This Day in History

On Jan. 28, 1986, hundreds of thousands of Floridians went outside to watch the Challenger space shuttle launch into outer space. Tragically, the shuttle exploded a little more than a minute after takeoff, and seven astronauts were killed.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) built several space shuttles and Challenger was the second. It's christening flight was on April 4, 1983, and it completed nine missions in total before its last day of service on Jan. 28, 1986.

School Teacher Among the Astronauts Who Died

Among the astronauts who died on Jan. 28, 1986, was school teacher Christa MacAuliffe. NASA was conducting a special project called Teacher in Space at the time and had invited Christa MacAuliffe to join them on their mission.

Challenger was initially supposed to go up on Jan. 22, but weather problems delayed the flight several days. Conditions were ready for launch on Jan. 28, but it was a very cold morning for Cape Canaveral, Florida. Engineers tried to warn their managers about the dangers of launching under such cold conditions due to the threat of equipment failures, especially with regard to the shuttle's O-rings, but their warnings were ignored. Challenger lifted off at 11:39 a.m.

Problems Began Immediately

Video footage shows that Challenger was having problems even before it lifted off the ground. An O-ring seal became brittle due to the low temperatures, and it ultimately failed. Flames shot out from the side of the rocket booster, which damaged the shuttle's external tank. It only took 73 seconds for the shuttle to break apart into pieces in a fiery blaze, and the burning pieces plummeted into the Atlantic ocean below. As can be expected, there were no survivors.

It was later revealed by the Rogers Commission, which investigated the disaster, that the designer of the solid rocket boosters on the shuttle, a company called Morton Thiokol, ignored the potential for O-ring failure. Furthermore, it was revealed that NASA knew about the potential design flaws but also ignored them. Rogers Commission scientist Richard Feynman used a glass of ice water to show to the public how and why the O-ring failed.

Experts have speculated whether the astronauts died instantly, or if they were still alive and conscious as they fell to their deaths. Some believe that the breaking apart of the shuttle was not sufficient to have killed them, but the sudden loss of cabin pressure at such a high altitude may have caused them to lose consciousness. This is a question to which we will never know the answer.