Today’s post comes from Thomas Richardson, an archives technician at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri.
On January 28, 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger launched from the Kennedy Space Center on an abnormally cold morning. Temperatures dipped below freezing, evidenced by the formation of icicles on the launch pad. Weather conditions had already delayed the shuttle launch once, but the launch would go as scheduled that day.
Challenger’s crew—Francis R. Scobee, Michael J. Smith, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Gregory Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe—entered the crew cabin as spectators gathered from the viewing sections to watch the liftoff.
This mission was unique from previous ones—the Teacher in Space Project established under the Reagan administration sought to expand scientific knowledge through teachers experiencing spaceflight. Christa McAuliffe from Concord, New Hampshire, was chosen as its first participant after a lengthy search. In addition to the crew’s required duties, McAuliffe planned to teach two science lessons while in orbit. Hundreds of thousands of Americans tuned in to watch this special space mission. McAuliffe’s students watched from the auditorium at Concord High School.
At 11:39 a.m. EST, barely 73 seconds after liftoff, the shuttle, fuel tank, and solid rocket boosters (SRBs) disintegrated in an explosive plume of white smoke 40,000 feet in the atmosphere. Shuttle debris rained down, and remnants of the SRBs flew unguided. Spectators from around the world would never forget the harrowing scene.
For months following the breakup, the U.S. Navy, Coast Guard, and NASA’s emergency response crews combed the surrounding land and sea for the crew. That same evening, President Ronald Reagan postponed his scheduled State of the Union Address and instead addressed the public from the Oval Office, speaking about the accident. He spoke about what had happened, lamented the loss of the astronauts, and praised their courage. He closed by saying:
“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.”’
People everywhere asked what could have caused this terrible catastrophe?
On February 1, 1986, a proposal was submitted to President Reagan to establish a Presidential commission to investigate the circumstances and causes of the Challenger disaster. Distinguished leaders in scientific fields, technical experts, and bureaucracy management were sought after to fill the commission and review NASA’s reports and safety protocols.
Two days later, President Reagan signed Executive Order 12546 creating the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident. Nicknamed the Rogers Commission after chairman William P. Rogers (former Secretary of State), the members looked at NASA’s management structure, examined recovered debris, reviewed telemetric data, and investigated links between NASA and various civilian contractors, including Morton-Thiokol, manufacturer of the rocket boosters.
The commission found that the O-rings sealing the joints in the boosters failed as a result of the cold weather. The pressurized gases caused flames to eject and compromise the fuel tank. Commission member and notable physicist Richard Feynman demonstrated this structural flaw during a press conference showing that with long enough exposure to cold temperatures, O-ring resilience was damaged.
In addition to technical and engineering faults, the Rogers Commission also reviewed the managerial and decision making process inside NASA. Morton-Thiokol engineers reiterated their O-ring concerns to NASA and pushed to have the flight cancelled to properly address the issue. However, these concerns didn’t move up through the ranks of the safety personnel, and senior NASA personnel deemed the O-ring as an acceptable flight risk. This decision ultimately had fatal consequences.
Richard Feynman concluded in his part of the investigation that there were serious deficiencies in NASA’s safety management and a lack of scientific understanding on the part of engineering. The commission ultimately submitted nine recommendations to President Reagan, Congress, and NASA on how to avoid future disasters, including independent oversight, shuttle restructuring, communication improvements, and new abort procedures.
While the Rogers Commission continued to research and interview key figures about the accident, the remains of the Challenger crew were retrieved after weeks of searching and transferred to the families on April 29, 1986.
Resnik, Scobee, and Smith were interred at Arlington National Cemetery, Onizuka in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, Jarvis’s ashes were released into the Pacific Ocean, and Ronald McNair and Christa McAuliffe were buried in their respective hometowns. On May 20, 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger Memorial was dedicated at Arlington, recognizing their sacrifice and dedication to space exploration.
On the 35th anniversary of the Challenger disaster, we still remember the loss of the crew and their courage in pursuing space exploration and the advancement of human understanding of the universe.
Visit NASA’s history website for a complete copy of the Rogers Commission Report.