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On Jan. 28, 1986, millions of Americans witnessed the tragic explosion of NASA's Challenger shuttle.Time Life Pictures/NASA/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
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American flags hung at half-mast in tribute to the lives lost aboard the exploded Challenger shuttle.Terry Ashe/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
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Astronaut Christa McAuliffe and her crew experience microgravity during training aboard NASA's KC-135 research aircraft.
McAuliffe was a high school teacher who was chosen to become the first educator in space.
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The Space Shuttle Challenger waiting on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral, Florida. Space Frontiers/Getty Images
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Four members of the Challenger crew during a mission simulator.
From left to right: Michael J. Smith, Ellison S. Onizuka, Judith A. Resnik, and Dick Scobee.
Bill Bowers/Corbis/VCG/Getty Images
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The complete crew aboard the destroyed space shuttle. It took weeks to find the all of the crew's remains which were scattered in the ocean following the tragic explosion. Bettmann/Getty Images
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One of the photographs of the Challenger's explosion shared in 2014 by Michael Hindes, whose grandfather had been a former contractor for NASA.Michael Hindes via My Modern Met
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A trail of smoke leads up into the sky and then ends where the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff on Jan. 28, 1986. Bettmann/Getty Images
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The disastrous launch of the Challenger led to a presidential commission to investigate the cause of the malfunction. The commission included NASA superstars like Neil Armstrong and Sally Ride.NASA/NASA/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
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At the funeral for the killed astronauts. The shuttle was about 48,000 feet above the Earth when it was torn apart. Ralph Morse/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
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The crew's dialogue before take-off and after were recorded by the control room at NASA. Moments after the Challenger lifted up into the air, the last words from Capt. Michael Smith were heard over the radio: "Uh oh."Bettmann/Getty Images
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Horrified spectators watch as the Challenger explodes above them. Later, an investigation into the failed launch revealed an attempted cover-up by NASA over the malfunction.Bettmann/Getty Images
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The crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger walk out of the operations building at Kennedy Space Center on their way to Launch Pad-39B.
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The Space Shuttle Challenger ready for take-off. Concerns from engineers over a failed launched had been brought up to the higher-ups, including by Roger Boisjoly, an engineer at Morton-Thiokol.Heritage Space/Heritage Images/Getty Images
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Engineers had warned NASA officials about the dangers of carrying out a space shuttle launch in the winter.
Engineer Roger Boisjoly warned such attempts could end in "a catastrophe of the highest order." Sadly, he was right.Bob Pearson/AFP/Getty Images
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Christa McAuliffe (pictured upfront) was a social studies teacher from New Hampshire. She had beaten 11,400 other applicants to win a spot on the Space Shuttle Challenger through President Ronald Regan's "Teacher in Space Project."NASA/Getty Images
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Christa McAuliffe and her back-up, Barbara Morgan, having some fun in NASA's KC-135 aircraft which was nicknamed the "Vomit Comet" due to the intensity of the anti-gravity environment.NASA/Space Frontiers/Getty Images
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A piece of debris from the exploded Challenge found underwater in the waters off Florida in February 1986.Time Life Pictures/NASA/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
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Part of the Space Shuttle Challenger collected during recovery efforts. An estimated 17 percent of Americans or more than 40 million people had watched the tragedy unfold on their TV screens.Photo12/UIG/Getty Images
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The Space shuttle Challenger lifts off on Jan. 28, 1986 over Space Kennedy Center. It had been carrying seven crew members, all of whom were killed in the tragedy. Bob Pearson/AFP/Getty Images
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Christa McAuliffe and her Challenger teammates undergo anti-gravity training. McAuliffe was 37 years old when she died aboard the space shuttle.Keith Meyers/Corbis/VCG/Getty Images
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An investigation into the explosion found that it had been caused by a problem with the shuttle's O-rings, the rubber seals that lined parts of the rocket boosters. It was an issue that NASA officials had been aware of for nearly 15 years before the catastrophic launch.Bettmann/Getty Images
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Christa Mcauliffe had actually been a replacement crew member for the Challenger mission. NASA originally planned to send Caroll Spinney, the actor of Big Bird on Sesame Street inside his bird costume. But the yellow bird suit was to big to fit onto the shuttle.Getty Images
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Christa McAuliffe shows of a t-shirt with the seal of her home state New Hampshire printed on the front.
McAuliffe gave one of the shirts to each member of the Challenger upon their arrival at the Kennedy Space Center.
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Ellison Onizuka, the first Japanese American in space. He was among the crew members on the ill-fated Challenger.
Other crew members included Ronald McNair, Judith Resnick, who was the second woman to reach space, Gregory Jarvis, Dick Scobee, and Captain Michael Smith.Nik Wheeler/Corbis/Getty Images
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Rich and Kathie Kruse, the children of astronaut Dick Scobee, sit with their mother, June, during the funeral service in Texas.Doug Mills/Bettmann/Getty Images
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President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan at the memorial service for the crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger.
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"Sometimes painful things like this happen. It's all part of the process of exploration and discovery," President Reagan said in his address to the nation after the explosion "The future doesn't belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave."
Yet, a series of discoveries would reveal that the tragedy could have well been avoided.Diana Walker/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
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President Reagan and his aides watching the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion unfold on TV from the White House.Pete Souza/White House/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
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The sky after the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded above the Kennedy Space Center, claiming the lives of its seven crew members. MPI/Getty Images
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"Reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled," wrote physicist Richard Feynman in his assessment of the tragedy which he believes was a result of neglicence by NASA.MPI/Getty Images
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Parts of the wreckage that was uncovered during recovery operations after the tragedy.Time Life Pictures/NASA/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
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Solid rocket boosters fly in opposite directions after the fatal explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger.Ralph Morse/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
33 Unsettling Photographs Of The Challenger Explosion As It Unfolded
On January 28, 1986, 40 million Americans watched in horror as NASA's Space Shuttle Challenger exploded into pieces just 73 seconds after launch.
