Thirty years ago today, NASA launched the Challenger space shuttle on its tenth mission out of the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral. Seven men and women, including winner of the Teacher in Space competition, Christa McAulliffe, were the on-board crew members. The lift off streamed live across the nation. Millions of civilians—students and teachers included—tuned into the event. Some even watched the phenomenon unveil in person, standing in bleachers a safe distance away from the launch site. But 73 seconds into flight, the rocket exploded.
The Rogers Commission reported the mechanical failure of the O-ring on the right rocket booster to seal properly, resulting in the catastrophic explosion. Circumstances also involved in the Challenger disaster were cold temperatures and management issues that overlooked crew safety and shuttle readiness to meet a deadline in a race against Russia.
The orbiter, the small compartment where the seven astronauts sat buckled up and the part of the shuttle that was supposed to make it into space, separated from the rocket boosters in the explosion. Extensive research suggests the orbiter was still relatively intact at this time and the crew members may have been alive, though possibly unconscious. Evidence shows that the oxygen was turned on by way of a manual switch. It has been suggested that Judith Resnik, on-board mission specialist, second American woman in space and first Jew in space, activated the oxygen.
Despite the possibility that the crew might have survived the initial explosion, analysis of the orbiter’s impact with the oceanic surface conclude the astronauts could not have survived the destructive force. All seven members of the Challenger perished.
Exchanging his planned State of the Union address for a speech in response to the Challenger disaster, President Reagan offered his condolences to U.S. citizens, families of the beloved astronaut heroes and to the employees of NASA. Of the seven-crew members’ efforts, he said:
“There’s a coincidence today. On this day three hundred and ninety years ago, the great explorer Sir Francis Drake died aboard a ship off the coast of Panama. In his lifetime, the great frontiers were the oceans, and a historian later said, ‘He lived by the sea, died on it, and was buried in it.’ Well, today we can say of the Challenger crew: Their dedication was, like Drake’s, complete.”
With news now at our fingertips, we can relive tragedy over and over again. Perhaps this makes us more empathetic to it now than we were in the past, or maybe lesser so. Let us never be apathetic to tragedy. But, above all, let us challenge ourselves to give our lives for something we believe in; let us embrace the honor in taking risks and reaching for the stars.