33 Unsettling Photographs Of The Challenger Explosion As It Unfolded

Published January 24, 2014
Updated September 8, 2020

From the crew's last days of training to the moment the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded, remember one of the worst disasters in American aerospace history in these images.

After Challenger Wreck
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Challenger Among Mist
33 Unsettling Photographs Of The Challenger Explosion As It Unfolded
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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

The Space Shuttle Challenger Team

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?

Ice On Launch Pad Tower

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

Challenger Clean Up

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.


After seeing these images of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, check out these photographs of NASA landings throughout the decades and vintage photos from the famous Apollo 13.

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