On this day in 1986, at 11:38am EST, the space shuttle Challenger lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida. On board were F. Richard Scobee (Mission Commander), Michael J. Smith (Pilot), Mission Specialists Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Payload Specialist Gregory Jarvis and Payload Specialist/Teacher Christa McAuliffe. Seventy-three seconds into the flight, the shuttle broke apart in a cloud of fire. There were no survivors.
I was a middle school science teacher in Holly Hill, Florida on that day. I’d just walked my students to lunch. Since the shuttle was going up, I walked outside. We could see shuttle launches once they reached altitude. It was cold so there were only a few of us watching. We saw the shuttle vapor trail and it looked like a normal launch until it didn’t. We all commented that this launch was different. We’d never seen a vapor trail split like that before.
I went to the teacher’s lunch room. As I was sitting down we received word that the shuttle had exploded. We ate in silence. I picked up my students and we went back to class. Students had so many questions. At that point we had no answers. One of my students, a class clown, said he wished there had been more teachers on board. The class shut him down quicker than I could.
Today History.com posted 5 Things You May Not Know About the Challenger Shuttle Disaster. Before you click over for the full story, here are my thoughts on each.
1. The Challenger didn’t actually explode. (Although news media and even NASA at first referred to the disaster as the result of an explosion, it wasn’t. There was a leak from the fuel tank and a fireball but not an explosion. Many still think the Challenger exploded. – Craig)
2. The astronauts aboard the shuttle didn’t die instantly. (This was the topic of much speculation. It’s rumored there are tapes which have never been released of the astronauts aware there was a major problem. I hope that they lost consciousness and the end came quickly for them. – Craig)
3. Relatively few people actually saw the Challenger disaster unfold on live television. (Living in Florida, shuttle launches have always generated a lot of interest. Since we’re close enough to see launches once they reach altitude most folks will go outside to watch. On that January day, because it was so cold, there were only 3 or 4 of us watching. – Craig)
4. In the aftermath of the tragedy, some suggested that the White House pushed NASA to launch the shuttle in time for President Ronald Reagan’s State of the Union address, scheduled for later on January 28. (There was pressure, but it wasn’t from the White House. Ronald Reagan was applauded for his words about the astronauts. – Craig)
5. More than a decade after the Challenger disaster, two large pieces from the spacecraft washed ashore at a local beach.