News and Commentary

When America Mourned As One: Today Is The 33rd Anniversary Of The Challenger Explosion

Thirty-three years ago, on January 28, 1986, before America had split asunder into the warring camps that there seem to be today, America grieved as one when the Challenger space shuttle, which carried five astronauts and two payload specialists, including a citizen school teacher, exploded 73 seconds after it soared into space, killing all seven people aboard.

Challenger was the second space shuttle launched by NASA; Columbia was the first, on April 12, 1981. Challenger had made nine successful launches and landings, starting in April 1983, before the tragedy in 1986. After the tragedy, NASA eschewed launching space shuttles for two and a half years.

The crew consisted of commander Francis “Dick” Scobee; pilot Mike Smith; mission specialists Judith Resnik, Ron McNair and Ellison Onizuka; and payload specialists Christa McAuliffe, who was a teacher of social studies at Concord high School in Concord, New Hampshire, and engineer Greg Jarvis. McAuliffe had been chosen in 1985 from over 11,000 applicants to participate in the NASA Teacher in Space project to be the first teacher in space.

The failure of the launch was caused by O-ring seals used that could not handle the unusually cold conditions the day of the launch. When the seals failed, a breach was opened in the SRB joint, which permitted pressurized burning gas to escape and a subsequent failure of the external tank. Fires erupted, causing the shuttle to change the angle it was flying, which was a disaster, because the aerodynamic forces at work from the incorrect angle caused the shuttle to break apart.

NASA had been warned by engineers at the contractor Morton Thiokol about the O-rings possibility of dysfunction in cold weather. Six months before the tragedy, Roger Boisjoly, a booster rocket engineer at Thiakol, predicted “a catastrophe of the highest order” involving “loss of human life” in a memo he wrote to his own managers, noting that the elastic seals at the joints of the multi-stage booster rockets often got stiff and unsealed in cold weather.

According to Boisjoly, he and his colleagues, including Bob Ebeling, argued for hours before the explosion not to launch the flight; their managers initially agreed with them, but according to Boisjoly, NASA officials fought against the recommendation, one reportedly saying, “I am appalled. I am appalled by your recommendation,” and another exclaiming, “My God, Thiokol. When do you want me to launch — next April?” Thiakol officials decided to approve the flight.

President Reagan was scheduled to give his State of the Union speech the night of the Challenger disaster; after the tragedy he postponed it, only giving a national address one week later. When he did speak, he paraphrased a famous poem titled “High Flight” that was loved by aviators; it was written in 1941 by 19-year-old John Gillespie Magee Jr., a World War II Royal Canadian Air force fighter pilot, who was killed in an accidental mid-air collision over England just a few months after authoring the poem. Reagan concluded his speech by saying, “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.’”

The text of “High Flight” is below:

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air….

Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.
Where never lark, or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
– Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.