January 28th, 2011
08:30 AM ET

Remembering the Challenger disaster, 25 years later

Seventy-three seconds.

That's how long NASA's space shuttle Challenger was in the air before an O-ring failure turned a routine mission into space into a tragedy on January 28, 1986.

Twenty-five years after NASA's first fatal in-flight accident, the memory of the Challenger disaster is still strong.

CNN's John Zarrella was at Kennedy Space Center to cover the launch - the first from NASA's new launchpad 39B. "I just remember seeing the cloud of smoke and what looked like fireworks coming out from the vehicle," says Zarrella. "We were all just looking at each other wondering 'OK, what's happened here?'"

CNN, still in its early years, was the only network to carry the launch live that Tuesday. Among those tuning in were children in classrooms across the country, watching what was to be a milestone: Christa McAuliffe, the program’s first teacher in space, lifted off as a member of the crew.

An investigation later revealed a rubber "O-ring" seal on one of Challenger's solid rocket boosters had failed because of unusually low temperatures. This caused a leak of highly explosive gases, which ultimately led to a catastrophic explosion at 46,000 feet.

It would be almost three years before the space shuttle program would return to flight. NASA wouldn't experience another disaster until the loss of space shuttle Columbia in 2003, when a hole in the shuttle's heat shield caused it to disintegrate on re-entry to Earth's atmosphere. The Columbia disaster would ground the shuttle program for another two years.

Seven lives were lost in the Challenger explosion: Dick Scobee, commander; Michael J. Smith, pilot; Ellison Onizuka, mission specialist; Judy Resnik, mission specialist; Ron McNair, mission specialist; Gregory Jarvis, payload specialist; and Christa McAuliffe, payload specialist and teacher.

Visit CNN.com's complete coverage: Remembering Challenger

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soundoff (188 Responses)
  1. Navy Veteran

    I remember I was at home on break from school watching it live on TV with my family. I was 16. I couldn't imagine what was happening, even though I was looking right at the explosion..I wanted to believe that somehow, they survived. .It took awhile to sink in. I was so amazed that something as simple as an "O"-ring could cause such a disaster. It made me realize just how complex the Space Shuttle was, and how over-confident...even arrogant... NASA and the whole country was when it came to our space program.

    January 28, 2011 at 1:17 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Kim

    It was my birthday. I was in a conference meeting at my office. When I came out, we saw people standing next to a TV and some were crying. Everyone was upset and it took me a few minutes to understand what happened. I couldn't believe it!! The launches had become so routine and I never thought of the danger involved. I prayed for the victims and their families. I came home and turned on the TV. It was then that I realized the children around the country had watched this lift off excited that a teacher was onboard (Christa McAuliffe). It was a terrible tragedy. President Reagan spoke to the nation. Reagan concluded with "The Challenger astronauts had “waved goobye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God".

    January 28, 2011 at 1:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • Navy Veteran

      Happy birthday. 🙂

      January 28, 2011 at 1:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • bb

      Happy Birthday x 25 Kim. God rest their souls, crazy, courageous Americans. It seems liike a dream so far away and yet I see the paint on the mortar walls of the basement of my school as we peered into the music room door after gym class in a surreal moment of a child who couldn't fully comprehend. I was just sad. I remember the President, with his hair slicked and so black; blacker than black licorice. I don't remember what he said, but I can here his low rumbling voice and his friendly face. He made us feel safe.

      January 28, 2011 at 10:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • challenged

      Ofcourse we were safe, it didn't had anything to do with our safety. But it was one of the worst days in american history.

      January 29, 2011 at 9:45 am | Report abuse |
  3. Navy Veteran

    The sadest thing for me was watching Christa's parents' reaction live. You could clearly see how proud they were, watching the shuttle go up. Then... it happened, and you could see the confusion on their faces, and then shock. That was unforgettable to watch. I can only imagine the reactions of the other families; but the camera was only on the McAuliffes.

