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'Challenger' disaster changed program

The space shuttle initiative came to a halt in 1986, but after improvements NASA and the nation recovered and pushed forward.

Compiled from Times wires

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 2, 2003

HOUSTON -- It is a day always with us -- Jan. 28, 1986 -- when Americans gathered to watch the streams of smoke and debris that filled their television screens after the space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff.

But the fiery crash that killed seven astronauts became more than just a collective national memory, like the bombing of Pearl Harbor or the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

It marked a change in the United States' vaunted space program, which had brought the country so much pride until then. The program came to a virtual standstill for almost three years as NASA wanted to prevent a repeat of the accident that took the life of teacher-astronaut Christa McAuliffe. In addition to McAuliffe, the crew included commander Dick Scobee, pilot Michael Smith, mission specialists Judy Resnik, Ron McNair and Ellison Onizuka and payload specialist Greg Jarvis.

The seven had become the first astronauts to die since 1967, when a Jan. 27 fire in an Apollo capsule killed astronauts Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom, Edward H. White and Roger Chaffee during a launch pad training exercise.

NASA just this week noted the anniversaries of both tragedies.

Like Columbia, the end for Challenger came in a tremendous burst of light. In Challenger's case, the capsule housing the astronauts was hurtled 8.7 miles to the sea below.

NASA learned from on-board voice recorders that Challenger's astronauts lived through much of the capsule's death plunge. The remains were later recovered and cremated. With little ceremony, the remains were buried in a small grave at Arlington National Cemetery in May 1986.

In the anguished hours after the Challenger disaster on Jan. 28, 1986, President Ronald Reagan canceled his State of the Union speech scheduled for that evening.

"The future doesn't belong to the fainthearted, it belongs to the brave," Reagan said.

"We'll continue our quest in space. There will be more shuttle flights and more shuttle crews and yes, more volunteers, more civilians, more teachers in space."

The Challenger explosion followed what had been described as a nearly flawless launch. Soon afterward, the word came from NASA's Steve Nesbitt, "We have a report from the flight dynamics officer that the vehicle has exploded. Flight director confirms that."

Challenger did not "explode" in the common sense of the word; it was set aflame by a leak in the seals of its right booster rocket.

"No other element of the space shuttle system contributed to this failure," according to a presidential commission that looked into the accident.

The commission criticized NASA for ignoring evidence that other booster rockets had leaks. A rash of firings at top levels followed the Challenger crash.

About $2-billion was invested in nearly 400 improvements before the first post-Challenger flight after a 32-month hiatus.

Included in the improvements were rudimentary escape systems and airtight pressure suits for astronauts to keep them from blacking out in a sudden breach of the crew cabin at high altitude.

When the commander Frederick "Rick" Hauck led the revamped space shuttle Discovery into space on a tense, emotional Sept. 29, 1988, Fletcher called it, "The first of a new era."

"There's excitement in the country now that it's aloft," then-Vice President George Bush said of the Discovery mission. "It symbolizes our dreams, our future, our grit, determination and courage."

-Information from the Houston Chronicle and Associated Press was used in this report.

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