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Jan. 28, 1986 began as an unusually cold morning at Cape Canaveral, Fla. After days of delays, NASA decided that Tuesday was the date it would send its Space Shuttle Challenger into orbit.

The Challenger launched at 11:38 a.m. EST, breaking apart 73 seconds into its flight. Its seven crew members were killed instantly. The Challenger disintegrated over the Atlantic Ocean after an O-ring seal failed at liftoff, ultimately causing the structural failure of the spacecraft’s external tank.

Thirty years later, we remember the disaster for the lives lost. The potential extinguished. The national impact.


In this photo from Jan. 9, 1986, the Challenger crew takes a break during countdown training at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. Left to right are Teacher-in-Space payload specialist Sharon Christa McAuliffe; payload specialist Gregory Jarvis; and astronauts Judith A. Resnik, mission specialist; Francis R. (Dick) Scobee, mission commander; Ronald E. McNair, mission specialist; Mike J. Smith, pilot; and Ellison S. Onizuka, mission specialist. (NASA photo)
In this photo from Jan. 9, 1986, the Challenger crew takes a break during countdown training at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Left to right are Teacher-in-Space payload specialist Sharon Christa McAuliffe; payload specialist Gregory Jarvis; and astronauts Judith A. Resnik, mission specialist; Francis R. (Dick) Scobee, mission commander; Ronald E. McNair, mission specialist; Mike J. Smith, pilot; and Ellison S. Onizuka, mission specialist. (NASA photo)

Payload specialist Christa McAuliffe was selected from thousands of applicants to become the first teacher in space. Following her death, dozens of schools around the country were named in her honor. A number of her former students have also gone on to work in education.

Payload specialist Gregory Jarvis was an engineer and former Air Force captain. An engineering building at the University of Buffalo was renamed in his honor following the tragedy.

Astronaut Judith Resnik was also an engineer. She served as mission specialist and was just the second American woman in space having accrued more than 140 hours in orbit.

Francis “Dick” Scobee was mission commander. Like Jarvis, he’d served in the Air Force as well. Scobee would go on to become an Air Force test pilot before commanding the Challenger. His widow recently shared her memories from that fateful day when the unthinkable happened.

Ronald McNair, mission specialist and engineer, held a Ph.D. in physics. He was the second black man in space. A segregated library in South Carolina that once attempted to deny him access now bears his name.

Mike J. Smith was one of five astronauts aboard the Challenger. He served in the Navy and was deployed to for a tour in Vietnam. Smith piloted the spacecraft.

Hawaii-born Ellison Onizuka was another mission specialist aboard the Challenger. He was the first Asian American in space, as well as the first person of Japanese descent in space. The Air Force veteran had previously flown on a Discovery mission.

In 2004, then President George W. Bush bestowed posthumous Congressional Space Medals of Honor to all of the Challenger’s crew.

Today, their sacrifice and the efforts of the now-discontinued shuttle program have led to the development of the International Space Station and have helped to advance technology and better our understanding of space.

Read more:
In perhaps his best speech as president, Ronald Reagan soothed a nation mourning the Challenger loss
Wreckage from these two lost space shuttles is being displayed to the public for the first time
Remember the Challenger disaster, 28 years ago today

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