On January 28th, 1986, the NASA space shuttle orbiter and the 10th flight of the Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart 73 seconds into the flight, on television in front of nearly one fifth of Americans.
All 7 people on board died, including 5 NASA astronauts, one payload specialist, and a civilian schoolteacher. The shuttle disintegrated over the Atlantic Ocean.
The shuttle began to fall apart because a joint in its right solid rocket booster (SRB) failed at liftoff, caused by failed O-ring seals that weren't made for the cold conditions at launch.
The crew compartment and other fragments were recovered from the ocean, but the cause of death for all 7 passengers is unknown. It may have been from the initial breakup, or the impact with the ocean.
The explosion resulted in a 32 month hiatus from the shuttle program to investigate the accident. NASA's organizational culture and decision making processes were found to be crucial aspects of the accident, and they violated many safety rules. For instance, they knew since 1977 that the O-rings may pose a problem, but chose not to address it. They ignored many warnings from engineers regarding the low takeoff temperatures.
Approximately 17% of Americans witnessed the launch, mostly because the the high school teacher on board, Christa McAuliffe, would have been the first teacher in space. Within an hour, 85% of Americans had heard about it.
BEFORE THE LAUNCH
The launch was postponed day after day from its original schedule of January 22. Delays in a previous mission, weather conditions, poor conditions for night landing, weather again, and problems with the exterior access hatch caused the date to continue shifting back.
The forecast for January 28th was supposed to be 30 degrees, which was the absolute minimum temperature for launch. The O-rings and other components of the shuttle didn't have data to support a successful launch in such cold conditions. Engineers voiced their concerns, but were brushed off.
After the weather forecast, a Morton-Thiokol manager asked engineer Bob Ebeling if they could launch in 18 degrees. They said that even in 40 degrees there were concerns, so there was no business proposing launching at 18 degrees. They called NASA to recommended postponing, at least until temperatures rose in the afternoon.
During the call, the engineers reiterated their concerns and strongly recommended postponing. The O-rings were considered a "criticality 1" component, meaning it was forbidden to rely on a secondary seal or backup. However, that was what a NASA personnell suggested in the event that the primary O-ring failed.
NASA staff was appalled by the recommendation to wait for warmer weather, saying they'd have to wait until April to meet the conditions they were requiring.
Later that evening, a second conference call took place between NASA and Thiokol management, and engineers were excluded. They decided to proceed as scheduled. Ebeling told his wife that night that the Challenger would blow up.
Engineers also had argued that the low overnight temperatures would result in ice. Temperatures were lower than any previous launches - 28 degrees when the next coldest was 54 degrees. They worked through the night removing ice, and engineers were horrified at how much ice there was. It was seen as a launch constraint, and the launch was moved back 1 hour.
FAILURE TO LAUNCH
At 11:38 AM, the main engines were ignited, the SRB's ignited and the hold down bolts were released, and the shuttle lifted off into the air. Puffs of smoke were seen after about 3 seconds.
Beginning at 37 seconds after liftoff and for 27 seconds after, the shuttle experienced wind shear events that were really strong. After about a minute, a plume was seen as hot gas began to leak. This was unbeknownst to the crew. Everything still seemed fine to the crew and flight controllers.
At 72 seconds, the right SRB pulled away, and at 73 seconds, the breakup of the entire vehicle began, 48,000 feet in the air. The crew cabin did not explode, and it reached 65,000 feet in the 25 seconds after the breakup of the shuttle.
It is assumed that at least some of the crew survived the breakup, because 3 of the 4 Personal Egress Air Packs (PEAPs) were found activated. Later investigations found that the remaining unused air supply was consistent with the 2 minutes and 45 seconds of the trajectory post-breakup.
There is no way to know how long anyone remained conscious after the breakup. The crew could have lost consciousness and died in the air, or died on impact when the shuttle hit the Pacific Ocean at 207mph.
RESCUE AND AFTERMATH
President Ronald Reagan was supposed to give the 1986 State of the Union address the night of the disaster, but postponed and addressed the nation about the Challenger instead.
A memorial service was attended by 6,000 NASA employees, 4,000 guests and the friends and family of the crew.
On March 7, divers found the crew compartment on the ocean floor and the remains of all of the crew members. The remains of the crew were returned to their families for a proper burial on April 29th.
Though being an astronaut and getting in a space shuttle is inherently dangerous, these 7 individuals would have likely survived if the engineers' concerns were listened to and the launch had been postponed. The extremely publicized nature of the disaster and their deaths will likely go down in history as one of the most shocking moments, but hopefully, their contributions to space travel and bravery will live on.