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Space Shuttle Challenger disaster

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Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster
Challenger explosion.jpg
The Space Shuttle Challenger soon after the explosion.
DateJanuary 28, 1986; 35 years ago (1986-01-28)
Time11:39:13 EST (16:39:13 UTC)
LocationAtlantic Ocean, off the coast of Florida
28°38′24″N 80°16′48″W / 28.64000°N 80.28000°W / 28.64000; -80.28000Coordinates: 28°38′24″N 80°16′48″W / 28.64000°N 80.28000°W / 28.64000; -80.28000
OutcomeGrounding of the Space Shuttle fleet for nearly three years during which various safety measures, solid rocket booster redesign, and a new policy on management decision-making for future launches were implemented.
InquiriesRogers Commission

The Space Shuttle Challenger disaster was a fatal accident in the United States' space program that occurred on January 28, 1986, when the Space Shuttle Challenger (OV-099) broke apart 73 seconds into its flight, killing all seven crew members aboard. The crew consisted of five NASA astronauts, and two payload specialists. The mission carried the designation STS-51-L and was the tenth flight for the Challenger orbiter.

The spacecraft disintegrated over the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Cape Canaveral, Florida, at 11:39 a.m. EST (16:39 UTC). The disintegration of the vehicle began after a joint in its right solid rocket booster (SRB) failed at liftoff. 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 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 crew compartment and many other vehicle fragments were eventually recovered from the ocean floor after a lengthy search and recovery operation. 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. By design, the orbiter has no escape system, and the impact of the crew compartment at terminal velocity with the ocean surface was too violent to be survivable.

The disaster resulted in a 32-month hiatus in the Space Shuttle program and the formation of the Rogers Commission, a special commission appointed by United States President Ronald Reagan to investigate the accident. The Rogers Commission found that NASA's organizational culture and decision-making processes had been key contributing factors to the accident with the agency violating its own safety rules. NASA managers had known since 1977 that contractor Morton-Thiokol's design of the SRBs contained a potentially catastrophic flaw in the O-rings, but they had failed to address this problem properly. NASA managers also 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.

Media coverage of the accident was extensive, as the launch on was widely viewed on television broadcast because of the presence of high school teacher Christa McAuliffe, who would have been the first teacher in space. The Challenger disaster has been used as a case study in many discussions of engineering safety and workplace ethics.


STS-51-L crew: (front row) Smith, Scobee, McNair; (back row) Onizuka, McAuliffe, Jarvis, Resnik

STS-51-L was the twenty-fifth flight of the Space Shuttle and the tenth flight of Challenger.[1]:6 STS-51-L carried a Tracking and Data Relay Satellite aboard an Inertial Upper Stage and the Spartan satellite to observe Halley's Comet. The mission was originally scheduled for July 1985, but was delayed to November and subsequently to January 1986. The crew was announced on January 27, 1985, and was commanded by Francis Scobee. Michael Smith was assigned as the pilot, and the mission specialists were Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, and Ronald McNair. The two payload specialists were Gregory Jarvis, who was assigned in October as a payload specialist to conduct research for the Hughes Aircraft Company, and Christa McAuliffe, who flew as part of the Teacher in Space Project.[1]:10–13 STS-51-L was scheduled to launch on January 22, but was delayed to January 25 as a result of delays for STS-61-C. Adverse weather forced further delays, and the STS-51-L launch was postponed on three consecutive days between January 25, when weather conditions in Africa exceeded limits for a transoceanic abort landing, and January 27, when an issue with the hatch handle was coupled with high winds at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) Shuttle Landing Facility that exceeded limits for a return to launch site abort.[2] While it was outside on the launchpad, the Space Shuttle was exposed to 7 inches (18 cm) of rainfall.[3]:140 The launch was scheduled for 9:38 a.m. EST on January 28 but was delayed for two hours to allow ice to melt. At 11:38:00 a.m, STS-51-L launched from the KSC LC-39B.[1]:17[4]:III–76

Safety concerns[edit]

Solid Rocket Booster O-rings[edit]

Cross-section diagram of an SRB field joint

At lift off, much of the Space Shuttle's thrust was generated by two solid rocket boosters (SRBs),[5] which were built by Morton-Thiokol.[3]:9–10 Each SRB was constructed in four sections that were not attached together until they had been transported to KSC from their factory. The four sections were then assembled in the Vehicle Assembly Building at KSC with three tang-and-clevis field joints. Each field joint was sealed with two rubber O-rings that were required to contain the hot, high-pressure gases produced by the burning solid propellant inside the SRBs. The redundant O-rings were required for the SRBs to be rated to carry people, as the failure to seal in the hot gas would likely cause the destruction of the Space Shuttle and the loss of its crew.[3]:24[6]:420 The two O-rings were configured to create a double bore seal, and the gap between segments was filled with asbestos-filled putty. When the motor was running, this configuration was designed to compress air towards the O-ring, extruding it into the gap between the tang and the clevis to create a seal.[1]:122–123 On the SRB Critical Items List, the O-rings were listed as Criticality 1R, which indicated that an O-ring failure could result in the destruction of the vehicle and loss of life but it was considered a redundant system due to the secondary O-ring.[1]:126

A 1977 test showed that joint rotation occurred during the simulated internal pressure of a launch. Joint rotation, which occurred when the tang and clevis bent away from each other, reduced the pressure on the O-ring and weakened its seal, making it possible for combustion gases to erode the O-rings.[1]:123–124 Engineers at the Marshall Space Flight Center contacted management of the Morton-Thiokol Solid Rocket Booster project to voice their concerns that the O-rings were not creating an adequate seal and should be redesigned to include shims around the O-rings, but they received no response.[1]:124–125 In 1980, the Verification/Certification Committee requested further tests on joint integrity, to include testing in the temperature range of 40 to 90 °F (4 to 32 °C) and with only a single O-ring installed. The NASA program managers determined that their current level of testing was sufficient and further testing was not required. In December 1982, the Critical Items List was updated to indicate that the secondary O-ring may not provide a backup to the primary O-ring, as it would not necessarily form a seal in the event of joint rotation. The O-rings were predesignated as Criticality 1, removing the "R" to indicate it was no longer considered a redundant system.[1]:125–127[3]:86

The first occurrence of in-flight O-ring erosion occurred on the right SRB on STS-2 in November 1981.[1]:126 The O-ring erosion was not reported in the Marshall system to track flight anomalies, and was not included in the STS-3 Flight Readiness Review in March 1983.[1]:126 O-ring erosion also occurred on STS-41-B and STS-41-C in 1984.[1]:130[3]:45 In August 1984, a post-flight inspection of the left SRB on STS-41-D revealed that soot has blown past the primary O-ring and was found in between the O-rings. While there was no damage to the secondary O-ring, this indicated that the primary O-ring was not creating a seal and allowing hot gas to escape. The amount of O-ring erosion was not sufficient to prevent the O-ring from sealing, and the soot between the O-rings was determined to have been from non-uniform pressure at the time of ignition.[1]:130[3]:39–42 The January 1985 launch of STS-51-C was the coldest Space Shuttle launch at the time, with a 62 °F (17 °C) air temperature at the time of launch. The O-ring temperature was calculated to be 53 °F (12 °C), and the post-flight analysis revealed that the primary O-rings in both SRBs experienced erosion and soot in between the O-rings. Morton-Thiokol engineers determined that the cold temperatures caused a loss of flexibility in the O-rings that decreased their ability to seal the field joints, which allowed hot gas and soot to flow past the primary O-ring.[3]:47

