At 11:38 a.m. EST on January 28, 1986, Space Shuttle Challenger lifted off from launch pad 39-B at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, FL, with a crew of seven aboard, including Christa McAuliffe. McAuliffe, a teacher from New Hampshire, was selected as the winner of a nationwide contest conducted by NASA to be the first teacher in space. She had planned to give lessons from space to students around the world.
McAuliffe never got the chance.
Seventy-three seconds after liftoff, Challenger disintegrated in a ball of fire as it streaked into space miles above the Florida coast. A design flaw in the O-rings of the shuttle’s solid rocket boosters (SRBs) in conjunction with freezing temperatures produced a leak in the seal on the right SRB. A lateral flame from the broken seal compromised the external fuel tank and caused a catastrophic structural failure of the vehicle.
I was always fascinated by the space program. One of my favorite shows as a kid was PBS’ “Cosmos” with Dr. Carl Sagan. I was a freshman in high school in January 1986. Because of McAuliffe’s presence on the mission, many schools gathered the students in auditoriums to watch the launch as a group that morning. My high school did no such thing. I was sitting in my Italian I classroom as one of the students filing in said rather nonchalantly that the space shuttle exploded. It stunned me. I was assuming it was just some accident on the launch pad, but my classmate described pretty much what actually happened.
As someone who has been a space/science geek and a news junkie since a very young age, I was itching to get out of school and to watch the news coverage and see it for myself. Fortunately, a snow storm led to an early dismissal that day.
While I was on the school bus, the Dream Academy’s “Life in a Northern Town” came on the radio. There’s a line in that song that says, “It was winter 1963…it felt like the world would freeze…with John F. Kennedy and the Beatles.” The JFK reference stuck with me. Kennedy was a major supporter of the U.S. space program and the complex from which the Space Shuttle launches bears his name.
Tragically and, sadly, fittingly, the Space Shuttle Challenger had become my generation’s equivalent to JFK’s assassination in ’63.
NASA Photo — back row, left to right: Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis and Judith Resnik; front row, left to right: Michael J. Smith, Francis “Dick” Scobee and Ronald McNair.