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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Filed under: Shuttle • Space
soundoff (188 Responses)
  1. carisa anderson

    I was in the fifth grade when this happend. I remember sitting in the class room watching it because there was a teacher on that shuttle. I remember like it was yesterday, so sad.. hope thier families are doing ok.

    January 28, 2011 at 2:58 pm | Report abuse |
  2. deme21

    I remember watching that live in my kindergarten class at school. We were very excited to see the space shuttle launch and did projects and discussions leading up to the (unfortunate) event. I remember that my classmates and I didn't quite know what was happening when it exploded but we figured it was bad because the teachers started crying which made us scared. I still remember that event like it was yesterday.

    January 28, 2011 at 3:01 pm | Report abuse |
  3. phoenix

    we don t belong up there now and then. calling all rocket scientists abort problems like poverty and crime. git goin.

    January 28, 2011 at 3:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mo

      Perhaps Columbus et al should have also waited for poverty, crime and tyranny to be solved before extending the reaches of our known world. That's the solution the Chinese had back in the 1400's. The Ming dynasty had built a fleet of 1500 ships with 30,000 sailors. Then the leadership changed and they destroyed the ships and disbanded the navy. The new leadership wanted to focus on improving China internally. They're only now catching up to the rest of the developed world, some 500+ years later.
      Developing new enterprises and industries is what America is all about. Space holds that opportunity, social welfare programs do not.

      January 28, 2011 at 3:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • JBK

      Mo typed :

      "Perhaps Columbus et al should have also waited for poverty, crime and tyranny to be solved before extending the reaches of our known world"

      IIf we're going to look at history, I think it would have been a great idea to stay in place to solve poverty, crime and tyranny. If these issues were addressed in Europe there would have been no reason to slam a New World on top of the bones of millions of people who already lived here on the N. American continent for thousands of years....Hopefully if people get beyond LEO someday to live among the stars, they will be inoculated against those dark and murderous aspects of human nature ...

      January 29, 2011 at 1:24 am | Report abuse |
  4. caivan

    i was a junior at UMass Amherst that day, and remember I woke up late, and not knowing what had happened, was walking in the Student Union, seeing people crying and hugging, and a large group clustered around the tv lounge, all silently watching the news. Someone told me what happened, and at first, I thought it was a joke.

    January 28, 2011 at 4:36 pm | Report abuse |
  5. YN2(SS) Mark Long

    It was a sad time in our nation's history. I was on board the USS BATFISH (SSN 681) a nuclear powered submarine out of Charleston Naval Base. We were off the coast of Bermuda when the accident happened. We were ordered to the search area and surfaced, marking the position of debris and radioing the information to command authority. I actually was a lookout and participated in the search. I remember it vividly.

    January 28, 2011 at 4:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • Pegasus

      Mark, As one of the "command authority" controllers for the search and recovery activity – Thank you for your assistance that day.
      edu – I was the Rescue Controller on duty that morning, Thank you for your kind comments. It has taken much of these years to over come the sight of watching 7 of my friends die. As with many of the other commenters – I don't need to watch the video – all I have to do is close my eyes when it is mentioned. May they rest in peace.

      January 28, 2011 at 6:18 pm | Report abuse |
  6. RANDRAND

    THIS TRAGEDY, IN HINDSIGHT, WAS SO VERY PREVENTABLE AND TRAGIC. IF MORTON-THIOCAL HAD NOT BEEN UNDER TIME AND BUDGET CONSTRAINTS TO RUSH THE QUICK LAUNCH MARGIN OF THE MISSION, NOT ALLOWED SHORT-CUTS ON PRISTINE O RING TO JOINTS FITTING, AND USED GO-NO GO PROTOCOL SAFETY DETERMINATIONS–WE WOULD HAVE SEVEN LIVING ASTRONAUTS! IT WAS NEGLIGENT AND CRIMINAL-JUST LIKE THE FRAUD ON WALL STREET AND THE BANKS IN THE ECONOMY, AND THE OUTSOURCING OF JOBS OUT OF THE UNITED STATES--THERE ARE CONSEQUENCES FOR BAAAAAAAAD CHOICES-AND WE ALL PAY A HEAVY BURDEN IN THE REPERCUSSIONS!

    January 28, 2011 at 4:50 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Jeremy

    I was just a little kid when this happened, I had just turned 8. I wanted nothing more than to be an astronaut when I grew up and was thrilled to watch the launch on TV. When it exploded our teacher started crying, students were crying... very sad. I never lost the dream of being an astronaut, unfortunately I never pursued my dream.

    January 28, 2011 at 5:00 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Lisa - Boston, MA

    25 years ago my daughter (Elizabeth) was almost 4 and Patrick (my son) was almost 2. Here's how I remember hearing about the Challenger explosion: The three of us (Elizabeth, