The Challenger's launch on January 28, 1986, was supposed to be a celebratory event for NASA. Notable for sending the first civilian into space, high school teacher Christa McAuliffe, the Challenger would take its crew of seven into orbit around the Earth. NASA prepared a special stream for students across the nation to watch the shuttle launch, and children in Florida near Cape Canaveral viewed it live from their schools. But 73 seconds into the launch, disaster struck.
The shuttle's hardware malfunctioned due to unexpectedly cold weather conditions, rocket boosters fell from the craft, and the crew compartment was sent flying into the Atlantic.
Nearly every American knows what happened to the Challenger, but not as many are aware of the repercussions its destruction had both on the public's morale and on NASA's safety standards. President Ronald Reagan faced the difficult task of addressing the nation and protecting the delicate and upsetting information that emerged from the incident. Massive overhauls in management and quality control resulted from the tragedy - independent contractors began auditing NASA, and escape procedures were set in place to prevent another disaster like the Challenger.
Knowing what happened after the Challenger exploded is essential to understanding space travel today.
Children Watching The Event Live Were Rushed Back Into Their Classrooms
On board the Challenger was Christa McAuliffe, a New Hampshire teacher, who was set to become the first civilian in space.
The event was a major one for students of all ages across the country, and NASA arranged for American schools to watch the launch from a special live stream. Young people in Florida even watched it outside from their school grounds if they were close enough to the Kennedy Space Center.
However, after the Challenger tragedy unfolded on live television, the stream was stopped, and students watching in person were quickly ushered inside.
President Ronald Reagan Gave A Live Broadcast Addressing The Nation’s ChildrenVideo: YouTube
President Reagan was scheduled to deliver the State of the Union (SOTU) address on the evening of January 28, 1986. He learned what happened to the Challenger while preparing for a pre-SOTU lunch, and knew he had to change the topic of the speech.
Reagan's administration hired Peggy Noonan to write what would become one of the most well-remembered addresses in presidential history.
In the speech, Reagan emphasized the importance of the Challenger crew members' work, calling them "pioneers." He then addressed the nation's children, who had all been watching as teacher McAuliffe was set to become the first citizen in space:
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.
Salvage Crews Spent Weeks Gathering Pieces From The Event
When salvage crews began gathering what remained of the Challenger, they wouldn't disclose the location of impact. NASA banned boats or other craft to enter the water near where the incident occurred. They used code words like "Target 67" to talk about the Challenger's crew compartment and "Tom O'Malley" to discuss the astronauts' remains, so that locals wouldn't scavenge the site.
The debris spread over a wide area, and the salvage team searched over 400 square nautical miles of ocean. It took 10 weeks to find the remains of the astronauts.
NASA Initially Said Crew Members Perished During The Explosion - But That Wasn't Necessarily The Case
NASA first told the public all seven crew members of the Challenger perished at the moment of the incident. But officials later admitted it was possible that three astronauts survived a few minutes of free fall. Journalists suggest the number is likely greater, and that potentially all on board were alive as the shuttle struck the ocean.
Reportedly, NASA asked Florida medical examiners to sign off on death certificates stating the Challenger crew perished immediately following the explosion. But the Broward County medical examiner refused to sign.
Dr. Ronald Reeves said NASA withheld remains from their office and that he wouldn't sign any death certificates for the organization. "We said under no circumstances would we sign... certificates, because our job was to determine the cause and manner of [demise], and we had been prevented from doing that," he explained.