36 years ago NASA lost 7 astronauts when Challenger exploded

Published: Jan. 28, 2021 at 12:01 AM EST|Updated: Jan. 28, 2022 at 12:01 AM EST
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(Gray News) - On this day 36 years ago, seven astronauts perished when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded over Cape Canaveral.

STS-51L broke apart 73 seconds after liftoff when a booster engine failed. After an investigation, the cause of the explosion was determined to be an o-ring failure in a solid rocket booster. Cold weather was a contributing factor.

Four years before exploding over Kennedy Space Center, Space Shuttle Challenger creeps through...
Four years before exploding over Kennedy Space Center, Space Shuttle Challenger creeps through the Florida fog on its way to Launch Pad 39A before its first liftoff on the STS-6 mission in 1982.(NASA)

Among the crew was Christa McAuliffe, a high school teacher who was the first civilian to be selected to go to space as part of NASA’s Teacher in Space project. The chosen educators would go into space as payload specialists and return to their classrooms to share their experiences with students. NASA canceled the project in 1990.

Hundreds of thousands of children watched the tragedy from schools across the country.

The crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger, which exploded over Kennedy Space Center on January...
The crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger, which exploded over Kennedy Space Center on January 28, 1986. Left to right: Teacher-in-Space Christa McAuliffe and astronauts Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnik, Mission Commander Dick Scobee, astronaut Ronald McNair, pilot Mike Smith, and astronaut Ellison Onizuka.(NASA)

President Ronald Reagan addressed the nation hours later from the Oval Office:

“Ladies and gentlemen, I’d planned to speak to you tonight to report on the state of the Union, but the events of earlier today have led me to change those plans. Today is a day for mourning and remembering.

Nancy and I are pained to the core by the tragedy of the shuttle Challenger. We know we share this pain with all of the people of our country. This is truly a national loss.

Nineteen years ago, almost to the day, we lost three astronauts in a terrible accident on the ground. But we’ve never lost an astronaut in flight; we’ve never had a tragedy like this. And perhaps we’ve forgotten the courage it took for the crew of the shuttle; but they, the Challenger Seven, were aware of the dangers, but overcame them and did their jobs brilliantly. We mourn seven heroes: Michael Smith, Dick Scobee, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe. We mourn their loss as a nation together.

For the families of the seven, we cannot bear, as you do, the full impact of this tragedy. But we feel the loss, and we’re thinking about you so very much. Your loved ones were daring and brave, and they had that special grace, that special spirit that says, ‘Give me a challenge and I’ll meet it with joy.’ They had a hunger to explore the universe and discover its truths. They wished to serve, and they did. They served all of us.

We’ve grown used to wonders in this century. It’s hard to dazzle us. But for 25 years the United States space program has been doing just that. We’ve grown used to the idea of space, and perhaps we forget that we’ve only just begun. We’re still pioneers. They, the members of the Challenger crew, were pioneers.

And I want to say something to the schoolchildren of America who were watching the live coverage of the shuttle’s takeoff. I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It’s all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It’s 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.

I’ve always had great faith in and respect for our space program, and what happened today does nothing to diminish it. We don’t hide our space program. We don’t keep secrets and cover things up. We do it all upfront and in public. That’s the way freedom is, and we wouldn’t change it for a minute.

We’ll continue our quest in space. There will be more shuttle flights and more shuttle crews and, yes, more volunteers, more civilians, more teachers in space. Nothing ends here; our hopes and our journeys continue.

I want to add that I wish I could talk to every man and woman who works for NASA or who worked on this mission and tell them: ‘Your dedication and professionalism have moved and impressed us for decades. And we know of your anguish. We share it.’

There’s a coincidence today. On this day 390 years ago, the great explorer Sir Francis Drake died aboard ship off the coast of Panama. In his lifetime the great frontiers were the oceans, and a historian later said, ‘He lived by the sea, died on it, and was buried in it.’ Well, today we can say of the Challenger crew: Their dedication was, like Drake’s, complete.

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.”

It took nearly three years for the shuttle program to return to space. On September 29, 1988, Space Shuttle Discovery launched from Kennedy Space Center and returned four days later.

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