Space Shuttle Challenger Explosion: 24 Years After the Disaster

The space shuttle has been on my mind a lot lately, since 2010 will see the final five shuttle launches for all time.

Already NASA has plans to distribute the decommissioned shuttles to museums and education centers.

And the space agency just announced that the Endeavour launch, slated for February 7, will be the last-ever night launch of a space shuttle, bringing to a close the opportunity to see the fiery glory of lift-off against a darkened sky.

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Challenger during the first-ever night launch on September 23, 1983

—Image courtesy NASA

But today my space shuttle musings are especially emotional, since this day marks the 24th year since the space shuttle Challenger and all seven crew members were lost shortly after launch.

Challenger was the second space shuttle to fly, the first being Columbia, also lost in a 2003 disaster that claimed the lives of everyone on board.

During its nine successful missions between 1983 and 1985, Challenger helped ring in a number of firsts for manned spaceflight: first female U.S. astronaut, first African-American astronaut, first night launch.

Sadly, on January 28, 1986, Challenger earned the grim distinction of being the first space shuttle destroyed in flight and the first mission to see U.S. astronauts lost in flight.

[That last part is pretty amazing, by the way, considering that the U.S. has been sending people into space since 1961.]

The last Challenger mission, STS-51L, lasted all of 1 minute, 13 seconds and traveled just 18 miles (28.9 kilometers) before a failure in the right solid rocket booster caused the craft to explode.

The disaster shook the country to the core. Instead of delivering his planned State of the Union address, then U.S. President Ronald Reagan delivered a message of “mourning and remembering” on national broadcasts that same day.

“I want to say something to the schoolchildren of America who were watching the live coverage of the shuttle’s takeoff,” Reagan said during his speech.

“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 was in grade school when the Challenger explosion rocked the world, although I wasn’t one of those watching the launch on TV.

But I clearly remember my mom, who was a math teacher at the time, getting visibly shaken as she listened to a news report on the car radio about the loss of Challenger’s crew, which included schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe.

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Discovery on approach to the International Space Station in October 2007

—Image courtesy NASA

Reagan was right, and we did continue to follow Challenger into the future—although only after roughly two-year hiatus filled with accident reports, technical evaluations, and a lot of debate about the risk-to-benefit ratio of sending humans into space.

Discovery was the first shuttle to return to flight following the tragedy, on September 29, 1988, which perhaps makes it fitting that Discovery will be the last shuttle to fly.

Today Endeavour, Discovery, and Atlantis are the only working shuttles left of the original fleet of five, and the final flights will rotate between them.

Now, I can only imagine the pure passion it must take to strap into a space shuttle built decades ago, knowing the risks involved, for the sheer sake of advancing human knowledge.

In my mind, no matter what your feelings are on manned spaceflight, there’s no denying that space shuttle crews past, present, and future are national heroes.

Challenger, you are remembered.

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Back row: Ellison S. Onizuka, Sharon Christa McAuliffe, Greg Jarvis, Judy Resnik

Front row: Mike Smith, Dick Scobee, Ron McNair

—Image courtesy NASA

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