What was supposed to be an historic moment for the future of American space travel swiftly nosedived into one of the nation's worst tragedies. But perhaps most disturbing about the Challenger explosion was how it unfurled — and how its crew was killed.
This is the true story behind the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion.
The Day Of The Challenger Explosion
NASAThe seven crew members who were killed in the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion.
On the morning of January 28, seven crew members boarded NASA's Space Shuttle Challenger docked at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
Among the crew were pilot Mike Smith; commander Dick Scobee; mission specialists Ellison S. Onizuka, Judy Resnick, and Ron McNair; payload specialist Greg Jarvis; and teacher-turned-astronaut Christa McAuliffe, who was supposed to become the first teacher in outer space.
The team had trained for months to carry out Mission STS-51L, which was set to be the 25th mission sent into space under NASA's space shuttle program. It was part of a routine transportation mission that brought crew and cargo into orbit. But the mission was plagued by multiple delays due to a number of issues and was doomed to fail.
Nonetheless, at approximately 11:38 a.m., the Space Shuttle Challenger rocketed into space for the 10th time in its career.
"Here we go!" yelled Captain Smith over communication channels as the spacecraft took flight. But the crew's excitement evaporated within seconds. The last thing recorded in the cabin was Captain Smith saying, "Uh Oh."
As millions watched on TV and hundreds from the ground right below its launch, the Challenger exploded.
Nobody could believe what they had just witnessed as the Challenger shuttle was replaced by enormous clouds of smoke in the air. Indeed, it appeared at first as if nobody knew that the shuttle had been destroyed. "Obviously a major malfunction," said Stephen A. Nesbitt of NASA's Mission Control on the communication channels. It was only after a long pause that he confirmed the horrifying sight: "We have a report from the flight dynamics officer that the vehicle has exploded."
Those who witnessed the launch firsthand began to scream and weep as the reality of what happened sunk in: the Challenger had blown up and disintegrated over the Atlantic, taking the lives of its seven-member crew with it.
What Went Wrong?
Wikimedia CommonsTemperatures were freezing on the day of the Challenger's launch, which is believed to have contributed to its malfunction.
The catastrophe occurred at about 48,000 feet above the Earth. Photos from the incident, which can be viewed in the gallery above, show tiny parts of metal barely visible to the eye falling amid the clouds of smoke in the sky. These pieces are the different elements of the launch vehicle, one of which contained the cabin where the crew had been seated.
Even before NASA confirmed their deaths, the magnitude of the explosion inspired little hope of any survivors.
Subsequent investigations into the Challenger explosion found that the disaster was sparked by a deadly combination of faulty equipment, poor weather conditions, and reckless leadership.
NASA officials had been warned multiple times by engineers and staff that the space shuttle was not ready for launch; Allan McDonald, director of the Space Shuttle Solid Rocket Motor Project under Morton Thiokol, an engineering contractor working with NASA on the mission, had even refused to sign a launch recommendation for the Challenger the night before. But the agency went ahead with the mission anyway.
The investigation also revealed that the crew likely suffered a horrifying fate in their final moments. While observers suspected the crew had been instantly killed in the explosion, it turns out that because the crew cabin had detached from the shuttle, some of the crew members were likely still conscious as their cabin hurled back toward Earth.
It was found that Resnick and Onizuka had activated their Personal Egress Air Packs, which were meant to supply each member with six minutes of breathable air — one of them had even taken the time to activate Smith's for him. Smith, meanwhile, had pulled a switch to restore power to the cockpit, unaware that they were no longer connected to the rest of the shuttle.
The Challenger crew hit the surface of the ocean at an enormous speed of 207 mph, resulting in a lethal force that likely tore them out of their seats and smashed their bodies straight into the cabin's collapsed walls. They died on impact.
Today's Space Shuttle Program
Photo12/UIG/Getty ImagesFragments of the shuttle are recovered off the coast of Florida.
The Challenger disaster inspired numerous changes in NASA's space shuttle program and protocol. Before the catastrophe, an escape system for the occupying crew was never really considered, which meant that if the cabin happened to break off from the rest of the shuttle, then the crew would be trapped inside. This is what happened aboard the Challenger, as the cabin broke off from the rest of the shuttle but the crew were unable to escape it.
Thus a the incident, NASA launched an experimental mission to build a "bail-out" escape system for future spacecrafts.
Although the Challenger explosion is remembered as one of the worst tragedies to occur in the history of U.S. space exploration, it unfortunately wasn't the last.
In February 2003 — 17 years after the Challenger explosion — the Space Shuttle Columbia suffered the same fate while re-entering Earth's atmosphere. The explosion killed all seven crew members aboard. An investigative commission found that a piece of insulating foam had broken off a tank and struck one of the wings, leading to the disaster.
The space shuttle program continued until July 2011 when the Space Shuttle Atlantis successfully made its way to the International Space Station. After Atlantis, the U.S. relied on Russian rockets to transport its astronauts to the ISS — that is, until NASA had hired SpaceX and Boeing to take over its space shuttle operations.
In May 2020, SpaceX, a private space exploration company, successfully launched two NASA astronauts into orbit.
The test mission on May 27, 2020, carried astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley into orbit and back to Earth. The two returned safely, making a water landing in the Gulf of Mexico — the first since the Apollo crew water landing in 1975.
As the U.S. continues to hone its space shuttle operations, let's hope that the partnership between NASA and private companies like SpaceX can prevent any future tragedies.