I was at work when news trickled through the office that something had occurred to the space shuttle Challenger. By noon (Pacific time), more details had become known. Challenger had exploded after liftoff killing everyone aboard. Lunch was quiet as this news was digested. At dinner I remember watching Tom Brokaw on NBC describe the awful events of that day.
For those who boarded the shuttle on 28 Jan 1986, it was lifetime ambition coming true. Each of them had been selected to be part of this mission. The most well known was Christa McAuliffe, a high school teacher from New Hampshire. She had won a competition to be the first teacher in space. The space shuttle program, launched in 1976, had been a success. It was the first time a space vehicle would use reusable vehicle. And had been used bring satellite equipment into space and perform scientific experiments.
Hundreds had assembled to watch the launch; many of them family members of the astronauts aboard. A live feed of the launch was being watched by school kids all over the country. The news networks were there as well to cover the launch. The launch had been delayed since 23 January due to poor weather and technical issues. The morning of the launch had been cold at Cape Canaveral, Florida. An unusual cold wave had hit Florida and temperatures had dropped to below freezing during the night.
At 11:38 am EST, Challenger lifted off and began her ascent. The assembled crowd watched as the shuttle moved upwards. A minute after the launch, they were told to go for full throttle. And then, 73 seconds into the flight, there was an explosion. Spectators on the ground stood in disbelief at the forking plume and smoke. Millions, including school children, saw it as well on television. At first no one was quite sure what happened. Then confirmation was made that the shuttle had been destroyed.
That night President Ronald Reagan made a public address to the nation. It was a simple but powerful address. But his closing remarks have always remained with me:
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.” (President Reagan’s Address to the Nation, 28 Jan 1986)
President Reagan appointed a special commission to determine what went wrong, and to develop ways to prevent it from happening again. Former secretary of state William Rodgers led the commission which had former astronaut Neil Armstrong and former test pilot Chuck Yeager on it. Also on the panel was noted physicist Richard Feynman. Feynman clashed with Rodgers and was unafraid to call out NASA for its failures. He also graphically demonstrated during a live hearing how the O-rings were less resilient in cold weather. He did this by lowering a sample of it in ice-cold water and showing when he took it out how inflexible it was. Ultimately it was the O-rings that were at fault. The hard cold during the night had caused it to contract and thus no longer provide proper sealing. When it was subjected to high heat, it lost coherence which led to the chain of events where the shuttle exploded. It would be two years before another space shuttle would be launched. Both Morton Thiokol and the U.S. government contributed to a settlement fund of $7.7 million dollars to the families of the Challenger astronauts.