The Challenger disaster was a tragedy that was viewed by millions and changed space travel forever.
On January 28, 1986, the shuttle Challenger, launching for its 10th mission to space, exploded just 73 seconds after takeoff. Across the nation, millions watched live on TV as the shuttle exploded and everyone on board was killed. The Challenger disaster horrified an entire nation and changed NASA’s plans for the future.
Among the victims of the Challenger disaster was Christa McAuliffe, a New Hampshire teacher who was selected to be a part of the mission and teach lessons to schoolchildren from space.
Weather and technical issues delayed the initial launch from Kennedy Space Center for six days. Reports indicate that engineers warned their superiors that the particularly frigid temperatures on the day of the launch could cause problems. In particular, there were concerns that rubber O-rings, designed to help separate the sections of the rocket boosters, could become brittle and fail at such cold temperatures.
President Ronald Reagan put together a special commission called the Rogers Commission to investigate what went wrong that day and ensure that future disasters could be averted. The commission, which included former astronaut Neil Armstrong, determined that the O-ring seals on the shuttle’s solid rocket boosters did, in fact, fail because of the cold temperatures, just as the engineers had warned.
Flames emerged from the solid rocket boosters, damaged the external fuel tank, and ultimately caused the explosion.
Additionally, the commission determined that Morton Thiokol, who designed the solid rocket boosters, ignored warnings about potential issues. They failed to take action on those red flags, as did managers at NASA who ignored similar warnings.
At the time of the Challenger explosion, NASA was regularly sending astronauts into space on shuttle missions. The Challenger disaster prompted NASA to suspend missions for a full two years. They spent that time redesigning many of the shuttle’s features.
In the fall of 1988, NASA launched Discovery, a new shuttle that took many lessons from the Challenger disaster. Discovery would go on to be an important part of many NASA missions, including repairs on the Hubble Space Telescope and taking part in the construction of the International Space Station, which is still in orbit today.
Unfortunately, the Challenger disaster wasn’t the last shuttle tragedy that would strike the U.S. space program. On Feb. 1, 2003, the Columbia disintegrated on reentry following a mission. This tragedy also killed everyone aboard the shuttle.
In 2011, NASA shuttered the space shuttle program after final missions from Discovery, Endeavor, and Atlantis. Missions still take place and Americans take part in the International Space Station, but the shuttle program has not returned.
NASA still needs STEM professionals to keep their other programs running safely, though. SpaceX and NASA are planning missions to Mars, NASA is ramping up for the Asteroid Redirect Mission, and there are many satellite projects that are teaching us valuable things about our solar system. Check out this checklist for working at NASA.