Thursday, January 28, 2016

Tonight's Sky for January 28: The Challenger Disaster (1986)

It was on this date in 1986 that the space shuttle Challenger exploded, on live television.

As 1986 began, NASA was on a tear with its new space shuttle fleet, launching 25 missions in the program's first 5 years while utilizing an incomplete fleet (Columbia was first in 1981, Challenger next in April '83, Discovery in August '84, and Atlantis in October '85). By this time, spaceflight had almost become routine as NASA increasingly cut turnaround times and launched in colder weather. On January 12, 1986, Columbia completed the shuttle program's 24th official mission.

A few weeks later, on January 28, millions of eyes in both the United States and across the world were on shuttle Challenger because of the inclusion of teacher in space contest winner Christa McAuliffe. As the shuttle rose from the launchpad, it seemed another routine launch until, unnoticed by many at the time, a burst of flame erupted out of Challenger's right solid booster because of a failed o-ring. The booster came loose, impacted the rest of the vehicle, and ignited the escaped gasses. The orbiter itself fell from a height of over 60,000 feet into the Atlantic Ocean, killing all 7 astronauts aboard.

For a nation where anything seemed possible, the loss of Challenger was devastating, with the shuttles being grounded until 1988 until the investigation of the disaster was complete. The irony: engineers had objected to the launch before it took place on account of the cold (it was only 26 Fahrenheit), warning that the rubber o-rings could shrink and/or harden and fail, which is exactly what happened. 

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