Thirty-one years ago, today, I sat in front of the television with my mom—full of that mix of excitement and impatience common to three-year-olds—to watch footage from a shuttle launch during the lunchtime news. See, even at that young an age, I was in love with space, thanks to a book about the solar system that Mom would read to me. I was certain that I would grow up and become an astronaut.
I know the first “breaking news” kind of words shook me. I remember being really confused, then scared, then upset. Though I felt those things with the capacity of a three-year-old, I imagine that is very much how the rest of the nation felt that day too. It was a special flight—a teacher was going to space—so, naturally, there was really intense public interest in the mission and NASA was broadcasting the launch live via satellite to schools across the country. Millions of people in the United States watched as an event that we had begun to take for granted—save for the special crew member—as a matter of routine unfolded into a national tragedy.
Although there had been NASA missions that were not successful, Apollo 13 being the notable example, we had not lost a single astronaut since the electrical fire aboard Apollo 1, which occurred nineteen years prior, almost to the day. Even that disaster did not occur in flight—it didn’t even occur during the mission proper, but during launch rehearsal a few days prior to the anticipated launch date. Because of the nature of space travel, some degree of risk was always assumed and, unfortunately, that contributed to a mindset at NASA that ignored warning signs, dismissing them, as a matter of protocol, as one of few expected, small anomalies that occur with every flight. Having been delayed by inclement weather, the decision to launch Challenger, though there were some questions of safety, was made within the parameters of acceptable risk since there was not enough technical data to stand firmly by another delay.
It came down to o-rings. In the grand scheme of the space shuttle, the solid rocket boosters, and the external tank, the o-rings are tiny, inexpensive things. They weren’t even functioning the way they were designed to function, but it seemed to work well enough. Like Mal Reynolds said, “It’s nothing ’til you don’t got one. Then it appears to be everything.” The o-rings on the solid rocket boosters had been corroding over time, due to their exposure to combustible gasses. That corrosion, coupled with the fact that the o-rings lost some of their pliability and resilience because of cold weather, led to the failure of the right solid rocket booster. The failure of the o-rings was the first in a chain of events leading to the eruption of the external tank and near detachment of the right solid rocket booster. The combined forces acting on the shuttle caused it to break apart.
Francis R. Scobee, the mission commander for this flight, was forty-six years old. His first mission with NASA was piloting Challenger two years prior. He joined the Air Force in 1957, earned a degree in aerospace engineering, flew combat missions in Vietnam, and then became a test pilot for the Air Force before being selected for NASA Astronaut Corps.
Michael J. Smith served as Challenger’s pilot on this ill-fated mission, which also happened to be his first. Smith was forty years old. He attended the Naval Academy, receiving his bachelor degree in 1967, earned a master’s degree in aeronautic engineering, completed a tour in Vietnam aboard the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk, and became a test pilot for the Navy before being selected for the astronaut program.
Dr. Ronald McNair was a physicist—earning his doctorate at MIT under the Michael Feld—specializing in laser physics. His first mission was aboard Challenger in 1984 and, in the course of that mission, became the second Black American and the first member of the Bahá’í faith to journey into space. He was thirty-five years old and was an accomplished saxophonist; he was collaborating on an album when he died.
Ellison Onizuka’s first mission was aboard Discovery in 1985. He was the first Japanese American in space. He received both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Aerospace Engineering. After graduating, he served as a test pilot and as a flight test engineer. After being selected for the astronaut program, he worked on the SAIL (Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory) test team. Onizuka was thirty-nine years old.
Dr. Judith Resnik achieved a perfect score on the SAT before attending Carnegie Mellon University and pursuing a doctorate in electrical engineering at the University of Maryland. In the course of her tenure as design engineer at RCA, she worked on a few projects NASA contracted to the company. Later, she worked with the National Institutes of Health as a biomedical engineer and as a systems engineer at Xerox. She was recruited to NASA by Nichelle Nichols (Lt. Uhura on Star Trek) and her first mission was aboard Discovery’s maiden flight in 1984. She was thirty-six years old.
Gregory Jarvis was a civilian engineer serving as a payload specialist aboard the Challenger. After earning a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in electrical engineering, Jarvis joined the Air Force, serving in the Satellite Communications Program Office, until 1973 when, at the rank of Captain, was honorably discharged. He then began his tenure in the Space and Communications group at Hughes Aircraft while simultaneously pursuing a second master’s in Science Management. When Jarvis was selected as a candidate for the Challenger mission, he was working in the Systems Application Laboratory working on advance satellite designs. He was forty-one years old.
Christa McAuliffe was the first candidate selected for the NASA Teacher in Space Project. Having earned bachelor’s degrees in history and education and a master’s in education supervision and management, McAuliffe taught high school social studies in Concord, New Hampshire. On top of the more typical classes taught as a social studies teacher, McAuliffe also taught a self-designed course on “The American Woman.” The goal of the Teacher in Space project was to send a gifted teacher to space to communicate with students directly from orbit; she was slated to teach two lessons from orbit aboard Challenger. She was thirty-seven.
It has been thirty-one years since that unusually frigid day in Florida. I continue to hope that the friends, families, and colleagues of these seven gifted, dedicated people have found, or are finding, peace. And I hope that when NASA starts sending astronauts into space again that the lessons learned will still be taken to heart and that the courage displayed by astronauts and their loved ones continues to be honored.
Ad Astra per Aspera.