It's 30 years since a space shuttle exploded on live tv while the world watched

The Challenger disaster of 28 January 1986 killed seven astronauts, including Christa McAuliffe – the first ever teacher in space.

CHALLENGER EXPLOSION Challenger explodes shortly after liftoff, 28 January 1986 PA PA

THIRTY YEARS AGO today, 28 January 1986, the space shuttle Challenger took off from a frozen Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Challenger was the workhorse of the US Space Shuttle programme (vehicles that were sent into near-earth orbit by NASA between 1981 and 2011), used more frequently than any other orbiting shuttle at that time.

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This particular mission was being watched by an estimated 17% of the American population. Media and public interest had been generated around the world as Challenger would be transporting Christa McAuliffe – the first civilian teacher in space.

Instead, to the horror of a worldwide audience, the shuttle broke apart and exploded just 73 seconds into its flight. All seven astronauts aboard were killed.


Today the US marked the anniversary of the disaster by pledging to remember lost astronauts as the country presses on with its mission to Mars.

Challenger 30th Anniversary A wreath is left at a memorial to Ellison Onizuka, Challenger astronaut, in the Little Tokyo district of Los Angeles today AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

Singers in red and blue belted out the Star Spangled Banner at Kennedy Space Center, for a crowd that included relatives and friends of the seven killed that day.

“These brave women and men are forever a part of a story that is ongoing,” President Barack Obama said in a statement.

It is a story that will bring human beings to Mars and out into our solar system – and beyond. It is a story made possible by their sacrifice and heroism.


The catastrophic failure of the mission would be subsequently attributed to the inclusion of rubber seals on specific joints on the rocket, known as o-rings, that were never certified to operate at the freezing temperatures of the Florida launch site in January.

Challenger_flight_51-l_crew Challenger's crew of seven. Christa McAuliffe, who was to be the first teacher in space, is second from the left in the back row. Ellison Onizuka is to her left. NASA NASA

The fact that concerns over the durability of the o-rings at such temperatures were flagged by their constructors with the NASA hierarchy, and that the launch proceeded regardless, has been attributed to “go-fever” – a space industry phrase describing the communal rush to get a project over the line, regardless of complications or mistakes.

Following the destruction of Challenger the space shuttle programme was taken offline for nearly three years while safety concerns were ironed out, while NASA’s organisational structure was officially given the blame by the Rogers Commission which was formed to investigate the incident.

At present the US operate no near-space vehicles of their own, with all attention being poured into the Mars mission, and the attempt to make that a reality by the year 2030.

With AFP

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