challenger disaster pictures

The Challenger launches, moments before its destruction. Jan. 28, 1986. (Image: AP)

January 28, 1986, was an exceptionally cold day in Florida, where freezing weather is rare. The beaches near the Kennedy Space Center were crowded with people who had come to watch the launch of the space shuttle Challenger, which had been postponed on several preceding days to great disappointment.

A crew of seven was assigned to the spaceship. Commander Richard Scobee, Pilot Michael Smith, and Mission Specialist Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, and Ronald McNair were astronauts. Gregory Jarvi, an aerospace engineer, and Christa McAuliffe’s assignment, a teacher from New Hampshire, were payload specialists.

Although shuttle launches were considered so routine that network television no longer broadcast them, there was special interest in this one because a teacher — the first private citizen to go into space — was on board.

Christa McAuliffe, the high school social studies teacher, had been chosen from among eleven thousand applicants and was scheduled to teach several lessons during the flight. Students at all grade levels were looking forward to them, and busloads of children had been brought to the viewing area to see the launch, along with many others who were watching from their classrooms via television.

There were concerns in the Mission Control Center. They had asked for three ice inspections of the rockets and the shuttle Challenger. The third inspection, shortly before launch, showed the ice had melted onto the launchpad. The flight had been postponed six times due to bad weather and mechanical issues. There had been another two-hour delay earlier in the morning. A part in the launch processing system had failed during fueling.

challenger disaster pictures

The crew of the Challenger, from left to right: Mission Specialist Ellison Onizuka, Pilot Michael Smith, Christa McAuliffe, Commander Francis “Dick” Scobee, Payload Specialist Gregory Jarvis, Mission Specialist Judith Resnik, and Mission Specialist Ronald McNair.

Like all space launches, this one was spectacular — the ship rose on a raring tower of flame, and bright rockets arced into a clear blue sky. But then something horrifying happened. Seventy-three seconds after liftoff, the rockets’ white vapor trail burst into huge billowing plumes branching off at odd angles.

People who had observed previous launches were puzzled, but cheering from the crowd continued until it was abruptly silenced by an announcement over the loudspeakers: “Obviously a major malfunction”- and, after a pause, “we have a report from the Flight Dynamics Officer that the vehicle has exploded.”

Later, experts learned that the Challenger had not exploded, although most media continued to say that it had; actually, it had disintegrated due to aerodynamic forces after a fire caused by the cold weather’s effect on a poorly-designed joint seal that damaged one of the solid rocket boosters. But from below, it looked like an explosion, and the outcome was equivalent. All seven members of the crew were killed.

Tapes salvaged from the wreckage showed that the instant before breakup Smith said “Uh-oh,” but nothing else was heard. Debris rained into the Atlantic Ocean for more than an hour after the explosion; searches revealed no sign of the crew.

These were the first deaths to occur during a US space flight. Three astronauts had died by fire nineteen years earlier in a capsule test on the ground, but there had been nearly twenty-five years of space flight, fifty-five US missions in a row, without a single in-flight fatality – an almost miraculous record.

challenger disaster pictures

The Space Shuttle Challenger arrives at Kennedy Space Center aboard a Boeing 747. July 5, 1982. (Image: AP Photo / Pete Wright).

Challenger broke up in the explosion, but the forward section with the crew cabin was severed in one piece; it continued to coast upward with other debris, including wings and still-flaming engines and then plummeted to the ocean. It was believed that the crew survived the initial breakup but that loss of cabin pressure rendered them unconscious within seconds since they did not wear pressure suits. Death probably resulted from oxygen deficiency minutes before impact.

The failure was caused by the failure of O-ring seals used in the joint that were not designed to handle the unusually cold conditions that existed at this launch.

The seals’ failure caused a breach in the solid rocket booster (SRB) joint, allowing pressurized burning gas from within the solid rocket motor to reach the outside and impinge upon the adjacent SRB aft field joint attachment hardware and external fuel tank. This led to the separation of the right-hand SRB’s aft field joint attachment and the structural failure of the external tank. Aerodynamic forces broke up the orbiter.

The public, unlike the astronauts and others knowledgeable about space technology, had come to believe that going into space was safe. And so people reacted not only with grief but with shock.

