It came like a shock to the system on Jan. 28, 1986, 25 years ago, when the Space Shuttle Challenger was lost 73 seconds into its flight from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The 25th flight of the space shuttle, known by NASA’s intricate numbering system as STS-51L, was launched that morning. The launches had grown commonplace over the previous five years, an indication that the shuttle was beginning to fulfill its promise as a vehicle providing “routine” access to orbit. And NASA had started to fly the first European astronauts and two members of Congress — Sen. Jake Garn (R-Utah) and Rep. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) — as well as payload specialists from corporations, and even a Saudi prince.
This flight of Challenger was different, however, for it carried, in addition to six other astronauts, the first teacher in space, Christa McAuliffe. NASA promised that the shuttle would offer the most exciting learning experience ever. Students from around the country eagerly watched its launch, anticipating the classroom in space that McAuliffe would supply. President Ronald Reagan embraced this new opportunity, planning to talk it up in his State of the Union address scheduled for that evening.
If the shuttle program outwardly looked routine and astoundingly successful at the beginning of 1986, there were significant weaknesses in it that the loss of Challenger illuminated. By January 1986, there had been only 24 shuttle flights, although in the 1970s NASA had projected more flights than that for every year. While the system was reusable, its complexity, coupled with the ever-present rigors of flying repeatedly in both air and space, meant that the turnaround time between flights was several months instead of several days. In addition, missions were delayed for all manner of problems associated with ensuring the safety and performance of such a complex system. Since the flight schedule did not meet expectations, and since it took thousands of work hours and expensive parts to keep the system performing satisfactorily, some observers began to criticize NASA for failing to meet the cost-effectiveness expectations that had been used to gain the approval of the shuttle program more than a decade earlier.
In some respects, therefore, there was some agreement at the time of the Challenger accident that the effort had been both a triumph and a tragedy. The program had been an engagingly ambitious program that had developed an exceptionally sophisticated vehicle, one that no other nation on Earth could have built at the time. As such, it had been an enormously successful program. At the same time, the shuttle was essentially a continuation of space spectaculars, à la Apollo, and its much-touted cost-effective routine access capabilities had not been realized.
The loss of Challenger prompted a crescendo in criticisms of NASA and the space shuttle program, some deserved but many others not. Disaster came about 11:40 a.m. EST on Jan. 28, as a result of a leak in one of two solid-rocket boosters that detonated the main liquid fuel tank. The day had been exceptionally cold, with icicles hanging off the gantry of the launch complex, and the decision to launch in those temperatures proved fatal as a joint failed to seal properly in the abnormal icy conditions.
Seven astronauts — Francis R. Scobee, Michael J. Smith, Judith A. Resnik, Ronald E. McNair, Ellison S. Onizuka, Gregory B. Jarvis and McAuliffe — died in this horrific catastrophe. The accident, which would have been traumatic for the American people under even the best of situations, was made that much worse because the Challenger’s crewmembers represented a cross-section of the population in terms of race, gender, geography, background and religion. The accident, televised as it was, became one of the most witnessed events of the 1980s as billions around the world saw it replayed over and over again.
A blue ribbon presidential commission chaired by William P. Rogers was convened to find the cause of the tragedy. It found that the accident resulted from a poor engineering decision: An O-ring used to seal joints in the solid-rocket booster that was susceptible to failure at low temperatures had been introduced into the system years earlier. After some prodding by member Richard P. Feynman, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist, the commission did a credible job of grappling with these technical reasons for the accident and provided useful guidance for NASA to follow in returning the program to flight in 1988.
But perceptions of the space agency — and its shuttle program — were altered by this accident. We had hailed NASA as the “can do” agency that took America to the Moon, and indeed it deserved that praise and more, but thereafter the story was more about how far it had fallen in its capabilities since the glory days of Apollo. Hackneyed news stories with titles like “Lost in Space” and “NASA’s Troubled Flight Plan” questioned every aspect of NASA. Could it still be trusted? Had time passed it by? Those questions have not abated since the late 1980s, and they became louder and more persistent with the loss of Columbia in 2003.
As we recall Challenger’s loss 25 years ago, we also may recognize why that accident proved so devastating. There is something deep inside human beings that is satisfied by the prospects of leaving this planet. These great machines hurling humanity in space thrill us in ways few can express effectively. The power of a big rocket’s launch is daunting. Impressive over the television, in person it is overwhelming, even uniquely magical. Novelist Ray Bradbury once commented: “Too many of us have lost the passion and emotion of the remarkable things we’ve done in space. Let us not tear up the future, but rather again heed the creative metaphors that render space travel a religious experience. When the blast of a rocket launch slams you against the wall and all the rust is shaken off your body, you will hear the great shout of the universe and the joyful crying of people who have been changed by what they’ve seen.” No one leaves a space shuttle launch unchanged.
Spaceflight, for all of its technical minutiae, is a deeply spiritual experience that reaches into the depths of the human psyche. While we have long recognized that anything of merit must be achieved through sacrifice, the Challenger accident robbed us of the thrill of spaceflight so innocently embraced beforehand. For now we had witnessed not only the rust being shaken off but also the loss of our colleagues, comrades and friends; they were the best people we had for this trip into the unknown. It dashed the images of the best in the national spirit, for a shuttle launch is, in the words of journalist Greg Easterbrook, “a metaphor of national inspiration: majestic, technologically advanced, produced at dear cost and entrusted with precious cargo, rising above the constraints of the Earth.”
Even as it brought criticism and self-reflection, losing Challenger on that icy January morning 25 years ago also steeled our resolve to continue the adventure. President Reagan said it best that night when he spoke to the nation: “We’ll continue our quest in space. There will be more shuttle flights and more shuttle crews and, yes, more volunteers, more civilians, more teachers in space. Nothing ends here; our hopes and our journeys continue. … The crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. 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.’”
Roger D. Launius is a senior curator in the Space History Division of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington.