lifted off at 11:39 EST (16:39 UTC) from LC-39B at Kennedy Space Center FL, to the cheers of a nation. 73 seconds after liftoff while in view of all onlookers, visitors and those watching from home, those cheers fell silent as an O-Ring on the right Solid Rocket Booster (SRB) experienced a catastrophic failure and the Shuttle disintegrated. OV-099 Challenger and all seven of her crew were lost.

There were many, such as myself who were keeping tabs on the mission from McAuliffe’s home state of NH. I was in third grade and we didn’t have enough TVs to go around at the time so we had to file into one local classroom.  Of course this didn’t happen in a timely manner so we missed the launch while we were getting ourselves together.  I remember the teacher from that classroom running into ours and telling our teacher that “the Challenger exploded.” There were a couple seconds where I was confused to the point of thinking that I didn’t know what a challenger was…..maybe it was the school’s water heater.  Then within seconds it all clicked and sure enough, we learned that the person that we had learned so much about the previous year, was gone.

Leading up to the launch there were numerous delays and setbacks for different reasons. The ensuing Rogers Commission, appointed by Ronald Regan and aided by legends such as Richard Feynman, Neil Armstrong, Sally Ride and Chuck Yeager came to the conclusion that the O-Ring failed due to the extreme cold they were experiencing during that particular week. The rubber ring lost its elasticity and became brittle allowing the extremely hot gasses (5,000 deg. F) to escape through the failed joint and then enter into the Challenger’s external tank. Even more, it was determined that the Morton Thiokol-NASA decision making process as well as the culture at the time had also been a major cause as they had known about and overlooked the already known risks but management chose to ignore the recommendations of their engineers.

In fact, following the launch of STS-51-B Challenger on April 29, 1985, it was discovered that a similar blowby problem had occurred with a booster’s O-ring. Following the mission, a Morton-Thiokol engineer told Don Lind of STS-51-B that “you came within three-tenths of one second of dying.” Morton Thiokol engineer Roger Boisjoly then wrote a now famous memo to Morton-Thiokol Vice President of Engineering, Bob Lund warning and predicting the disaster; foreshadowing “A catastrophe of the highest order.” I have posted that letter below.

Challenger disaster from inside Mission Control

Challenger, A Rush to Launch

National Geographic “Challenger The Lost Tapes”

After the accident, NASA refrained from sending astronauts into space for more than two years as it redesigned a number of the shuttle’s features. Flights began again in September 1988 with the successful launching of Space Shuttle Discovery. There would not be another major issue for almost two decades.

Space Shuttle Challenger (OV-099) was the second Space Shuttle to fly. It was also only supposed to be a test article as Enterprise (OV-101) was supposed to be re-fitted for flight and come into service as the second orbiter. As design changes occurred along the way it was determined that then, Structural Test Article (STA-099) Challenger would be fitted for flight and its designation changed to reflect that.

Challenger was named after HMS Challenger, a British Corvette that was the command ship for the Challenger Expedition, a pioneering global marine research expedition undertaken from 1872 through 1876. The Apollo 17 Lunar Module that touched down on the Moon in 1972 and the famous Challenger Deep was also named after HMS Challenger. Space Shuttle Challengers remains now lay entombed at the bottom of a retired Minuteman missile silo at Launch Complex 31B at Cape Canaveral as well as some key pieces which are now on display at KSC.

Today, the crew of STS-51-L Challenger is memorialized in craters on the Moon as well as in Challenger Memorial Station on Mars as Mars Exploration Rover 1 (MER-1 or MER-B) Opportunity’s landing base at Meridiani Planum was renamed.

“I touch the future. I teach.” -Christa McAuliffe

GREAT link to the NASA History Office regarding the Challenger disaster:

Roger Boisjoly’s warning letter to Bob Lund on July 31, 1985 following the near failure of STS-51-B Challenger on April 29, 1985. “A catastrophe of the highest order.”:

Richard Feynman Rogers Commission Appendix:

Report of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident:

“Space Flight Now’s” Timeline of events:

President Reagan’s Address to the Nation:

McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center (Concord NH):

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