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Remembering The Challenger

By the 1980s, space exploration had become routine. Once the nation got used to the mind-boggling idea that man had actually walked on the moon — realizing President Kennedy's challenge to beat the Russians at their game — public interest in the space program waned. Launches were no longer a reason to gather the family around the TV.

But almost 17 years after Neil Armstrong's giant step, the U.S. was again galvanized by a NASA mission – one that ended in violent tragedy. After the space shuttle Challenger exploded above Cape Canaveral on January 28, 1986, the haunting footage of its fiery blast and tendrils of white smoke painting the blue sky was played over and over by the television networks. The images of the disaster were burned into our collective consciousness and, like the JFK assassination and the Columbine shootings, it became a shared tragedy.

NASA's introduction of the space shuttle Columbia in 1981 had gotten people excited about space travel again — however briefly. The sleek ships, which resembled common airplanes more than traditional rockets, fired up the imagination. It seemed that it was only a matter of time before everyday citizens would be able to book a flight into orbit.

The networks gave blanket coverage to the early shuttle launches and especially the return landings: for the first time, a spacecraft could touch back down on Earth as smoothly as a jumbo jet. Cameras on board the craft captured the impressive feats performed by robotic arms and astronauts on spacewalks for an audience back on earth. But after two dozen missions, media attention dwindled again.

The year 1986 was to be a pinnacle for the U.S. space program. Halley's comet would come into view, the Hubble telescope sent into orbit, and some 15 shuttle missions launched. The year would be kicked off by a NASA first: the sending of an "average American" into space aboard the space shuttle Challenger. Concord, New Hampshire schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe was chosen from over 10,000 applicants to join the six crewmembers as a "citizen observer," in a story tailor-made for the evening news. Nobody could know just how poignant that story would become.

Seventy-four seconds after liftoff, traveling at 1,977 mph, a ball of fire appeared at the base of the Challenger's fuel tank. The ship was suddenly engulfed in flames and trails of smoke were left behind as the solid fuel containers broke away. All seven crewmembers were killed.

Immediately following the explosion.

For a moment there was complete silence from Mission Contol until control operator Stephen A. Nesbitt reported a "major malfunction."

The real tragedy of the disaster was the simplicity of the problem that caused it – and that it was avoidable. The explosion was traced to a faulty O-ring seal on the solid rocket booster. O-rings are simple synthetic rubber bands that are used in fuel line connections. Faulty rings caused tank seals to fail, creating a chain of events that led to the blast.

It was revealed later that engineers had warned that the O-rings were vulnerable at temperatures below 51 degrees. The Challenger launch, canceled on three previous occasions because of weather, had finally taken place on a 36-degree day.

A commission chaired by former Secretary of State William Rogers ultimately found that NASA and the company that produced the O-rings, Morton Thiokol, were guilty of allowing a preventable accident to occur.

Almost immediately, NASA and Morton Thiokol attempted to make amends with the survivors. Four of the victims' families were paid $7.7 million in late 1986 and subsequent lawsuits against MT were settled for undisclosed amounts.

Shuttle launches were canceled for almost two years following the disaster. NASA took the time to try and convince the government and the public that they weren't "complacent" with their missions – a charge made by Christa McAuliffe's mother, Grace Corrigan after the Rogers Commission report came out.

These days, shuttle missions are commonplace again. Ships take off and land regularly, with often perfunctory coverage in the media.

The U.S. space program continues its pioneering role, underscored by President Ronald Reagan when he eulogized the seven crewmembers. Space exploration, Reagan said, "is all part of taking a chance and expanding man's horizons. The future doesn't belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we'll continue to follow them."

By Christopher Weber
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