In April 1985, two Space Shuttle missions, STS-51-D and STS-51-B, were flown. STS-51-D experienced O-ring erosion in both SRBs. The scale of O-ring erosion was higher on STS-51-B, with erosion in the primary O-rings in both SRBs and a secondary O-ring on the left SRB, which was the first time that a secondary O-ring was found to have been eroded.[3]:50–52 Morton Thiokol engineers conducted a post-flight analysis and determined that the primary O-ring likely never formed a seal, as erosion by itself would not have resulted in the observed level of the secondary O-ring erosion.[3]:59 O-ring erosion occurred on all but one (STS-51-J) of the Space Shuttle flights in 1985 and STS-61-C in January 1986, with soot blowby occurring on STS-61-A.[1]:131[3]:63

To correct the issues with O-ring erosion, engineers at Morton Thiokol, lead by Allan McDonald and Roger Boisjoly, proposed a redesign field joint that introduced a metal lip to limit movement in the joint. Additionally, they recommended adding a spacer to provide additional thermal protection and using an O-ring with a larger cross section.[3]:67−69 In July 1985, Morton Thiokol ordered redesigned SRB casings, with the intention of using already-manufactured casings for the upcoming launches until the redesigned cases were available the following year.[3]:62

Cold weather[edit]

Ice on the launch tower hours before Challenger launch

The air temperature on January 28 was low relative to other Space Shuttle launches, with STS-51-C launching with an air temperature 53 °F (12 °C).[3]:101 The air temperature was forecasted to drop to 18 °F (−8 °C) overnight before rising to 22 °F (−6 °C) at 6:00 a.m. and 26 °F (−3 °C) at the scheduled launch time of 9:38 a.m.[1]:87[3]:96 Based upon O-ring erosion and blowby that had occurred in warmer launches, Morton-Thiokol engineers were concerned over the effect the cold temperatures would have on the seal provided by the SRB O-rings.[3]:101–103 An overnight measurement taken by the KSC Ice Team recorded the left SRB was 25 °F (−4 °C) and the right SRB was 8 °F (−13 °C).[1]:111 These measurements were recorded for engineering data and not reported, as the temperature of the SRBs was not part of the Launch Commit Criteria.[3]:118

In addition to its effect on the O-rings, the cold temperatures resulted in ice forming on the fixed service structure. To keep pipes from freezing, water was slowly run from the system; it could not be entirely drained because of the upcoming Space Shuttle launch. As a result, ice formed from 240 feet (73 m) down in the freezing temperatures. Engineers at Rockwell International, which manufactured the orbiter, were concerned that ice would be violently through during launch and could potentially damage the orbiter's thermal protection system. Rocco Petrone, the head of Rockwell's space transportation division, and his team determined that the potential damage from ice made the mission unsafe to fly. Arnold Aldrich, the NASA Mission Management Team Leader, consulted with engineers at KSC and the Johnson Space Center (JSC) who advised him that ice did not threaten the safety of the orbiter, and he decided to proceed with the launch.[1]:115–118 The launch was delayed for an additional hour to allow more ice to melt. The ice team performed an inspection at T–20 minutes which indicated that the ice was melting, and Challenger was cleared to launch at 11:38 a.m. EST, with an air temperature of 36 °F (2 °C).[1]:17

Decision to launch[edit]

With the weather forecasts predicting record-low temperatures for a Space Shuttle launch, a conference call was set up on the evening of January 27 by Cecil Houston, the manager of the KSC office of the Marshall Space Flight Center, to discuss the safety of the launch. Morton-Thiokol engineers expressed their concerns about the effect of low temperatures on the resilience of the rubber O-rings. With colder temperatures lowering the elasticity of the rubber O-rings, the engineers feared that the O-rings would not be extruded to form a seal at the time of launch.[3]:97–99[7] The engineers argued that they did not have enough data to determine if the O-rings would seal at temperatures colder than 53 °F (12 °C), the coldest launch of the Space Shuttle to date.[3]:105–106 Robert Lund, the Vice President of Engineering at Morton-Thiokol, stated that the launch should not occur until the temperature is above 53 °F (12 °C), and was supported by Joe Kilminster, the Vice President of the Space Booster Programs at Morton-Thiokol.[1]:107–108 The teleconference held a recess to allow for offline discussion for Morton Thiokol management. When it resumed, Morton-Thiokol leadership had changed their opinion and stated that the evidence presented on the failure of the O-rings was inconclusive and that there was a substantial margin of error in the event of a failure or erosion. They stated that their decision was to proceed with the launch. Morton-Thiokol leadership submitted a recommendation for launch, and the teleconference ended.[1]:97, 109 Lawrence Mulloy, the NASA SRB project manager,[3]:3 called Aldrich to discuss the launch decision and weather concerns, but did not mention the O-ring discussion.[1]:99

Launch and failure[edit]

Liftoff and initial ascent[edit]

Gray smoke escaping from the right-side solid rocket booster

The STS-51-L mission began with the launch at 11:38 a.m.[1]:17 Beginning at T+0.678 until T+3.375 seconds, puffs of dark gray smoke were recorded escaping from the right-hand SRB near the aft strut that attached the booster to the ET.[1]:19 It was later determined that these smoke puffs were caused by joint rotation in the aft field joint of the right-hand SRB at ignition.[3]:136 The cold temperature in the joint had prevented the O-rings from creating a seal. Rainfall from the preceding time on the launchpad had likely accumulated within the field joint, further exacerbating the sealing capability of the O-rings. As a result, hot gas was able to travel past the O-rings and erode them. Molten aluminum oxides from the burned propellant resealed the joint and created a temporary barrier against further hot gas and flame escaping through the field joint.[3]:142

As the Space Shuttle launched, the SSMEs were throttled to 104% of their rated maximum thrust. To prevent aerodynamic forces from structurally overloading the vehicle,[4]:III–8–9 the SRBs began decreasing thrust at T+21.6, followed by the SSMEs throttling down to 94% at T+28. At T+35.379, the SSMEs throttled back further to 65% prior to max q, the period of maximum aerodynamic pressure.[8] During its ascent, the Space Shuttle encountered wind shear conditions beginning at T+37, but they were within design limits of the vehicle and were countered by the guidance system.[1]:20


Plume on right SRB at T+ 58.788 seconds

At T+58.788, a tracking film camera captured the beginnings of a plume near the aft attach strut on the right SRB, right before the vehicle passed through max q at T+59.000.[8] The high aerodynamic forces and wind shear likely broke the aluminum oxide seal that had replaced eroded O-rings, allowing the flame to burn through the joint.[3]:142 Within a second from when it was first recorded, the plume became well-defined, and the enlarging hole caused a drop in internal pressure in the right SRB. A leak had begun in the liquid hydrogen (LH2) tank of the ET at T+64.660, as indicated by the changing shape of the plume. The SSMEs pivoted to compensate for the booster burn-through, which was creating an unexpecting thrust on the vehicle. The pressure in the external LH2 tank began to drop at T+66.764 indicating that the flame had burned from the SRB into the tank. The crew and flight controllers made no indication they were aware of the vehicle and flight anomalies. At T+68, the CAPCOM Richard O. Covey told the crew that the SSMEs could throttle up to 104%. In response to Covey, Scobee said, "Roger, go at throttle up"; this was the last communication from Challenger on the air-to-ground loop.[8]

Vehicle breakup[edit]

A tracking camera located north of the pad captured the SRB plume as it burned through the external tank.

At T+72.284, the right SRB pulled away from the aft strut that attached it to the ET, causing lateral acceleration that was felt by the crew. At the same time, pressure in the LH2 tank began dropping, accompanied by a large fireball on the side of the ET. Pilot Mike Smith said "Uh-oh," which was the last speech recorded of the crew.[8]

At T+73.124, the aft dome of the liquid hydrogen tank failed, producing a propulsive force that rammed the hydrogen tank into the LOX tank in the forward part of the ET. At the same time, the right SRB rotated about the forward attach strut, and struck the intertank structure. The external tank at this point suffered a complete structural failure, the LH2 and LOX tanks rupturing, mixing, and igniting, creating a fireball that enveloped the whole stack.[9]

The breakup of the vehicle began at T+73.162 seconds and at an altitude of 48,000 feet (15 km).[10] With the external tank disintegrating (and with the semi-detached right SRB contributing its thrust on an anomalous vector), Challenger veered from its correct attitude with respect to the local airflow, resulting in a load factor of up to 20 g, well over its design limit of 5 g and was quickly ripped apart by abnormal aerodynamic forces (the orbiter did not explode as is often suggested, as the force of the external tank breakup was well within its structural limits). The two SRBs, which could withstand greater aerodynamic loads, separated from the ET and continued in uncontrolled powered flight. The SRB casings were made of 13 mm (0.5 in) thick steel and were much stronger than the orbiter and ET; thus, both SRBs survived the breakup of the Space Shuttle stack, even though the right SRB was still suffering the effects of the joint burn-through that had set the destruction of Challenger in motion.[11]

The more robustly constructed crew cabin also survived the breakup of the launch vehicle, as it was designed to survive 20 psi (140 kPa) while the estimated pressure it had been subjected to during orbiter breakup was only about 4–5 psi (28–34 kPa). While the SRBs were remotely ordered destroyed by the Range Safety Officer, the detached cabin continued along a ballistic trajectory and was observed exiting the cloud of gases at T+75.237.[11] Twenty-five seconds after the breakup of the vehicle, the altitude of the crew compartment peaked at a height of 65,000 feet (20 km).[10] The cabin was stabilized during descent by the large mass of electrical wires trailing behind it. At T+76.437 the nose caps and drogue parachutes of the SRBs separated, as designed, and the drogue of the right-hand SRB was seen by a tracking camera, bearing the frustum and its location aids.[8]

Post-breakup flight controller dialogue[edit]

Jay Greene at his console after the breakup of Challenger

In Mission Control, there was a burst of static on the air-to-ground loop as Challenger disintegrated. Television screens showed a cloud of smoke and condensed water vapor (the product of hydrogen+oxygen combustion) where Challenger had been, with pieces of debris falling toward the ocean. At about T+89, flight director Jay Greene prompted his Flight Dynamics Officer (FIDO) for information. FIDO responded that "the [radar] filter has discreting sources", a further indication that Challenger had broken into multiple pieces. Moments later, the Ground Control Officer reported "negative contact (and) loss of downlink" of radio and telemetry data from Challenger. Greene ordered his team to "watch your data carefully" and look for any sign that the orbiter had escaped.

Mission Control during the liftoff of Challenger (STS-51-L)

At T+110.250, the range safety officer (RSO) at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station sent radio signals that activated the range safety system's "destruct" packages on board both solid rocket boosters. This was a normal contingency procedure, undertaken because the RSO judged the free-flying SRBs a possible threat to land or sea. The same destruct signal would have destroyed the external tank had it not already disintegrated.[1]:185 The SRBs were close to the end of their scheduled burn (110 seconds after launch) and had nearly exhausted their propellants when the destruct command was sent, so very little, if any, explosive force was generated by this event.

Public affairs officer Steve Nesbitt reported: "Flight controllers here are looking very carefully at the situation. Obviously a major malfunction. We have no downlink."[8]

On the Mission Control loop, Greene ordered that contingency procedures be put into effect; these procedures included locking the doors of the control center, shutting down telephone communications with the outside world, and following checklists that ensured that the relevant data were correctly recorded and preserved.[12]

Nesbitt relayed this information to the public: "We have a report from the Flight Dynamics Officer that the vehicle has exploded. The flight director confirms that. We are looking at checking with the recovery forces to see what can be done at this point."[8]

Cause and time of death[edit]

The crew cabin after breakup, indicated by the arrow

The crew cabin was made of particularly robust reinforced aluminum and detached in one piece from the rest of the orbiter.[13] At the time of separation, the maximum acceleration is estimated to have been between 12 and 20 g. During vehicle breakup, the cabin detached in one piece and slowly tumbled into a ballistic arc. Within two seconds after breakup the cabin had dropped below 4 g, and was in free fall within 10 seconds. The forces involved at this stage were probably insufficient to cause major injury to the crew.[10]

At least some of the crew were alive and at least briefly conscious after the breakup, as three of the four recovered Personal Egress Air Packs (PEAPs) on the flight deck were found to have been activated.[10] PEAPs were activated for Smith[14] and two unidentified crewmembers, but not for Scobee.[10] The PEAPs were not intended for in-flight use, and the astronauts never trained with them for an in-flight emergency. The location of Smith's activation switch, on the back side of his seat, indicated that either Resnik or Onizuka likely activated it for him. Investigators found their remaining unused air supply consistent with the expected consumption during the post-breakup trajectory.[14]:245–247

While analyzing the wreckage, investigators discovered that several electrical system switches on Smith's right-hand panel had been moved from their usual launch positions. The switches had lever locks on top of them that were required to be pulled out before the switch could be moved. Later tests established that neither the force of the explosion nor the impact with the ocean could have moved them, indicating that Smith made the switch changes, presumably in a futile attempt to restore electrical power to the cockpit after the crew cabin detached from the rest of the orbiter.[14]:245

On July 28, 1986, NASA's Associate Administrator for Space Flight, former astronaut Richard H. Truly, released a report on the deaths of the crew from physician and Skylab 2 astronaut Joseph P. Kerwin. Kerwin's report concluded that it is unknown whether the crew remained conscious until ocean impact, because it is unknown whether the crew cabin remained pressurized. Depressurization would have caused the crew to quickly lose consciousness, as the PEAPs supplied only unpressurized air. Pressurization could have enabled consciousness for the entire fall until impact. The crew cabin hit the ocean surface at 207 mph (333 km/h) approximately two minutes and 45 seconds after breakup. The estimated deceleration was 200 g, far exceeding structural limits of the crew compartment or crew survivability levels. The middeck floor had not suffered buckling or tearing, as would result from a rapid decompression, but stowed equipment showed damage consistent with decompression, and debris was embedded between the two forward windows that may have caused a loss of pressure. Impact damage to the crew cabin was severe enough that it could not be determined if the crew cabin had been previously damaged enough to lose pressurization.[10]

