Eleven years ago today the Space Shuttle Challenger lifted off from Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island, Florida. It disintegrated one minute and thirteen seconds later. The shuttle’s crew cabin survived the disintegration intact, but impacted the Atlantic Ocean at 207 miles-per-hour two minutes and forty-five seconds later, killing all seven crew members aboard. Challenger was the newest NASA shuttle, having flown its maiden voyage less than three years earlier. It was aboard the Challenger in 1983 that Sally Ride had become the first American woman in space. The Rogers Commission, appointed by President Reagan to investigate the disaster, found that NASA had contributed to the shuttle’s accident by ignoring warnings from engineers about the design of the shuttle and the cold weather on launch day.
Onboard the Challenger were Commander Dick Scobee, Pilot Michael Smith, Mission Specialists Judith Resnik, Ellison Onizuka, and Ronald McNair, and Payload Specialists Gregory Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe. McAuliffe was the first member of a shuttle crew selected as a part of the Teachers in Space program. Had the mission succeeded, she would have been the first civilian in space. Because of her presence on the mission, schoolchildren across the country watched the launch and witnessed the accident live on television.
The Challenger disaster nearly ended NASA’s shuttle program. No shuttles flew for nearly three years while NASA investigated the accident, redesigned the shuttle, and implemented the recommendations of the Rogers Commission. On September 29, 1988, at 11:37 a.m., while I and the rest of my third grade class at Clear Spring Elementary watched on TV in the cafeteria, the Space Shuttle Discovery launched successfully on a four day mission to deploy a Tracking and Data Relay Satellite, and conduct materials and life sciences experiments. It was the first of 86 consecutive shuttle missions without a loss of vehicle or crew, a streak which ended on February 1, 2003 when the Space Shuttle Columbia broke up during reentry, killing all seven astronauts aboard.