Remembering the Challenger Seven

We remember the brace men and women who lost their lives aboard the space shuttle Challenger today in 1968.
In the back row from left to right: Ellison S. Onizuka, Sharon Christa McAuliffe, Greg Jarvis, and Judy Resnik. In the front row from left to right: Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee, and Ron McNair.

“We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of Earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.” – Ronald Regan

STS-51-L crew
Francis R. Scobee, Commander
Michael J. Smith, Pilot
Ronald McNair, Mission Specialist
Ellison Onizuka, Mission Specialist
Judith Resnik, Mission Specialist
Gregory Jarvis, Payload Specialist
Christa McAuliffe, Payload Specialist, Teacher

On January 28, 1986, the seven crewmembers of STS-51-L boarded the Space Shuttle Challenger. The crew was possibly one of the most diverse ever assembled. Teachers, engineers and pilots. Black and white. Men and women. It was a crew that represented the ambitions and capability of the United States of America. They will be forever missed.

At 16:38:00 UTC, Challenger blasted off from Pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center. Just 73 seconds later, the unthinkable happened. Challenger exploded into a ball of flames with one of the Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) continuing skyward as the shuttle broke up and plummeted to the ground.

Although no investigation has ever concluded the exact cause of death of the crew, it is believed that at least two survived the initial explosion. Three Personal Egress Air Packs (PEAPs) were found to have been activated. The positions of the switches indicate the likelihood that mission specialists Judith Resnik and Ellison Onizuka survived the explosion, were conscious enough to activate the switches, and used around 2 minutes and 45 seconds of oxygen. Their last moments were likely harrowing, to say the least.

Following the initial explosion, the Challenger's crew cabin can be seen plummeting back to Earth intact.
The intact crew cabin seen exiting the cloud by a tracking camera | Image credit: NASA

Following the disaster, all shuttle missions were suspending pending an investigation. The Rogers Commission (named after the commission’s chairman) was then formed to investigate the disaster. The commission members were chairman William P. Rogers, Vice Chairman Neil Armstrong, Richard Feynman, Robert Hotz, Robert Rummel, Donald Kutyna, Sally Ride, Albert Wheelon, David Acheson, Eugene Covert, Joseph Sutter, Arthur Walker and Chuck Yeager.

The Rogers Commission discovered that an o-ring (a small rubber seal) between the joints of one of the SRBs had been the cause of the explosion. The rings had been tested extensively under extreme heat. They had, however not been tested under extreme cold. On January 28, 1968, Merrit Island had experienced unseasonably cold -1°C (30°F) temperatures. Under these colder than expected conditions, the rubber seals became brittle. When the SRBs were ignited, exhaust from the booster began to leak out of the joints essential turning each of the 45-meter (147-feet) boosters into a time bomb.

In response to the Rogers Commission report, NASA formed the Office of Safety, Reliability and Quality Assurance. George Martin, formerly of Martin Marietta, was appointed to run the office. SRB contractor, Morton-Thiokol were forced to forfeit a $10 million incentive fee in exchange for not being forced to accept liability. NASA’s unrealistic launch schedule, a schedule the agency had never even come close to achieving was scrapped in favour of a more realistic one. Plans for a shuttle launch facility at Vandenberg Air Force Base costing an estimated $4 billion were also scrapped. Although appearing extensive the changes were considered by many to be neither deep nor long-lasting, a frighteningly accurate prediction.

The shuttle would return to service on September 19, 1988, with the launch of Discovery for STS-26.

Andrew Parsonson is a space enthusiast and the founder of Rocket Rundown. He has worked as a journalist and blogger for various industries for over 5 years and has a passion for both fictional and real-life space travel. Currently, Andrew is the primary writer for Rocket Rundown as we look to expand our reach and credibility.