The NASA space shuttle Challenger exploded on January 28, 1986, just 73 seconds after liftoff, bringing a devastating end to the spacecraft’s 10th mission. The disaster claimed the lives of all seven astronauts aboard, including Christa McAuliffe, a teacher from New Hampshire who would have been the first civilian in space. It was later determined that two rubber O-rings, which had been designed to separate the sections of the rocket booster, had failed due to cold temperatures on the morning of the launch. The tragedy and its aftermath received extensive media coverage and prompted NASA to temporarily suspend all shuttle missions.
Five years later, flights began when the space shuttle Columbia embarked on a 54-hour mission. Launched by two solid-rocket boosters and an external tank, the aircraft-like shuttle entered into orbit around Earth.
When the mission was completed, the shuttle fired engines to reduce speed and, after descending through the atmosphere, landed like a glider. Early shuttles took satellite equipment into space and carried out various scientific experiments.
Their investigation revealed that the O-ring seal on Challenger’s solid rocket booster, which had become brittle in the cold temperatures, failed. Flames then broke out of the booster and damaged the external fuel tank, causing the spacecraft to explode and disintegrate.
The commission also found that Morton Thiokol, the company that designed the solid rocket boosters, had ignored warnings about potential issues. NASA managers were aware of these design problems but also failed to take action.
Famously, scientist Richard Feynman, a member of the commission, demonstrated the O-ring flaw to the public using a simple glass of ice water.
Aftermath of the Challenger Explosion
After the accident, NASA refrained from sending astronauts into space for more than two years as it redesigned a number of the shuttle’s features.
Flights began again in September 1988 with the successful launching of Discovery. Since then, the space shuttle has carried out numerous important missions, including the repair and maintenance of the Hubble Space Telescope and the construction of the International Space Station.
On February 1, 2003, a second shuttle disaster rocked the United States when the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated upon reentry, killing all seven people aboard. While missions resumed in July 2005, the space shuttle program ended in 2011.
Ten years after the Challenger disaster, two large pieces from the spacecraft washed ashore on a Florida beach. The remaining debris is now stored in a missile silo at Cape Canaveral.
1896 – Walter Arnold of East Peckham, Kent, becomes the first person to be convicted of speeding. He was fined one shilling, plus costs, for speeding at 8 mph (13 km/h), thereby exceeding the contemporary speed limit of 2 mph (3.2 km/h).