What Spacecraft Blown Up?

On January 28th 1986, NASA’s space shuttle Challenger disintegrated within 73 seconds after launch and killed all seven of its crew members – Christa McAuliffe was among them and Francis “Dick” Scobee, Michael Smith, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka and Judith Resnik were also aboard this vessel.

Tragic events unfolded due to the breakdown of rubber “O-rings” exposed to low temperatures during preparations for liftoff.


On January 28th 1986, NASA’s space shuttle Challenger exploded just 73 seconds after launch and killed all seven astronauts aboard, sending shockwaves through the nation and forcing NASA to delay resuming their shuttle program until September 1988 when Discovery took flight.

Accident occurred due to the failure of rubber O-ring seals in the shuttle’s right solid rocket booster segment joints, leading to its disintegration shortly thereafter. Commander Francis Scobee; pilot Michael Smith; mission specialists Ronald McNair and Judith Resnik; payload specialist Ellison Onizuka; as well as teacher Christa McAuliffe were lost.

Engineers feared O-rings might leak during cold launch temperatures asked NASA to delay, but management instead chose to ignore their concerns and go ahead with launch, according to an investigation into the disaster. A Rogers Commission report issued afterward detailed how “launch fever” at NASA contributed to this mishap.


Space shuttle Columbia, on its 28th mission and first reusable manned vehicle ever flown, disintegrated upon reentry into Earth’s atmosphere on February 1, 2003 and killed all seven astronauts aboard, including Commander Rick Husband, Pilot William McCool, Mission Specialist Kalpana Chawla Laurel Clark Michael Anderson as well as Israeli payload specialist Ilan Ramon.

At liftoff, a piece of foam from an external tank broke off and hit the shuttle’s left wing, creating a hole. Reentry caused gases and smoke to enter through this hole and ultimately led to its destruction seven minutes before landing.

NASA was devastated by this disaster and suspended all shuttle flights for three years; only when Discovery made her maiden voyage did their shuttle program resume in 1988. Columbia remains one of the worst spacecraft accidents; seven crewmembers perished during its mission and due to this event the NASA Shuttle Safety Advisory Panel was established.

Space Shuttle Flights

In 1986, space shuttle Challenger disintegrated during liftoff, killing all seven astronauts aboard. Its final mission, STS-51-L, had been designed to deploy and study Halley’s Comet; Christa McAuliffe from New Hampshire had been selected by NASA as its inaugural citizen astronaut.

Accident investigators believe the cause was due to a foam piece on the shuttle’s external tank that ruptured, creating a hole in its wing and allowing atmospheric gases to enter, eventually leading to overheating and subsequent breakup of the spacecraft.

President Ronald Reagan appointed an investigation committee led by former Secretary of State William Rogers that found NASA as a whole responsible, as well as Marshall Space Flight Center and Morton Thiokol of Ogden, Utah for this disaster. A major overhaul to their shuttle program ensued including adding an abort system and lessened pressure to launch frequently.

Spacecraft Accidents

Since the start of space programs, several humans have died due to accidents during assembly, testing and preparation for flight. There have also been multiple instances in which spacecraft have exploded before or during launch.

Investigators of the Virgin Galactic copilot accident that resulted in his death last year have concluded that human error played a substantial role. The National Transportation Safety Board determined that pilot Michael Alsbury had prematurely unlocked SpaceShipTwo’s feather system – designed to rotate its tail booms upward during reentry into Earth’s atmosphere – which prevents premature unlocking. This action proved too much for the system’s capacity to handle turbulence and external aerodynamic loads, leading to its destruction over California’s Mojave Desert. NTSB investigators have also identified gaps in safety culture at Scaled Composites, the company responsible for SpaceShipTwo production. Investigators noted that Scaled Composites disregarded lessons learned elsewhere in aviation and failed to implement adequate safeguards against single-person errors; officials have yet to decide if Scaled Composites should be closed down by NTSB officials.

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