Prospect of crew escape[edit]

During powered flight of the Space Shuttle, crew escape was not possible. Launch escape systems were considered several times during Space Shuttle development, but NASA's conclusion was that the Space Shuttle's expected high reliability would preclude the need for one. Modified SR-71 Blackbird ejection seats and full pressure suits were used for the two-man crews on the first four Space Shuttle orbital missions, which were considered test flights, but they were removed for the "operational" missions that followed. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board later declared, after the 2003 Columbia re-entry disaster, that the Space Shuttle system should never have been declared operational because it is experimental by nature due to the limited number of flights as compared to certified commercial aircraft. The multideck design of the crew cabin precluded use of such ejection seats for larger crews. Providing some sort of launch escape system had been considered, but deemed impractical due to "limited utility, technical complexity and excessive cost in dollars, weight or schedule delays".[1]:181

After the loss of Challenger, the question was reopened, and NASA considered several different options, including ejector seats, tractor rockets, and emergency egress through the bottom of the orbiter. NASA once again concluded that all of the launch escape systems considered would be impractical due to the sweeping vehicle modifications that would have been necessary and the resultant limitations on crew size. A system was designed to give the crew the option to leave the orbiter during gliding flight, but this system would not have been usable in the Challenger situation.[15]


White House response[edit]

U.S. President Ronald Reagan addresses the nation after the shuttle disaster.

President Ronald Reagan had been scheduled to give the 1986 State of the Union Address on January 28, 1986, the evening of the Challenger disaster. After a discussion with his aides, Reagan postponed the State of the Union, and instead addressed the nation about the disaster from the Oval Office of the White House with a speech written by Peggy Noonan.[16] It finished with the following statement, which quoted from the poem "High Flight" by John Gillespie Magee Jr.:

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.'[17]

Memorial service on January 31, 1986, at Houston, Texas, attended by President Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan (left)

Three days later, Ronald and Nancy Reagan traveled to the Johnson Space Center to speak at a memorial service honoring the crew members, where he stated:

Sometimes, when we reach for the stars, we fall short. But we must pick ourselves up again and press on despite the pain.[18]

It was attended by 6,000 NASA employees and 4,000 guests,[19][20] as well as by the families of the crew.[21]:17 During the ceremony, an Air Force band led the singing of "God Bless America" as NASA T-38 Talon jets flew directly over the scene, in the traditional missing-man formation.[19][20] All activities were broadcast live by the national television networks.[19]

Rumors surfaced in the weeks after the disaster that the White House itself had pressed for Challenger to launch before the scheduled January 28 State of the Union address, because Reagan had intended to mention the launch in his remarks.[22] Three weeks before the State of the Union address was to have been given, NASA did suggest that Reagan make callouts to the assumed successful Challenger launch, and to mention Christa McAuliffe's flight as "'the ultimate field trip' of an American schoolteacher".[22] In March 1986, The White House released a copy of the original State of the Union speech as it would have been given before the disaster. In that speech, Reagan intended to mention an X-ray experiment launched on Challenger and designed by a guest he'd invited to the address, but he did not plan any other specific discussion about the launch or NASA in the address.[22][23] Inclusion of extensive discussion of NASA, the launch, or McAuliffe in the State of the Union address effectively stopped at the desk of Cabinet Secretary Alfred H. Kingon.[22] In the rescheduled State of the Union address on February 4, President Reagan did mention the deceased Challenger crew members, and modified his remarks about the X-ray experiment as "launched and lost".[24]

Recovery of debris and crew[edit]

In the first minutes after the accident, recovery efforts were begun by NASA's Launch Recovery Director, who ordered the ships normally used by NASA for recovery of the solid rocket boosters to be sent to the location of the water impact. Search and rescue aircraft were also dispatched. At this stage, since debris was still falling, the Range Safety Officer (RSO) held both aircraft and ships out of the impact area until it was considered safe for them to enter. It was about an hour until the RSO allowed the recovery forces to begin their work.[25]

The law required the Brevard County, Florida Medical Examiner's office to perform autopsies on any remains within the county; it had done so with previous NASA deaths. The agency's George Abbey asked Representative Bill Nelson, a Space Shuttle payload specialist, to intervene; Nelson and NASA allegedly falsely told the office that the presidential commission was in charge of the bodies. When the office refused to sign death certificates because no one from the county had seen the bodies, the Johnson Space Center produced its own, dated 30 January 1986. Because they predate the findings of any remains and presumption of death, as of November 1988 the astronauts may not be legally dead, according to the Miami Herald.[26]

The search and rescue operations that took place in the first week after the Challenger accident were managed by the Department of Defense on behalf of NASA, with assistance from the United States Coast Guard, and mostly involved surface searches. According to the Coast Guard, "the operation was the largest surface search in which they had participated."[25] This phase of operations lasted until February 7. In order to discourage scavengers, NASA did not disclose the exact location of the debris field and insisted on secrecy, utilizing code names such as "Target 67" to refer to the crew cabin and "Tom O'Malley" to refer to any crew remains. Radio Shack stores in the Cape Canaveral area were soon completely sold out of radios that could tune into the frequency used by Coast Guard vessels.[26] Thereafter, recovery efforts were managed by a Search, Recovery, and Reconstruction team; its aim was to salvage debris that would help in determining the cause of the accident. Sonar, divers, remotely operated submersibles and crewed submersibles were all used during the search, which covered an area of 486 square nautical miles (1,670 km2), and took place at water depths between 70 feet (21 m) and 1,200 feet (370 m).[27]:24 On March 7, divers from the USS Preserver identified what might be the crew compartment on the ocean floor.[28][29] The finding, along with discovery of the remains of all seven crew members, was confirmed the next day and on March 9, NASA announced the finding to the press.[28] The crew cabin was severely crushed and fragmented from the extreme impact forces; one member of the search team described it as "largely a pile of rubble with wires protruding from it". The largest intact section was the rear wall containing the two payload bay windows and the airlock. All windows in the cabin had been destroyed, with only small bits of glass still attached to the frames. Impact forces appeared to be greatest on the left side, indicating that it had struck the water in a nose-down, left-end-first position.

Recovered right solid rocket booster showing the hole caused by the plume

Inside the twisted debris of the crew cabin were the bodies of the astronauts which, after weeks of immersion in salt water and exposure to scavenging marine life, were in a "semi-liquefied state that bore little resemblance to anything living". However, according to John Devlin, the skipper of the USS Preserver, they "were not as badly mangled as you'd see in some aircraft accidents".

Lt. Cmdr James Simpson of the Coast Guard reported finding a helmet with ears and a scalp in it. He did not mention it during a television interview after NASA told him that the astronauts' families had not been told: "So I lied on television. I still feel bad about that".[26] Judith Resnik was the first to be removed, followed by Christa McAuliffe, with more remains retrieved over several hours. Due to the hazardous nature of the recovery operation (the cabin was filled with large pieces of protruding jagged metal), the Navy divers protested that they would not go on with the work unless the cabin was hauled onto the ship's deck.

