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The Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster

Updated: Jul 21, 2023

#28 Science in History

28 January 1986

On January 28, 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart 73 seconds into its flight, killing all seven crew members.

STS-51L crew members Michael J. Smith. Front row left, Francis R. “Dick” Scobee, Ronald E. McNair; Ellison S. Onizuka, Back row left, S. Christa McAuliffe, Gregory B. Jarvis, Judith A. Resnik.

The disaster was caused by a failure of an O-ring seal, designed to prevent hot gases from leaking out of the booster rocket. On the morning of the launch, the temperature was much colder than usual which caused the O-ring to become stiff and unable to properly seal the rocket. As a result, hot gases escaped and damaged the booster rocket, which then caused the Challenger to explode.

The Challenger disaster was a tragic event that had a profound impact on the space program and on America. NASA suspended all shuttle flights for over two years while they investigated the accident and made changes to their launch procedures. The disaster also led to a renewed focus on safety and quality control within NASA and the aerospace industry.

The seven crew members who lost their lives in the disaster were: Francis R. (Dick) Scobee, Michael J. Smith, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith A. Resnik, Gregory Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe.

Christa McAuliffe was a teacher who had been selected to participate in the NASA Teacher in Space program. Her death was particularly devastating as it represented the loss of a symbol of hope and inspiration for many educators and students.

The Challenger disaster was a sobering reminder of the risks involved in space exploration. The engineering and technology is right at the edge of what we are currently capable of. On this day, we recognise the courage and sacrifice of the Challenger’s crew members and the commitment of those individuals who have worked to make space exploration possible.


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