Spaceflight Insider

Our SpaceFlight Heritage: 29th anniversary of Challenger disaster

The crew of STS-51L as seen on Spaceflight Insider

The crew of Challenger in their official crew portrait. Top left to right: Mission Specialist Ellison S. Onizuka, Sharon Christa MacAuliffe of the Teacher in Space Project, Payload Specialist Greg Jarvis and Mission Specialist Judy A. Resnik. Bottom left to right: Pilot Michael J. Smith, Commander Francis "Dick" Scobee and Mission Specialist Ron McNair. Photo Credit: NASA

On Jan. 28, 1986 space shuttle Challenger lifted off from Kennedy Space Center’s Pad 39B at 11:38 a.m. EST (1638 GMT). The failure of an O-ring on the shuttle’s right solid rocket booster (SRB) at liftoff led to chain of events that caused the spacecraft to breakup 73 seconds into its flight, resulting in the death of its seven crew members.

The Commander of the mission (STS-51L) was  Francis R. (Dick) Scobee who had previously flown as the pilot of STS-41C in 1984.  The crew of the orbiter included Pilot Michael J. Smith, Mission Specialists Judith A. Resnick, Ellison S. Onizuka, Ronald E.McNair and Payload Specialists Gregory B. Jarvis and Sharon Christa McAuliffe  McAuliffe had been selected as the primary candidate for the Teacher in Space program in 1985. All members of the crew were posthumously awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor on July 23, 2004.

Tracking and Data Relay Satellite B TDRS spacecraft satellite in orbit above Earth NASA image posted on SpaceFlight Insider

Artist’s concept of TDRS-B satellite in orbit. Image Credit: NASA

Planned objectives for STS-51L, Challenger’s tenth mission, included the deployment of two satellites, observations of Halley’s comet and several lessons from space for the Teacher in Space Program. The mission duration would have been 7 days.

The Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS-B), intended to become  part of NASA’s Space Network, would have been deployed on the first day of the mission using an Inertial Upper Stage Booster (IUB). On Day 3, the Shuttle Pointed Autonomous Research Tool for Astronomy 203 (Spartan 203) would have been deployed. This small satellite contained cameras and scientific instruments for observing Halley’s Comet.

Space Shuttle Orbiter Challenger (OV-099) was the second of NASA’s shuttle fleet to be put into service.  It’s first flight (STS-6) was on April 4, 1983. Challenger was named after the British Naval vessel HMS Challenger. Challenger’s  accomplishments include the first night launch of a shuttle, the first American in space, the first American woman in space and the first capture, repair and redeployment of a satellite. Challenger flew 9 successful missions before STS-51L.

NASA Kennedy Space Center KSC Launch Complex 39B LC-39B space shuttle Challenger NASA photo posted on SpaceFlight Insider

Photo Credit: NASA

The Challenger disaster led to a 32-month suspension of the Space Shuttle Program. President Reagan appointed the Rogers Commission  to investigate the accident. Members of the Commission included  Neil Armstrong, Sally Ride, General Charles “Chuck” Yeager and physicist Richard Feynman.  The committee found that the failure of the O-ring had been caused by low temperature conditions on the day of the launch. The Rogers Commission also strongly criticized NASA’s decision-making process that led to the launch of Challenger and communications problems between the agency and its contractors.

During the 32-month grounding of the shuttle fleet the solid rocket boosters were redesigned and other safety measures were implemented . NASA made several policy changes on management decision-making for future launches. The Air Force canceled plans to use the shuttle for classified satellite launches from Space Launch Complex 6 at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and decided to use the Titan IV instead.

The Space Shuttle Program returned to flight on Sept. 29, 1988 with the launch of space shuttle Discovery for STS- 26. Discovery carried the TDRS-C satellite (renamed TDRS-3 once it was deployed) which served as a replacement for TDRS-B.

Barbara Morgan, who trained with Christa McAulliffe in the Teacher in Space program and served as her backup, flew on STS-118 as a Mission Specialist in August of 2007.

Space_Shuttle_Challenger_tribute_poster posted on SpaceFlight Insider

This tribute to Space Shuttle Challenger hangs in Firing Room 4 of the Launch Control Center at KSC. Image Credit: NASA / Lynda Brammer


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Jim Sharkey is a lab assistant, writer and general science enthusiast who grew up in Enid, Oklahoma, the hometown of Skylab and Shuttle astronaut Owen K. Garriott. As a young Star Trek fan he participated in the letter-writing campaign which resulted in the space shuttle prototype being named Enterprise. While his academic studies have ranged from psychology and archaeology to biology, he has never lost his passion for space exploration. Jim began blogging about science, science fiction and futurism in 2004. Jim resides in the San Francisco Bay area and has attended NASA Socials for the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover landing and the NASA LADEE lunar orbiter launch.

Reader Comments

RIP Challenger,,,,you are not forgotten…

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