During the recovery of the remains of the crew, Gregory Jarvis's body floated out of the shattered crew compartment and was lost to the diving team. A day later, it was seen floating on the ocean's surface. It sank as a team prepared to pull it from the water. Determined not to end the recovery operations without retrieving Jarvis, Crippen rented a fishing boat at his own expense and went searching for the body. On April 15, near the end of the salvage operations, the Navy divers found Jarvis. His body had settled to the sea floor, 101.2 feet (30.8 m) below the surface, some 0.7 nautical miles (1.3 km; 0.81 mi) from the final resting place of the crew compartment. The body was recovered and brought to the surface before being processed with the other crew members and then prepared for release to Jarvis's family.[29][30]

It had been suggested[by whom?] early in the investigation that the accident was caused by an inadvertent detonation of the Range Safety destruct charges on the external tank, but the charges were recovered mostly intact and a quick overview of telemetry data immediately ruled out that theory.

The three Space Shuttle main engines were found largely intact and still attached to the thrust assembly despite extensive damage from impact with the ocean, marine life, and immersion in salt water. They had considerable heat damage due to a LOX-rich shutdown caused by the drop in hydrogen fuel pressure as the external tank began to fail. The memory units from Engines 1 and 2 were recovered, cleaned, and their contents analyzed, which confirmed normal engine operation until LH2 starvation began at T+72 seconds. Loss of fuel pressure and rising combustion chamber temperatures caused the computers to shut off the engines. Since there was no evidence of abnormal SSME behavior until 72 seconds (only about one second before the breakup of Challenger), the engines were ruled out as a contributing factor in the accident.

Other recovered orbiter components showed no indication of pre-breakup malfunction. Recovered parts of the TDRSS satellite also did not disclose any abnormalities other than damage caused by vehicle breakup, impact, and immersion in salt water. The solid rocket motor boost stage for the payload had not ignited either and was quickly ruled out as a cause of the accident.

The solid rocket booster debris had no signs of explosion (other than the Range Safety charges splitting the casings open), or propellant debonding and cracking. There was no question about the RSO manually destroying the SRBs following vehicle breakup, so the idea of the destruct charges accidentally detonating was ruled out. Premature separation of the SRBs from the stack or inadvertent activation of the recovery system was also considered, but telemetry data quickly disproved that idea. Nor was there any evidence of in-flight structural failure since visual and telemetry evidence showed that the SRBs remained structurally intact up to and beyond vehicle breakup. The aft field joint on the right SRB did show extensive burn damage.

Telemetry proved that the right SRB, after the failure of the lower struts, had come loose and struck the external tank. The exact point where the struts broke could not be determined from the film of the launch, nor were the struts or the adjacent section of the external tank recovered during salvage operations. Based on the location of the rupture in the right SRB, the P12 strut most likely failed first. The SRB's nose cone also exhibited some impact damage from this behavior (for comparison, the left SRB nose cone had no damage at all) and the intertank region had signs of impact damage as well. In addition, the orbiter's right wing had impact and burn damage from the right SRB colliding with it following vehicle breakup.

Most of the initially considered failure modes were soon ruled out and by May 1, enough of the right solid rocket booster had been recovered to determine the original cause of the accident, and the major salvage operations were concluded. While some shallow-water recovery efforts continued, this was unconnected with the accident investigation; it aimed to recover debris for use in NASA's studies of the properties of materials used in spacecraft and launch vehicles.[25] The recovery operation was able to pull 15 short tons (14 t) of debris from the ocean; this means that 55% of Challenger, 5% of the crew cabin and 65% of the satellite cargo are still missing.[31] Some of the missing debris continued to wash up on Florida shores for some years, such as on December 17, 1996, nearly 11 years after the incident, when two large pieces of the orbiter were found at Cocoa Beach.[32] Under 18 U.S.C. § 641 it is against the law to be in possession of Challenger debris, and any newly discovered pieces must be turned over to NASA.[33]

On board Challenger was an American flag, dubbed the Challenger flag, that was sponsored by Boy Scout Troop 514 of Monument, Colorado. It was recovered intact, still sealed in its plastic container.[34]

A soccer ball from the personal effects locker of Mission Specialist Ellison Onizuka was also recovered intact from the wreckage, and was later flown to the International Space Station aboard Soyuz Expedition 49 by American astronaut Robert S. Kimbrough. It is currently on display at Clear Lake High School in Houston, which was attended by Onizuka's children.[35]

All recovered non-organic debris from Challenger was ultimately buried in a former missile silo at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Launch Complex 31.

Funeral ceremonies[edit]

The remains of the Challenger crew are transferred to a C-141 at the NASA KSC Shuttle Landing Facility
The Space Shuttle Challenger Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery, where some remains were buried

Navy pathologists performed autopsies on the crew members, but due to the poor condition of the bodies, the exact cause of death could not be determined for any of them.[citation needed] On April 29, 1986, the astronauts' remains were transferred on a C-141 Starlifter aircraft from Kennedy Space Center to the military mortuary at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. Their caskets were each draped with an American flag and carried past an honor guard and followed by an astronaut escort.[36] The astronaut escorts for the Challenger crew were Dan Brandenstein, James Buchli, Norm Thagard, Charles Bolden, Tammy Jernigan, Dick Richards, and Loren Shriver.[citation needed] After the remains arrived at Dover Air Force base, they were transferred to the families of the crew members.[36] Scobee and Smith were buried at Arlington National Cemetery.[37] Onizuka was buried at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, Hawaii.[38] McNair was buried in Rest Lawn Memorial Park in Lake City, South Carolina,[39] but his remains were later moved to the Dr. Ronald E. McNair Memorial Park.[40][41] McAuliffe was buried at Calvary Cemetery in Concord, New Hampshire.[42] Gregory Jarvis was cremated, and his ashes scattered in the Pacific Ocean.[43] Unidentified crew remains were buried at the Space Shuttle Challenger Memorial in Arlington on May 20, 1986.[37]


In the aftermath of the accident, NASA was criticized for its lack of openness with the press. The New York Times noted on the day after the accident that "neither Jay Greene, flight director for the ascent, nor any other person in the control room, was made available to the press by the space agency."[44] In the absence of reliable sources, the press turned to speculation; both The New York Times and United Press International ran stories suggesting that a fault with the external tank had caused the accident, despite the fact that NASA's internal investigation had quickly focused in on the solid rocket boosters.[45] "The space agency," wrote space reporter William Harwood, "stuck to its policy of strict secrecy about the details of the investigation, an uncharacteristic stance for an agency that long prided itself on openness."[45]

Rogers Commission[edit]

Members of the Rogers Commission arrive at Kennedy Space Center.

The Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident, also known as the Rogers Commission after its chairman, was formed on February 6, 1986, to investigate the disaster. The commission members were Chairman William P. Rogers, Vice Chairman Neil Armstrong, David Acheson, Eugene Covert, Richard Feynman, Robert Hotz, Donald Kutyna, Sally Ride, Robert Rummel, Joseph Sutter, Arthur Walker, Albert Wheelon, and Chuck Yeager. The Rogers Commission published its report on June 6, 1986.[1]:iii-iv It found that the Challenger accident was caused by a failure in the O-rings sealing a joint on the right solid rocket booster, which allowed pressurized hot gases and eventually flame to "blow by" the O-ring and make contact with the adjacent external tank, causing structural failure. The failure of the O-rings was attributed to a faulty design, whose performance could be too easily compromised by factors including the low ambient temperature on the day of launch. The O-rings would not work properly at ambient temperatures below 50 °F (10 °C)[1]:62—and it was 36 °F (2 °C) on the morning of the launch.[1]:19 The report criticized NASA and Morton Thiokol for not mandating an SRB redesign after test and flight data indicated O-ring erosion, and instead raised the level of acceptable mission risk.[1]:121, 129 Despite erosion of .171 in (4.34 mm) when .070 in (1.78 mm) was predicted on STS-51-B in July 1985, NASA did not change its Flight Readiness Review for future flights to account for O-ring erosion.[1]:148 The Roger Commission broadly concluded that the safety culture and management structure at NASA was insufficient to properly report, analyze, and prevent flight issues.[1]:162

Richard Feynman[edit]

One of the commission's members was theoretical physicist Richard Feynman. Feynman, who was then seriously ill with cancer, was reluctant to undertake the job. He did so at the encouragement of his wife, Gweneth Howarth. She convinced him to go, saying he might discover something others overlooked. He also wanted to find the root cause of the disaster and to speak plainly to the public about his findings.[46] At the start of investigation, fellow members Dr. Sally Ride and General Donald J. Kutyna told Feynman that the O-rings had not been tested at temperatures below 50 °F (10 °C).[47] During a televised hearing, Feynman demonstrated how the O-rings became less resilient and subject to seal failures at ice-cold temperatures by immersing a sample of the material in a glass of ice water. While other members of the Commission met with NASA and supplier top management, Feynman sought out the engineers and technicians for the answers.[48] Feynman was critical of flaws in NASA's "safety culture", so much so that he threatened to remove his name from the report unless it included his personal observations on the reliability of the Space Shuttle, which appeared as Appendix F.[48][49] In the appendix, he argued that the estimates of reliability offered by NASA management were wildly unrealistic, differing as much as a thousandfold from the estimates of working engineers. "For a successful technology," he concluded, "reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled."[49]

U.S. House Committee hearings[edit]

The U.S. House Committee on Science and Technology also conducted hearings and, on October 29, 1986, released its own report on the Challenger accident.[50] The committee reviewed the findings of the Rogers Commission as part of its investigation and agreed with the Rogers Commission as to the technical causes of the accident. It differed from the committee in its assessment of the accident's contributing causes:

the Committee feels that the underlying problem which led to the Challenger accident was not poor communication or underlying procedures as implied by the Rogers Commission conclusion. Rather, the fundamental problem was poor technical decision-making over a period of several years by top NASA and contractor personnel, who failed to act decisively to solve the increasingly serious anomalies in the Solid Rocket Booster joints.[50]

NASA and Air Force response[edit]

Astronaut Charles F. Bolden reads a passage from the Bible during memorial services for the seven Challenger crew members.

After the Challenger accident, further shuttle flights were suspended, pending the results of the Rogers Commission investigation. Whereas NASA had held an internal inquiry into the Apollo 1 fire in 1967, its actions after Challenger were more constrained by the judgment of outside bodies. The Rogers Commission offered nine recommendations on improving safety in the space shuttle program, and NASA was directed by President Reagan to report back within thirty days as to how it planned to implement those recommendations.[51]

When the disaster happened, the Air Force had performed extensive modifications of its Space Launch Complex 6 (SLC-6) at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, for launch and landing operations of classified Shuttle launches of satellites in polar orbit, and was planning its first polar flight for October 15, 1986. Originally built for the Manned Orbital Laboratory project cancelled in 1969, the modifications were proving problematic and expensive,[52] costing over $4 billion (equivalent to $9.4 billion in 2020). The Challenger loss motivated the Air Force to set in motion a chain of events that finally led to the May 13, 1988, decision to cancel its Vandenberg Shuttle launch plans in favor of the Titan IV uncrewed launch vehicle.

In response to the commission's recommendation, NASA initiated a total redesign of the Space Shuttle's solid rocket boosters, which was watched over by an independent oversight group as stipulated by the commission.[51] NASA's contract with Morton-Thiokol, the contractor responsible for the solid rocket boosters, included a clause stating that in the event of a failure leading to "loss of life or mission", Thiokol would forfeit $10 million (equivalent to $24 million in 2020) of its incentive fee and formally accept legal liability for the failure. After the Challenger accident, Thiokol agreed to "voluntarily accept" the monetary penalty in exchange for not being forced to accept liability.[21]:355

NASA also created a new Office of Safety, Reliability and Quality Assurance, headed as the commission had specified by a NASA associate administrator who reported directly to the NASA administrator. George Martin, formerly of Martin Marietta, was appointed to this position.[53] Former Challenger flight director Jay Greene became chief of the Safety Division of the directorate.[54]

The unrealistically optimistic launch schedule pursued by NASA had been criticized by the Rogers Commission as a possible contributing cause to the accident. After the accident, NASA attempted to aim at a more realistic flight rate: it added another orbiter, Endeavour, to the Space Shuttle fleet to replace Challenger, and it worked with the Department of Defense to put more satellites in orbit using expendable launch vehicles rather than the Space Shuttle.[55] In August 1986, President Reagan also announced that the Space Shuttle would no longer carry commercial satellite payloads.[55] After a 32-month hiatus, the next Space Shuttle mission, STS-26, was launched on September 29, 1988.

Although changes were made by NASA after the Challenger accident, many commentators have argued that the changes in its management structure and organizational culture were neither deep nor long-lasting.

After the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003, attention once again focused on the attitude of NASA management towards safety issues. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) concluded that NASA had failed to learn many of the lessons of Challenger. In particular, the agency had not set up a truly independent office for safety oversight; the CAIB decided that in this area, "NASA's response to the Rogers Commission did not meet the Commission's intent".[56]:178 The CAIB believed that "the causes of the institutional failure responsible for Challenger have not been fixed", saying that the same "flawed decision making process" that had resulted in the Challenger accident was responsible for Columbia's destruction seventeen years later.[56]:195

Media coverage[edit]

While the presence of New Hampshire's Christa McAuliffe, a member of the Teacher in Space program, on the Challenger crew had provoked some media interest, there was little live broadcast coverage of the launch. The only live national TV coverage available publicly was provided by CNN.[57] Los Angeles station KNBC also carried the launch with anchor Kent Shocknek describing the tragedy as it happened.[58] Live radio coverage of the launch and explosion was heard on ABC Radio anchored by Vic Ratner and Bob Walker.[59] CBS Radio broadcast the launch live then returned to their regularly scheduled programming just a few seconds before the explosion, necessitating anchor Christopher Glenn to hastily scramble back on the air to report what had happened.[60]

NBC, CBS, and ABC all broke into regular programming shortly after the accident; NBC's John Palmer announced there had been "a major problem" with the launch. Both Palmer and CBS anchor Dan Rather reacted to cameras catching live video of something descending by parachute into the area where Challenger debris was falling with confusion and speculation that a crew member may have ejected from the orbiter and survived. The orbiter had no individual ejection seats or a crew escape capsule. Mission control identified the parachute as a paramedic parachuting into the area but this was also incorrect based on internal speculation at mission control. The chute was the parachute and nose cone from one of the solid rocket boosters which had been destroyed by the range safety officer after the explosion.[61] Due to McAuliffe's presence on the mission, NASA arranged for many US public schools to view the launch live on NASA TV.[62] As a result, many schoolchildren in the US had the opportunity to view the launch live. After the accident, 17 percent of respondents in one study reported that they had seen the Space Shuttle launch, while 85 percent said that they had learned of the accident within an hour. As the authors of the paper reported, "only two studies have revealed more rapid dissemination [of news]." One of those studies is of the spread of news in Dallas after President John F. Kennedy's assassination, while the other is the spread of news among students at Kent State University regarding President Franklin D. Roosevelt's death.[63] Another study noted that "even those who were not watching television at the time of the disaster were almost certain to see the graphic pictures of the accident replayed as the television networks reported the story almost continuously for the rest of the day."[64] Children were even more likely than adults to have seen the accident live, since many children—48 percent of nine- to thirteen-year-olds, according to a New York Times poll—watched the launch at school.[64]

