There are some days in history where those who were alive to witness them will always remember where they were when they heard the news, the most recent is obviously 9/11. Twenty-five years ago today was another one of those days when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded seventy-three seconds after launch. The disaster shocked the world and grounded the Shuttle program for nearly three years.
I was still in elementary school when it happened, and in 1986 there wasn’t much cooler for boys my age than the Space Shuttle. Every kid brought their toy Shuttle for show and tell, so much so that our school had to ask parents to not have their kids bring in yet another Space Shuttle. So on that January in 1986 when the nation was waiting to watch a school teacher go up in space on the Challenger, we were waiting for the TV to be rolled in so we could watch it live.
We didn’t get to see the launch and we were wondering why. Soon one of the older students came in and asked the teacher, “Do they know?” We’d soon find out, and to this day it’s still hard for me to look at video of the explosion. Every time someone who witnessed the disaster twenty-five years ago hears “Challenger, throttle up” they get a little lump in their throat.
That night President Reagan was supposed to deliver the State of the Union. Instead he would deliver one of the greatest Presidential speeches ever to a grieving nation. And then there was a nationally televised memorial service that aired on all networks a couple days later. Today, NASA held another memorial for the crew, but this time it was only aired on NASA TV and at 9:00am Eastern, which meant most people on the West Coast weren’t awake to see it.
At the Kennedy Space Center in Florida there’s a huge mirror memorial for all of the astronauts who died, and the Challenger’s crew is on there as well. When I went to Florida for my honeymoon in 2007, we made it a point to go to Kennedy before we left and see the memorial.
The loss of the Challenger had a huge effect on everyone, and the makers of science fiction at the time recognized how such a disaster in our space program would. Later in 1986, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home was released, and the movie is dedicated to the crew of the Challenger. The next year, Star Trek: The Next Generation went on the air and they named one of the show’s shuttlecraft after Ellison Onizuka.
Twenty-five years later and the Challenger is still remembered. Dick Scobee’s widow wrote a great book about it titled “Silver Linings”, and a couple of years ago NASA and the Discovery Channel made a mini-series titled “When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions” for NASA’s 50th Anniversary and that series discusses the Challenger very well; it’s available on DVD and Blu-Ray. If you weren’t alive during the Challenge disaster, those two resources are a great way to learn about it.
Commander Francis “Dick” Scobee
Pilot Michael J. Smith
Mission Specialist Ellison Onizuka
Mission Specialist Judith Resnik
Mission Specialist Ronald McNair
Payload Specialist Sharon Christa McAuliffe
Payload Specialist Gregory Jarvis