On this day in 1986, NASA shuttle orbiter mission STS-51-L, the tenth flight of Space Shuttle Challenger (OV-99) breaks apart 73 seconds into its flight, killing all seven crew members. Approximately 17 percent of Americans witnessed the launch live, including millions of school children, due to the presence of payload specialist Christa McAuliffe, a New Hampshire teacher chosen as the first such civilian astronaut in space.
The STS crew compartment and many other vehicle fragments were eventually recovered from the ocean floor after lengthy search and recovery. The exact timing of the death of the crew is unknown; several crew members are known to have survived the initial breakup of the spacecraft. The shuttle had no escape system, and the impact of the crew compartment with the ocean surface was too violent to be survivable.
The Reagan-appointed Rogers Commission, including Neil Armstrong and Chuck Yeager, concluded disintegration of the vehicle began after an O-ring seal in its right solid rocket booster (SRB) failed at liftoff. The O-ring was not designed to fly under unusually cold conditions as in this launch, and weather conditions at Cape Canaveral had delayed liftoff six long days as the Challenger‘s countdown clock was repeatedly reset. It was further found that NASA managers disregarded warnings from engineers about the dangers of launching posed by the low temperatures of that morning, and failed to adequately report these technical concerns to their superiors through the go-no-go procedure.
The disaster resulted in a 32-month hiatus in the shuttle program, and the USAF cancelled its plans to use the Shuttle for classified military satellite launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, electing to use the Titan IV instead. On September 29, 1988, space shuttle flights resumed with the successful launch of the Discovery. 110 subsequent STS flights carried out numerous important operations, inclusive of the ill-fated Columbia mission (STS-107, crew and orbiter lost on re-entry), from the repair and maintenance of the Hubble Space Telescope, to countless thousands of in-flight experiments and finally, construction of the International Space Station.
Of the disaster, astronaut and NASA lead accident investigator Robert Overmyer said, “I not only flew with Dick Scobee, we owned a plane together, and I know Scob did everything he could to save his crew. Scob fought for any and every edge to survive. He flew that ship without wings all the way down . . . they were alive.” In effort to salve the nation’s wounds, Pres. Reagan stated “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.”