Following the day of the accident, press interest remained high. While only 535 reporters were accredited to cover the launch, three days later there were 1,467 reporters at Kennedy Space Center and another 1,040 at the Johnson Space Center. The event made headlines in newspapers worldwide.[45]

Use as case study[edit]

The Challenger accident has frequently been used as a case study in the study of subjects such as engineering safety, the ethics of whistle-blowing, communications, group decision-making, and the dangers of groupthink. It is part of the required readings for engineers seeking a professional license in Canada and other countries.[65] Roger Boisjoly, the engineer who had warned about the effect of cold weather on the O-rings, left his job at Morton-Thiokol and became a speaker on workplace ethics.[66] He argues that the caucus called by Morton-Thiokol managers, which resulted in a recommendation to launch, "constituted the unethical decision-making forum resulting from intense customer intimidation."[67] For his honesty and integrity leading up to and directly following the Space Shuttle disaster, Roger Boisjoly was awarded the Prize for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Many colleges and universities have also used the accident in classes on the ethics of engineering.[68][69]

Information designer Edward Tufte has claimed that the Challenger accident is an example of the problems that can occur from the lack of clarity in the presentation of information. He argues that if Morton-Thiokol engineers had more clearly presented the data that they had on the relationship between low temperatures and burn-through in the solid rocket booster joints, they might have succeeded in persuading NASA managers to cancel the launch. To demonstrate this, he took all of the data he claimed the engineers had presented during the briefing, and reformatted it onto a single graph of O-ring damage versus external launch temperature, showing the effects of cold on the degree of O-ring damage. Tufte then placed the proposed launch of Challenger on the graph according to its predicted temperature at launch. According to Tufte, the launch temperature of Challenger was so far below the coldest launch, with the worst damage seen to date, that even a casual observer could have determined that the risk of disaster was severe.[70]

Tufte has also argued that poor presentation of information may have also affected NASA decisions during the last flight of the Space Shuttle Columbia.[71]

Boisjoly, Wade Robison, a Rochester Institute of Technology professor, and their colleagues have vigorously repudiated Tufte's conclusions about the Morton-Thiokol engineers' role in the loss of Challenger. First, they argue that the engineers didn't have the information available as Tufte claimed: "But they did not know the temperatures even though they did try to obtain that information. Tufte has not gotten the facts right even though the information was available to him had he looked for it."[72] They further argue that Tufte "misunderstands thoroughly the argument and evidence the engineers gave."[72] They also criticized Tufte's diagram as "fatally flawed by Tufte's own criteria. The vertical axis tracks the wrong effect, and the horizontal axis cites temperatures not available to the engineers and, in addition, mixes O-ring temperatures and ambient air temperature as though the two were the same."[72]

The Challenger disaster also provided a chance to see how traumatic events affected children's psyches. The large number of children who saw the accident live or in replays the same day was well known that day, and influenced the speech President Reagan gave that evening.

I want to say something to the schoolchildren of America who were watching the live coverage of the Space Shuttle's takeoff. I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It's all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It's all part of taking a chance and expanding man's horizons. The future doesn't belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we'll continue to follow them.

At least one psychological study has found that memories of the Challenger explosion were similar to memories of experiencing single, unrepeated traumas. The majority of children's memories of Challenger were often clear and consistent, and even things like personal placement such as who they were with or what they were doing when they heard the news were remembered well. In one U.S. study, children's memories were recorded and tested again. Children on the East Coast recalled the event more easily than children on the West Coast, due to the time difference. Children on the East Coast either saw the explosion on TV while in school, or heard people talking about it. On the other side of the country, most children were either on their way to school, or just beginning their morning classes. Researchers found that those children who saw the explosion on TV had a more emotional connection to the event, and thus had an easier time remembering it. After one year the children's memories were tested, and those on the East Coast recalled the event better than their West Coast counterparts. Regardless of where they were when it happened, the Challenger explosion was still an important event that many children easily remembered.[73]

Continuation of the Shuttle program[edit]

After the accident, the Space Shuttle fleet was grounded for two years and eight months while the investigation, SRB redesign and other technical and management changes were taking place. On September 29, 1988, Discovery lifted off on STS-26 mission from Kennedy Space Center pad 39-B with a crew of only five veteran astronauts;[74] its pilot was Richard O. Covey, who had served as the capsule communicator to the Challenger, and the payload was a U.S. Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (named TDRS-3 after deployment), a substitute for the one lost with Challenger. The "Return to Flight" launch represented a test of the redesigned boosters and a shift to a more conservative stance on safety (the crew started again to wear pressure suits, not used since STS-4, the last of the four initial Space Shuttle test flights); it was a success with only two minor system failures, of a cabin cooling system and a Ku band antenna. A schedule of STS flights was resumed, about 6 per average year until the Columbia disaster on 1 February 2003, which led to a hiatus of two years and six months.

Barbara Morgan, the backup for McAuliffe who trained with her in the Teacher in Space program, became an astronaut candidate in 1998, flew as a Mission Specialist on STS-118 in August 2007, and retired from NASA in August 2008.[75]

Other civilian passenger plans[edit]

In 1984, NASA created the Space Flight Participant Program to send private citizens into space, which included the Teacher in Space program. NASA also created the Journalist in Space Program and planned to include a journalist on a spaceflight in September 1986. NASA officials also considered including Caroll Spinney, who played the characters Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch on the children's television show Sesame Street, on a spaceflight. Plans to carry private citizens were cancelled following the Challenger disaster.[76][77]


In 2004, President George W. Bush conferred posthumous Congressional Space Medals of Honor to all 14 crew members lost in the Challenger and Columbia accidents.[78]

An unpainted decorative oval in the Brumidi Corridors of the United States Capitol was finished with a portrait depicting the crew by Charles Schmidt in 1987.

