Challenger Space Shuttle Explosion, 1986

The explosion of the space shuttle Challenger leaving a large amount of smoke in the sky.
The Challenger Space Shuttle explodes in the air shortly after it takes off on January 28, 1986. NASA // Public Domain

You could be mistaken for assuming this image depicts a close up of some microscopic cell or for even being a breaking image of a new deep-sea creature. Instead, this picture shows a huge explosion and one of the worst NASA space disasters the agency has faced to date. In 1986, the iconic Challenger Shuttle ‘exploded’ only 73 seconds into its ascendency. Documented live on TV, this disaster caused a ripple of changes within NASA and the cultural game around Space expeditions.

Blasting off from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center as usual, this spaceship had provided impressive social and cultural accolades alongside its scientific ones. Hosting the first black, woman and Canadian astronauts, the Challenger had completed previous success from its creation in 1981. Technologically, the Challenger hosted the very first astronaut repair of a satellite amongst other impressive milestones.

It would be upon its return to the space game in 1986 when things would go pear shaped. With a couple of alarm bells ringing the shuttle got the go ahead to launch at 11.38am EST. This trip had garnered increased media attention over other trips due to the presence of the first teacher – Christa McAuliffe – who was intending to give a lesson once up there the green light was given. Perhaps bolstered into a false sense of security or from an inflated ego from previous trips, NASA seemingly risked launching the shuttle on this date. It would take just over a minute for the spacecraft to reach an altitude of 46000ft, before a seal in the shuttles right rocket booster, which weakened during liftoff, came loose. This allowed a leak to develop and hot gas started pouring out. It would be the eventual collapse of the fuel tank which ultimately connected all the hydrogen and liquid oxygen which created the ‘explosion’ which was actually more of a tumbling fireball rather than your classic explosion. It would then plummet to the Atlantic Ocean killing all 7 astronauts inside.

Caught on live TV, due to the nature of the expedition, allowed such an impressive photo to be documented, but disturbed many watching. But what people failed to understand was why such a tragedy had happened. Shook by this disaster, NASA tried to explain the issue. Identified later by a commission report (which included Neil Armstrong on the panel), a number of NASA members involved in the launch were concerned about the low temperatures in Florida which may have led to degrade the seal on the boosters. Additionally, it was noted the flight rate which was proposed for the Challenger was wholly unsustainable. This, interestingly, may have been pushed by the Whitehouse where Reagan wanted to align the launch of the ship with his State of the Union Address. It would ultimately end up with a delay in the speech and Reagan change the speech to address the disaster, which many dub as his best speech during his presidency. Whilst not being factual, this is certainly worth considering as a direct influence on the program and disaster.

This disaster would lead to a number of changes within NASA protocol. Plans to fly civilians to space were delayed, satellites were shifted to reusable rockets and improved astronaut safety became paramount. The debris from the shuttle’s explosion were located and are now displayed in the Kennedy Space Centre museum for future generations to learn about this disaster.


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