    January 28, 2011 at 1:27 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Dee

    My sister & I were working at a local restuarant at the time. It was on the TV & we both happened to be in the main dining room with the big front projection TV. We both looked at each other and could probably hear each other thinking,"Something isn't right about this at all". We worked in a Lenexa KS restuarant, suburb of Kansas City MO well that's what KCMO says, & had dealt w/the Hyatt Regency Skywalk tragedy 5 yrs before. We just knew that no matter what the talking heads said this was bad. We actually had a young lady working for us that thought they still sent monkeys into space, she wasn't the sharpest stick in the bunch.

    May the family & friends of Challenger Crew find some small comfort knowing that on that horrible day 25 years ago two sisters working in a Lenexa KS BBQ restuarant prayed for all of them that day & will do so again today. Eternal rest grant unto them O Lord, & let perpetual light shine upon them, may they rest in peace.

    January 28, 2011 at 1:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • Lisa - Boston, MA

      Amen

      January 28, 2011 at 5:13 pm | Report abuse |
  5. WVU

    I came home for lunch between classes (I was in my second year of college) and saw it happen. I was shocked, stunned, and terribly saddened by the devastation I witnessed. I will NEVER forget the image of that shuttle explosion. And to those of you who feel it is necessary to post comments to place blame and make irrelevant remarks just shut up. Choose to step in front of a bus to prove you are an idiot and keep the comments to yourself.

    January 28, 2011 at 1:49 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Aerospce Engineer

    I was there at the Cape watching the Challenger when this happened. It was horrible!

    About a month later I was hired by one of the Aerospace companies to help get the next shuttle (Discovery) launched. So I've learned how NASA does things. NASA was at fault and this could have been avoided. NASA has changed and they won't make this mistake again. But other mistakes will be made. Unfortunately mistakes are part of this job and even the small ones can have really bad consequences in Aerospace.

    January 28, 2011 at 2:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • NASAGuy

      So true.

      January 28, 2011 at 2:20 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Cesar

    Poor victims I remember it as if it were yesterday-such shocking video.

    January 28, 2011 at 2:09 pm | Report abuse |
  8. birthdaygirl

    I turned 9 years old the day the Challenger blew up. Imagine a classroom full of kids, eating birthday cupcakes my mom brought in and watching it on TV. The moment we realized it had exploded will be etched in my memory for the rest of my life. It was awful.

    In college, I saw a presentation on the O-ring fiasco. The NASA engineers knew that the O-ring had a high probability of failure at such cold temperatures, but because they (being scientists and engineers) could not communicate that simple concept, it was decided to launch the shuttle anyway. Today, I am a scientist who focuses on public education and outreach so that science is accessible and transparent, and we never have such needless loss again. This event absolutely shaped my life.

    January 28, 2011 at 2:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • NASAGuy

      It's not that the engineers couldn't communicate the problem- they did, repeatedly. The problem was that management chose not to accept their findings and recommendations.

      January 28, 2011 at 2:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • GUtah

      I love your comment.

      January 28, 2011 at 5:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • ElecEngineer

      NASAGuy...I was hoping someone would point that out. I beleive the quote in the reports was "Take off your engineering hat and put on your management hat". Did I get that right? All could have been avoided had it not been the acceptance of unreasonable risk for the sake of schedule and budget.

      January 29, 2011 at 12:10 am | Report abuse |
  9. Jay

    I was in elementary school watching the launch "live". Amazing how quickly the awe of lift-off became shock and confusion in a matter of seconds. On that fateful morning, 7 heroic lives were abruptly ended, but many more lives were changed forever. I for one, started on the path that has led me to work in the space shuttle program. Say what you will about the cost and relative degree of success or failure, but you will not find more dedicated or committed teams and individuals who make such difficult tasks seem almost routine. Having worked many launches from inside the mission control center, it never gets old. With only 3 launches remaining, it's almost time to say goodbye to the shuttles and begin the next chapter of space exploration. My hope is that the lessons learned and paid for are not easily forgotten.
    May we always remember the sacrifices and dedication of those that have brought us this far, sometimes paying that price with their own lives.

