The Challenger Disaster



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The Challenger Disaster

Gunnar Matherly


History 153
August 19, 2015

In 1984, Vice President George H. W. Bush announced NASA’s “Teacher in Space Project” and New Hampshire’s Concord High School teacher Christa McAuliffe enthusiastically applied (Encyclopedia, 2014). Over a year after Bush’s announcement, the NASA Space Flight Participant Evaluation Committee unanimously selected McAuliffe to become the “first teacher in space” (Encyclopedia, 2014). Representing the “average” American, McAuliffe “resolved to keep a record of her journey for posterity, the journal of an "everyday teacher" in space” (Encyclopedia, 2014). It was an exciting time in the U.S. space program and all eyes were on the various cable television broadcasts of the Challenger space shuttle as it launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, on January 28, 1986. Within seconds of launch, the country watched in horror as the spacecraft burst into diverging trails of smoke and the story of the “first teacher in space” ended horrifically.

As part of the “teacher in space” program, classrooms across the country were tuned in to live television to watch the launch of the Challenger. Instead of a science lesson, teachers were faced with trying to console students and explain the tragedy. There were seven crew members aboard the Challenger. Aside from McAuliffe and Gregory B. Jarvis (a Hughes Aircraft employee), the crew included experienced astronauts Dick Scobee, Michael Smith, Judith Resnick, Ronald McNair, and Ellison Onizuka (NASA, 2004). On the day of the explosion the BBC reported, “The astronauts' families, at the airbase, and millions of Americans witnessed the world's worst space disaster live on TV” (BBC, 1986). After the explosion, cable television news stations ran 24-hour footage of the explosion along with the crew members, dressed in their orange suits, as they smiled and waved to cameras and boarded the ship just prior to launch.

Immediately after the explosion, search and rescue operations began, but “the danger from falling debris prevented rescue boats reaching the scene for more than an hour” (BBC, 1986). On March 10, 1986, the U.S. Navy divers located the crew cabinet compartment in Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida, reports stated “Navy divers have located wreckage of the crew compartment of the space shuttle Challenger lying on the ocean bottom in 100 feet of water and confirmed that it contains remains of the astronauts killed nearly six weeks ago” (Isikoff, 1986). Once the crew compartment was retrieved from the waters, in investigation ensued, “On first inspection, it was obvious that the shuttle Challenger’s crew vessel had survived the explosion during ascent. A 2-year-long investigation into how the crew cabin, and possibly its occupants, had survived was begun” (Barbee, 1997). While many spectators of the crash and members of NASA’s mission control initially believed the seven crew members had likely died instantly, “they were wrong…they were alive all the way down” (Barbee, 1997).


Compared to the space programs of other nations, the “U.S. built its space program around the most complex flying machine ever, the reusable space shuttle” (Hotz, 2011). The Challenger was the 25th space shuttle launch of the NASA program and none of the previous spacecraft had experienced devastating failure. President Ronald Reagan appointed the Rogers Commission to investigate the causes of the disaster and NASA postponed the space shuttle program for nearly three years. The Rogers Commission “revealed that the space program had grown overconfident about its procedures. Slipshod technology had contributed to the tragedy…” (Ayers, 2006). Specifically, the Rogers Commission determined the Challenger disaster was caused by a seal failure in the “O-rings” which allowed a gas leak to become exposed to a flame (Rogers Commission, 1986).

Despite the horror of having watched the spacecraft explode and seven crew members perish on live television, the NASA program would eventually continue with support from the American people. “The incident did not undermine the public’s faith in scientific progress…by the end of the 1980s the shuttle program had resumed its regular flights” (Ayers, 2006). The program continued well into the 20th Century with the last U.S. space shuttle launched in July 2011 (Hotz, 2011).

Works Cited
Ayers, Edward L., Lewis L. Gould, David M. Oshinsky, and Jean R. Soderlund. American Passages. A History of the United States. Boston, MA: Wadsworth/Cengage Learning, 2006. Print. A history book which provided an overview of the Challenger disaster.

Barbee, Jay. "Chapter 5: An Eternity of Descent." Msnbc.com. NBC News, 25 Jan. 2006. Web. 19 Aug. 2015. . This news article provided a follow-up to the original reports of the Challenger crew cabin discovery.

"Christa McAuliffe." Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2004. Encyclopedia.com. 19 Aug. 2015 .Alexander, Joseph H. Storm Landings: Epic Amphibious Battles in the Central Pacific. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute, 1997. Print. This encyclopedia website provided good biographical information about Christa McAuliffe and the “Teacher in Space” program.

"The Crew of the Challenger Shuttle Mission in 1986." The Crew of the Challenger Shuttle Mission in 1986. NASA, 2004. Web. 19 Aug. 2015. . This source provided biographies on the seven crew members of the Challenger.

French, Howard W. "Panama Journal; Democracy at Work, Under Shadow of Dictators." The New York Times. The New York Times, 20 Feb. 1994. Web. 17 Aug. 2015. .

Hotz, Robert Lee. "Shuttle's Last Flight Leaves Russia With Space Monopoly." WSJ. Dow Jones & Company, 7 July 2011. Web. 19 Aug. 2015. . This news article detailed the state of space exploration at the time of NASA's last shuttle launch.

Isikoff, Michael. "Remains of Crew Of Shuttle Found." Washington Post. The Washington Post, 10 Mar. 1986. Web. 19 Aug. 2015. . A 1986 news article describes the discovery of the Challenger crew cabinet in the Atlantic Ocean.

Rogers Commission. "Genindex.htm." History NASA. NASA, 14 July 1986. Web. 19 Aug. 2015. . A pdf of the Rogers Commission report to President Reagan of the investigation into the cause of the Challenger disaster.

"Seven Dead in Space Shuttle Disaster." BBC News. BBC, 28 Jan. 1986. Web. 19 Aug. 2015. . The BBC accounting of the news of Challenger explosion.

Shane, Scott, and Andrew W. Lehren. "Leaked Cables Offer Raw Look at U.S. Diplomacy." The New York Times. The New York Times, 28 Nov. 2010. Web. 17 Aug. 2015. .



"Timeline: Panama." BBC News. BBC, 14 Sept. 2012. Web. 17 Aug. 2015. .

Weber, Lauren. "Workers' Drug Use Appears to Rise." WSJ. Dow Jones & Company, 2 June 2015. Web. 19 Aug. 2015. .


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