Every American who lived through the '80s remembers the Challenger explosion. But what happened to cause the famous national tragedy? How could such a catastrophe happen when NASA so meticulously checks and double checks all the equipment at their disposal?
Even with all the risks, astronauts gladly put their lives on the line for decades in the pursuit of reaching for the stars. The Challenger tragedy was not the first or the last catastrophe to befall NASA. The exploratory organization has not forgotten the sacrifices of the seven crewmembers who died on January 28, 1986: Francis "Dick" Scobee, Mike Smith, Judy Resnik, Ellison Onizuka, Ron McNair, Greg Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe.
Along with the tragic fates of the space shuttle Columbia and the crew of Apollo 1, the Challenger tragedy is a reminder of the dangers of exploration and the limits of human ambition. The details of what happened when the Challenger exploded remain important to this day, even with the shuttle program no longer active.
The mission, dubbed Challenger's STS-51L, marked pilot Mike Smith's first spaceflight. Just before NASA lost telemetric contact with the shuttle, the crew's voice recorder captured Smith saying "Uh-oh," which proves that at least one member of the crew was aware something was going wrong with the launch before the actual explosion.
Almost immediately, the general impression was that the crew of seven died instantly, but evidence suggests a different narrative, one that NASA allegedly obscured in the days following the tragedy. After an independent investigation, the Miami Herald's Tropic magazine reported that the cabin did not, in fact, instantly depressurize, and the crew was almost certainly alive and likely conscious as the compartment ascended three more miles, then plummeted 12 miles down to the Atlantic.
There's ample evidence to suggest that this was the case, including the fact that several astronauts' personal emergency air packs were activated.
On the night before Challenger was scheduled to take flight, five engineers from Morton Thiokol, a NASA contractor, strongly urged their managers and NASA to delay the mission. In a contentious meeting, the engineers noted that vitally important rubber O-ring seals frequently failed to seal properly in chilly conditions and Challenger's launch was set to take place in the coldest weather of any shuttle launch.
After his managers and NASA overruled their warnings, engineer Bob Eberling told his wife, "It's going to blow up."
"NASA ruled the launch," Eberling explained 30 years later. "They had their mind set on going up and proving to the world they were right and they knew what they were doing. But they didn't."
When the shuttle exploded 73 seconds after launch, wreckage scattered over a large swath of the Atlantic Ocean east of Florida. It took weeks for salvage crews to recover all the pieces. Almost six weeks after the explosion, navy divers discovered the debris of the crew cabin and the remains of the astronauts roughly 15 miles east of Cape Canaveral, on the ocean floor beneath 100 feet of water.
Remains that could be identified were given to their families, while those that couldn't were buried in a monument at Arlington National Cemetery.