Click the image to see Space.com's memorial of the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster.
Everyone in the world, it seemed, witnessed the disaster live. This was a special launch because Christa McAuliffe, a high school teacher from New Hampshire - a regular person - was going into space for the first time as part of the "Teacher in Space" program. Teachers around the world tuned in during class, their students watching live, learning about everything related to planning and launching a Space Shuttle and its mission.
At the time, I was studying astronomy at the University of Minnesota, a freshman. For the launch, I was in the student union, having lunch with my friend Krista McCallum as was our routine almost every day. We were both particularly excited about the near-coincidence of names, and both of us hoped to be teachers one day; I'd even gotten a scholarship from our hometown school teacher's association. And of course we dreamed of one day being astronauts, as well. Christa McAuliffe carried our dreams with her - she was us! This moment belonged to us as much as to anyone else not directly involved in the flight or related to the crew members. Golly, I can't tell you how excited we were!
This was an important launch because the Space Shuttle had come to be considered merely a semi-truck ferrying cargo to low orbit. Partly to address dwindling popular interest in their flagship Shuttle program, NASA had instituted the Teacher in Space Program. The Space Shuttle had become mundane, its launches routine. No one had been tuning in any longer, and visitors to see live launches had dwindled to small groups of enthusiasts.
But not today. At 11:38AM (Florida time) on January 28, 1986, we all cheered as the flight narrator announced, "We have lift-off of the Space Shuttle Challenger." We watched the ungainly cluster of fat spaceship, external solid-rocket boosters, and external hydrogen tank rise and rotate, trailing its signature three-plume exhaust: two yellow pillars so bright that photographic equipment must stop down apertures, and in the center the gorgeous blue exhaust of the liquid-fuel engines, almost invisible against the solid-rocket's glare.
Seventy-two seconds into the flight, those infamous O-rings had seeped enough solid-rocket exhaust to destroy the skeleton that held everything together. Most importantly, the errant exhaust burned a hole through the external fuel tank and intertank, venting hydrogen and oxygen gases which ignited in a ball of flame.
The seven-astronaut crew of Challenger's STS-51L mission: commander Dick Scobee, pilot Mike Smith; mission specialists Judy Resnik; Ellison Onizuka, and Ron McNair; and payload specialists Greg Jarvis and Christa McAuliffe:
Click the image to see Space.com's description of the Challenger Space Shuttle's final crew and an analysis of what went wrong.
The televisions in the dining area were tuned live to the launch, of course, like most every television in the nation. Everyone gradually grew quiet as this new streamer of flame appeared. We'd all seen dozens of flights before, and this wasn't how it was supposed to go. Almost exactly one minute later, a horrible ball of fire erupted and all the pieces flew apart, trailing plumes of exhaust off at crazy angles.
In the dining area, everyone's faces bore confusion. Some students and teachers had their hands over their mouths. I don't remember much detail about this time except feelings: It couldn't be what it seemed to be; surely this was just another solid-rocket-booster and external-tank separation, right? But why so early? What had gone wrong? What's going on? Surveys later revealed that more than 85% of Americans knew about the disaster within the hour.
We listened in silence as the TV announcer tried to relay information, but he didn't have much to say. No, the astronauts weren't responding. Was the Challenger in aerodynamic flight? It was unclear. We were in denial: It can't have been destroyed. If it had indeed exploded as the video seemed to have shown, surely the Shuttle had made it clear. Surely the astronauts could eject if the Shuttle was too damaged to land. Right?
Reports began filtering in, dashing hopes. Scorched fragments of Challenger on the floor of the Pacific Ocean. It wasn't until later that we learned of the pieces of spacesuit also discovered. That's when we knew it was safe to mourn. The whole nation mourned, indeed space enthusiasts the world over felt this as a personal blow. Not only because we had lost seven brave astronaut-scientists, but because of what this might mean in the long run: Would manned spaceflight recover? Modern society had lost its grit, and any loss of life was unacceptable. Would the American people resume the program after such a public tragedy?
In fact, almost three years passed before another Shuttle launch lit up the skies over Cape Canaveral. In the mean time, the Rogers Commission reported that NASA had been aware - since 1977 - of a design flaw in the external boosters' O-rings that could create a serious problem in low temperatures - as the Cape experienced on that fateful morning. The Rogers Commission offered NASA nine recommendations that had to be implemented before Space Shuttle flights could resume. Of course, since then we discovered another fatal flaw when the Space Shuttle Columbia broke up over Texas on February 1, 2003, a flaw which has since been addressed.
Even though I was not involved with NASA in any way, this was a moment that changed my life. I felt as if the door to a future in astronautics had closed off. Not because I was afraid of experiencing a similar disaster and dying at launch - every time you climb aboard a mountain of explosives, that's a possibility. But because I feared our nation would lose its will to explore. Even if I were never to become an astronaut, myself - and I was realistic enough to grudgingly accept this - I feared that we would never again have astronauts at all. My earliest dreams were to explore, and after reading my first science-fiction stories, those dreams of exploration pointed to the stars. When I became more educated about things astronomical, I knew that one day I would explore the moons of Jupiter. At least, someone would do the exploring for me, and I could bask in the glory of exploring by proxy as a fellow human being once more walked on the surface of another world.
January 28, 1986, nearly evaporated those dreams.
Since then, dreams of exploring other worlds myself faded in the glare of time, of course, but it's still possible that I will one day go to space. It's possible because I was wrong about the American people: We did not lose our will. We retained our spirit of exploration. We will one day not only explore our Solar System, but the stars themselves.
This I believe. And we must honor the sacrifices of those who paved the way to the stars. Thank you, Dick Scobee, Mike Smith, Judy Resnik, Ellison Onizuka, Ron McNair, Greg Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe. And thank you to the other astronauts who gave the ultimate sacrifice, and to all the Soviet cosmonauts, as well.
Where were you on this fateful day?