The Challenger Disaster

spacecraft challenger

On January 28th 1986, Challenger made history when it launched into space. Christa McAuliffe qualified for her mission through NASA’s Teacher in Space program and was chosen as part of its crew.

Challenger and its nine successful voyages prior to its demise marked many important milestones. Lessons learned from its flights led to the design of orbiters with reduced thermal protection system tiles and lighter wings and fuselages.


On January 28, 1986, NASA’s pride and joy, the space shuttle Challenger, took flight over Florida. Millions watched its takeoff; among those present was high school teacher Christa McAuliffe – soon-to-be first civilian to travel into space. However, only 73 seconds into its flight, Challenger disintegrated into long, ugly fingers of white smoke engulfing all its crewmembers as it disintegrated, killing all aboard and shattering public faith in its program.

The STS-6 crew consisted of veteran astronauts Paul J. Weitz and F. Story Musgrave as well as first-time flyers Donald Peterson and Karol J. Bobko; these four embarked upon their mission with a day of cleaning, conducting experiments, using McDonnell Douglas Astronautics Co. of St Louis’ Continuous Flow Electrophoresis System to purify biological samples in microgravity; capcom Covey played “The Poor Co-pilot,” a Korean War vintage song to wake them up as their fifth full day arrived – this time to help wake them up!


Challenger astronauts performed many of its most notable missions, such as STS-8 for night launch and landing, Spacelab flights 51F/51B, untethered spacewalk using Manned Maneuvering Unit, WESTAR/Palapa B-2 satellite deployment, nonfunctional Solar Maximum Mission satellite transport and the first untethered spacewalk using MMU.

Two major pieces of the shuttle washed ashore near Kennedy Space Center in Florida and were eventually recovered and placed inside abandoned Minuteman missile silos for burial and disposal. NASA made necessary technical changes following this accident, resuming flights in 1988.

Challenger was piloted by Francis R. “Dick” Scobee and pilot Michael Smith; mission specialists Ellison Onizuka and Judith Resnik served under Hughes Aircraft Corp’s sponsorship; while payload specialist Gregory Jarvis worked under federal government control during flight. Discovery Channel will air a documentary about this incident in November 2022.


On a cold Florida morning in January 1986, Challenger made its tenth flight as part of NASA’s Teacher in Space Project and STS-51-L. Millions tuned in to watch this high-profile mission which would carry Christa McAuliffe into space and deploy satellites as well as conduct comet observations. Millions tuned in via television as millions turned on TV sets around the country for live coverage of this high-profile mission aimed at taking civilian schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe into space as well as performing comet observations during her stay on board Challenger.

Challenger was NASA’s second Space Shuttle orbiter when it entered service in July 1982 as STA-099; she flew nine missions before its destruction by an explosion on January 28, 1986. According to the Rogers Commission investigation, one of Challenger’s solid rocket boosters failed causing pressured gas release into an external tank, leading to launch failure and loss of all crewmembers aboard Challenger.

The disaster was an eye-opener for engineers. It showed us that even managers with engineering backgrounds aren’t always informed on current engineering practices.


On January 28th 1986, just 73 seconds after liftoff, space shuttle Challenger was disintegrated, killing all seven members of its crew instantly and sending shockwaves through America.

Engineers had advised their superiors that Florida’s cold weather may wreak havoc with rubber O-ring seals of solid rocket boosters, yet these concerns went ignored at launch time. Instead, the Challenger entered an extreme aerodynamic pressure period known as “Max-Q.”

As the craft launched from Max-Q and reached maximum altitude, one of its O-rings failed, allowing hot gasses to penetrate its connection and punch a hole through its fuel tank, which ruptured and caused an explosion that sent all crewmembers hurtling into the Atlantic Ocean and killed everyone aboard – it was one of NASA’s worst accidents and caused significant technical changes as well as improving safety culture among its workforce – as well as raising public awareness of space exploration programs more generally. This incident brought public scrutiny upon space programs generally.

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