An unpainted decorative oval in the Brumidi Corridors of the United States Capitol was finished with a portrait depicting the crew by Charles Schmidt in 1987. The scene was painted on canvas and then applied to the wall.[79]

The families of the Challenger crew organized the Challenger Center for Space Science Education as a permanent memorial to the crew. Forty-three learning centers and one headquarters office have been established by this non-profit organization.[80]

Fragment of Challenger's fuselage on display as part of the "Forever Remembered" installation at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in 2015

The astronauts' names are listed on the Space Mirror Memorial at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Merritt Island, Florida.[citation needed] On June 27, 2015, the "Forever Remembered" exhibit at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, Florida, opened and includes a display of a section of Challenger's recovered fuselage. The exhibit was opened by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden along with family members of the crew.[81] A tree for each astronaut was planted in NASA's Astronaut Memorial Grove at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, along with trees for each astronaut from the Apollo 1 and Columbia disasters.[82] Seven asteroids were named after the crew members: 3350 Scobee, 3351 Smith, 3352 McAuliffe, 3353 Jarvis, 3354 McNair, 3355 Onizuka, and 3356 Resnik. The approved naming citation was published by the Minor Planet Center on March 26, 1986 (M.P.C. 10550).[83] In 1988, seven craters on the far side of the Moon, within the Apollo Basin, were named after the fallen astronauts by the IAU.[84][85][86][87][88][89][90]

On the evening of April 5, 1986, the Rendez-vous Houston concert commemorated and celebrated the crew of the Challenger. It features a live performance by musician Jean Michel Jarre, a friend of crew member Ron McNair. McNair was supposed to play the saxophone from space during the track "Last Rendez-Vous". It was to have become the first musical piece professionally recorded in space.[citation needed] His substitute for the concert was Houston native Kirk Whalum.[citation needed]

Several memorials have been established in honor of the Challenger disaster. The public Peers Park in Palo Alto, California features a Challenger Memorial Grove that includes redwood trees grown from seeds carried aboard Challenger in 1985.[91] In 1986 in Webster, Texas, the Challenger Seven Memorial Park was also dedicated in remembrance of the event.[92] Their Spirits Circle the Earth was installed in Columbus, Ohio, in 1987.[citation needed] Schools and streets have been renamed to include the names of the crew or "Challenger."[93][94][95] The Challenger Columbia Stadium in League City, Texas is named in honor of the victims of both the Challenger disaster as well as the Columbia disaster in 2003.[citation needed] In 1990, a 1/10th scale replica of Space Shuttle Challenger in lift off position was erected in Little Tokyo district of Los Angeles, California.[96] Challenger Point a peak of the Sangre de Cristo Range commemorates the Challenger mission.[97]

The McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center, a science museum and planetarium in Concord, New Hampshire, is named in honor of McAuliffe, a Concord High School teacher, and Alan Shepard, who was from Derry, New Hampshire.[98]

In December 2013, Beyoncé Knowles released a song titled "XO", which begins with a sample of Nesbitt commentary immediately after the explosion. Its inclusion was publicly criticized by June Scobee Rodgers, the widow of Dick Scobee, and retired astronaut Clayton Anderson. On December 30, Knowles released a statement that defended the use of audio recordings from the disaster.[99] On December 31, the NASA press secretary released a statement that was critical of Knowles for using Nesbitt's commentary.[100]



In 2009, Allan J. McDonald, former director of the Space Shuttle Solid Motor Rocket Project for Morton-Thiokol, Inc. published his book Truth, Lies, and O-Rings: Inside the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster.[101][3]

Video documentation[edit]

Until 2010, the live broadcast of the launch and subsequent disaster by CNN was the only known on-location video footage from within range of the launch site. As of March 15, 2014, eight other motion picture recordings of the event have become publicly available:

  • a professional black-and-white NASA video recording closely showing the breakup and the subsequent remote detonation of one of the booster rockets.[102]
  • a video recording by Jack Moss from the front yard of his house in Winter Haven, Florida, 80 miles (130 km) from Cape Canaveral[103][104]
  • a video recording by Ishbel and Hugh Searle on a plane leaving from Orlando International Airport, 50 miles (80 km) from Cape Canaveral, was posted by their daughter Victoria on January 30, 2011, along with an interview taken on the couple two days earlier.[105]
  • a Super 8 film recorded by then-19-year-old Jeffrey Ault of Orange City, Florida, at the Kennedy Space Center, 10 miles (16 km) from the launch[106]
  • a video recording by Lawrence Hebert of Electric Sky Films, also filmed at the Kennedy Space Center, released in March 2012[107]
  • a video recording by Steven Virostek, uncovered in May 2012[108]
  • a video recording by Michael and Frances VanKulick of Melbourne, Florida, was made public in 2014.[109]
  • a video recording by ABC News showing the audiences' reaction to the explosion released in 2011.[110]


An ABC television movie titled Challenger was broadcast on February 24, 1990. It stars Barry Bostwick as Scobee, Brian Kerwin as Smith, Joe Morton as McNair, Keone Young as Onizuka, Julie Fulton as Resnik, Richard Jenkins as Jarvis, and Karen Allen as McAuliffe.[111][112][113]

A BBC docudrama titled The Challenger Disaster was broadcast on March 18, 2013, based on the last of Richard Feynman's autobiographical works, What Do You Care What Other People Think? (1988). It stars William Hurt as Feynman.[114][115]

A film called The Challenger Disaster, produced by Vision Makers, was released on January 25, 2019. It stars Dean Cain and Glenn Morshower, and tells the story of the evening before the disaster, where one engineer tried to stop the mission from launching.[116]


The first episode of History Channel's documentary titled Days That Shaped America is about Challenger.[117]

The four-part docuseries Challenger: The Final Flight, created by Steven Leckart and Glen Zipper, was released by Netflix on September 16, 2020.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad ae Rogers, William P.; Armstrong, Neil A.; Acheson, David C.; Covert, Eugene E.; Feynman, Richard P.; Hotz, Robert B.; Kutyna, Donald J.; Ride, Sally K; Rummel, Robert W.; Sutter, Joseph F.; Walker, Arthur B.C.; Wheelon, Albert D.; Yeager, Charles E. (June 6, 1986). "Report of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident" (PDF). NASA. Retrieved July 13, 2021.
  2. ^ Broad, William J. (January 28, 1986). "24-Hour Delay Called for Shuttle Flight As Wind And Balky Bolt Bar Launching". The New York Times. Retrieved July 13, 2021.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w McDonald, Allan J.; Hansen, James R. (2009). Truth, Lies, and O-rings: Inside the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster. University Press of Florida. ISBN 978-0-8130-4193-3.
  4. ^ a b Jenkins, Dennis R. (2016). Space Shuttle: Developing an Icon – 1972–2013. Specialty Press. ISBN 978-1-58007-249-6.
  5. ^ Dunbar, Brian (March 5, 2006). "Solid Rocket Boosters". NASA. Retrieved July 19, 2021.
  6. ^ Heppenheimer, T. A. (1998). The Space Shuttle Decision: NASA's Search for a Reusable Space Vehicle (PDF). NASA. SP-4221. Retrieved July 19, 2021.
  7. ^ Berkes, Howard (February 6, 2012). "Remembering Roger Boisjoly: He Tried To Stop Shuttle Challenger Launch". All Things Considered. NPR. Retrieved July 27, 2021.
  8. ^ a b c d e f g Harwood, William (2015). "STS-51L". CBS News. Retrieved July 29, 2021.
  9. ^ Than, Ker (January 7, 2011). "5 Myths of Challenger Shuttle Disaster Debunked". Retrieved October 9, 2014.
  10. ^ a b c d e f Kerwin, Joseph P. (July 28, 1986). "Joseph P. Kerwin to Richard H. Truly". Retrieved October 31, 2020.
  11. ^ a b Photo and TV Analysis Team Report (1986). Space Shuttle Challenger Accident Investigation. STS-51L Data and Analysis Task Force. Retrieved January 1, 2007.
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