    January 28, 2011 at 2:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mehgann

      I was seven years old, watching the take off in my science class. I didn't realize it at the time, but my teacher was very young...probably just out of college. When the shuttle exploded, we didn't understand what had happened. We thought the shuttle had just "blown into space", as one student remarked. The teacher just turned off the tv and started teaching again. It wasn't long before an older and more experienced teacher came in to speak to us about what happened.

      I'll never forget this day. I'll never forget the lives lost, nor will I forget the president's speech that was directed to school children like us. Say what you want about Reagan, (and believe me, I do, and OFTEN), his words were comforting to a seven year old child who simply didn't understand.

      January 28, 2011 at 10:47 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Randy

    I also witnessed this in my office. It was just beyond words. I can't understand how they came to the conclusion that it was the O-rings when the shuttle desinigrated and left no evidence. What a sham!

    January 28, 2011 at 2:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • Programmr

      Then you either have not read, or choose to dismiss, the vast amount of information which is in the official "Report of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident". I've read it all. Video footage of the launch, and flight, support its conclusions. Seeing is believing.

      January 28, 2011 at 2:45 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Programmr

    I remember this day vividly. It was a very sad day indeed. That we choose to continue flying in the face of disasters like this speaks to the strength of this country and the men and women to volunteer to become astronauts.

    January 28, 2011 at 2:42 pm | Report abuse |
  12. yodasez

    <remembers it well, i do.....disbilef was my 1st emotion..then realization..and sadness at the great loss...still ..if i got the chance..i'd ride to the I.S.S. today...on a shuttle...we must not let setbacks and tragedy....Deter us from our explorations...The Challenger Heroes DID NOT Die in Vain!

    January 28, 2011 at 2:47 pm | Report abuse |
  13. yodasez

    Discovery is intact..i think u Referring to Columbia...ruptured leadin edge on wing...disintegration upon re-entry...

    January 28, 2011 at 2:49 pm | Report abuse |
  14. yodasez

    ...while i'on the subject of shuttles......it boggles my mind to think that the powers that be ...are resigned to let The Hubble Space Telescope...burn up in the atomosphere...instead of using Atlantis...or Endeavour..to retrieve Hubble...and Put it in the Smithsonian....surely the images it has provided merit the consideration....anybody else agree??

    January 28, 2011 at 2:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jay

      The Hubble Space Telescope retrieval is not possible. Only the shuttle is large enough to stow it for return to earth. There are only 3 more external tanks for space shuttles in existence, all of which are to be used for the final three missions already planned for 2011 launches. Not to mention how extremely difficult it was to get one last hubble repair mission to happen (STS-125). There's no option to go to the Internation Space Station if you have damage preventing you from reentering Earth's atmosphere. Hubble is a national treasure and will have unlocked many scientific discoveries not to mention thousands of beautiful pictures of our universe. Hopefully, the James Webb telescope will pick up where HST left off.

      January 28, 2011 at 3:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • Aerospce Engineer

      I think this is a great idea. I wish NASA would have thought of this.

      January 28, 2011 at 4:07 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Mr.Speed

    I was a Junior in Highschool...
    We were out of school that day because of a snow day in Middle Tennessee...
    I had just walked to my favorite hang out to shoot some pool with a buddy of mine whose great uncle was "Gus"Grissom. We were going to watch the launch on the TV and shoot a couple games of pool.
    My buddy never made it to the arcade as his dad ( Gus' Cousin- I think) wanted to watch the launch...
    After the explosion I ran to his house to catch up with him and try to watch the news...
    His dad wouldn't let us watch as it brought back many memories. Sad day. Very sad.

    January 28, 2011 at 2:57 pm | Report abuse |
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