The nation and much of the world were stunned by the accident. Children who saw it on live TV were devastated. For days-and in some cases years afterward, many Americans were deeply upset, far beyond the sorrow felt for victims of other disasters.

Twenty-something years later an editorial in the North Carolina newspaper Mount Airy News summed up a view that is often expressed throughout the United States: “I think when that shuttle flight ended, when McAuliffe and the other astronauts died… something was lost in our nation. Space was no longer the final frontier, something to be explored and tamed. It became a dangerous place, empty, and the value of exploring it became an empty promise, that couldn’t possibly live up to the danger or expense.”

challenger disaster pictures

The space shuttle Challenger rolls toward the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center before its first flight on April 4, 1983. Nov. 30, 1982. (Image: Ron Lindsey / AP).

challenger disaster pictures

Christa McAuliffe watches a successful launch of the space shuttle Challenger after being selected to join a later mission. Oct. 30, 1985. (Image: Jim Neihouse / AP).

challenger disaster pictures

Christa McAuliffe experiences weightlessness for the first time aboard a NASA aircraft which flies in parabolic arcs to approximate zero gravity. January 1986. (Image: NASA).

challenger disaster pictures

Christa McAuliffe gives a thumbs-up as she prepares for a test flight at Kennedy Space Center. Jan. 24, 1986. (Image: Phil Sandlin / AP).

challenger disaster pictures

The crew of the Challenger leave their quarters on their way to the launch pad. Jan. 27, 1986. (Image: Steve Helber / AP).

challenger disaster pictures

Ice coats the launch facility on the morning of the launch. (Image: AP).

challenger disaster pictures

The Challenger lifts off, approximately one minute before its catastrophic explosion. (Image: Thom Baur / AP).

challenger disaster pictures

Classmates of Christa McAuliffe’s son cheer as the Challenger launches skyward. (Image: Jim Cole / AP).

challenger disaster pictures

The Challenger explodes 73 seconds into flight, nine miles above the Atlantic Ocean. (Image: Bruce Weaver / AP).

challenger disaster pictures

The two solid rocket boosters careen on for another 37 seconds before being remotely deactivated. (Image: Steve Helber / AP).

challenger disaster pictures

Spectators react after the explosion of the Challenger. (Image: AP).

challenger disaster pictures

Christa McAuliffe’s sister Betsy and parents Ed and Grace Corrigan react in anguish to the explosion of the shuttle. (Image: Jim Cole / AP).

challenger disaster pictures

Concord High School student Carina Dolcino stands in stunned silence after watching the live broadcast of the launch at a school assembly. (Image: Ken Williams / Concord Monitor / AP).

challenger disaster pictures

Billy Gifford rubs his eyes while holding his grandson Jimmy Stillman, 8, during a memorial service for Christa McAuliffe at a church in Concord, New Hampshire. Jan. 29, 1986. (Image: Peter Southwick / AP).

challenger disaster pictures

A flag flies at half-mast at Kennedy Space Center after the explosion. (Image: Jim Cole / AP).

challenger disaster pictures

Children attend a memorial service for Christa McAuliffe at a church in Concord, New Hampshire. (Image: Peter Southwick / AP).

challenger disaster pictures

A child cries during a memorial service for Christa McAuliffe at a church in Concord, New Hampshire. (Image: Peter Southwick / AP),

challenger disaster pictures

The front starboard section of the shuttle is recovered from the ocean. (Image: AP).

challenger disaster pictures

Coast Guardsmen prepare to hoist the fulcrum of a solid rocket booster out of the ocean during Challenger salvage operations. Jan. 31, 1986. (Image: AP).

challenger disaster pictures

A cross and wreath stand on the beach as a Coast Guard cutter heads out to search for debris from the explosion. February 1986. (Image: Jim Neihouse / AP).

challenger disaster pictures

President Ronald Reagan and members of his senior staff watch a replay of the disaster. Feb. 3, 1986. (Image: Pete Souza / AP).

challenger disaster pictures

Lisa Mitten wipes tears from her eyes as her daughter Jessica reads some of the letters of sympathy from around the country on display at Concord High School. (Image: Toby Talbot / AP).

(Photo credit: AP / NASA / Getty Images / Article based on The Challenger Disaster – Perspectives on Modern World History)