NASA remembers Challenger disaster and two other tragedies

Challenger disaster

The Challenger disaster that killed teacher Christa McAuliffe and six astronauts joins two other NASA tragedies remembered in one week. Image: JSC Digital Image Collection

The final mission of the space shuttle Challenger ended in disaster 25 years ago on Jan. 28, 1986. After 25 years of human spaceflight, the Challenger disaster was the first in-flight catastrophe for NASA. But the anniversary of three fatal calamities, including the Challenger disaster will be remembered by NASA in a week’s time.

An unforgettable tragic moment

The Challenger disaster was especially heartbreaking to the nation because Christa McAuliffe, a 37-year-old high school teacher, was on board. Christa McAuliffe was selected from 11,000 other teachers to go along for the ride through a NASA public relations effort called the “Teacher in Space Program.” When Challenger’s external fuel tank exploded and the space shuttle broke apart 73 seconds after liftoff, McAuliffe and six astronauts were killed. For most American adults on that fateful day, the Challenger disaster became an event frozen in time much like the  John F. Kennedy assassination on Nov. 22, 1963.  Exactly where these people were and what they were doing when they heard the news are indelibly burned into their memories.

How the Challenger disaster unfolded

A misconception about the Challenger disaster is that the space shuttle exploded. But the Challenger “explosion” is a factual error perpetuated by the media. Challenger’s external fuel tank, the massive, rust-colored, bullet-shaped structure under the space shuttle, collapsed. The tank’s contents, about 1.5 million gallons of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, exploded in a spectacular fireball. As the shuttle’s solid rocket boosters, the twin white towers on either side of the external fuel tank, spiraled off in different directions, the space shuttle kept rising. But intense aerodynamic forces ripped it apart. The astronauts were likely alive until the crew cabin hit the Atlantic Ocean at more than 200 miles per hour.

The Apollo 1 and Columbia disasters

The 25th anniversary of the Challenger disaster is being commemorated one day after the Apollo 1 disaster 44 years ago on Jan. 27, 1967. The first planned mission of the Apollo program to the moon ended in tragedy a month before its scheduled launch. Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Edward H. White and Roger B. Chaffee burned to death when a fire broke out in the space capsule during a mission test. On Feb.1, 2003, seven astronauts aboard the space shuttle Columbia died when heat-resistant tiles failed on its return from orbit and the vehicle disintegrated as it streaked over Texas.


National Geographic


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