Friday, January 28, 2011

Challenger Explosion: Looking Back 25 Years

On January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff. The explosion killed all seven crew members and delivered a decisive blow to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which some argue has never fully recovered.

The Challenger was the second craft added to NASA's space shuttle program, which was established in the late 1970s as a proposed alternative to the high cost of the disposable rockets previously used for space exploration. Space shuttles were intended to be a more economical way for the United States to explore space, as parts of the crafts could be returned to Earth and reused.

Named for the British naval research vessel HMS Challenger that sailed the Atlantic and Pacific oceans during the 1870s and the Apollo 17 lunar module (the last to land on the Moon as part of the Apollo program), the Challenger was first launched on April 4, 1983 and flew nine successful missions before tragedy struck in January 1986. Despite the pleas to cancel the launch by NASA engineers who suspected a faulty booster-joint, the Challenger lifted off as planned. On board were six astronauts and Christa McAuliffe, a social studies teacher from Concord High School in New Hampshire who had been selected from thousands of applicants nationwide to be the first participant in the Teacher in Space Program.

The world grieved for the lives lost in the Challenger explosion. President Ronald Reagan addressed the nation about the tragedy by saying, "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 the journey and waved good-bye and 'slipped the surly bonds of earth' to 'touch the face of God.'"

In the wake of the tragedy, investigations cited the cause of the tragedy to be a faulty O-ring seal in the solid-fuel rocket and also revealed a history of design failures, cost overruns, delays, mismanagement, and the sacrifice of safety measures since the inception of the space shuttle program. The American public, already questioning the cost of manned space flight, now also expressed concern for the risk involved.

NASA suspended all missions for more than two years, and America breathed a sigh of relief when the space shuttle Discovery successfully launched on September 29, 1988. However, NASA's reputation with the public never fully recovered. On February 1, 2003—nearly 17 years to the day after the Challenger disaster—the space shuttle Columbia broke up during its descent, and all seven of its crew members were killed.


Weathers, Lori. "Challenger explosion." American History. ABC-CLIO, 2011. Web. 24 Jan. 2011.

To sign up for a free preview of American History, click here.


  1. Good post.

    Even though I was only a small child when the Challenger tragedy occurred, I can still remember the devastation felt by the nation. I was just starting to go to school, and it was very disturbing to me that a teacher was killed. It was probably my first experience with understanding death and how it can happen to anyone.

  2. I was less than a year old when this happened, but from reading about it, it really makes me think about the space program, what it costs, and if it's really worth it. We have so many problems on Earth, why are we concentrating so much on outer space?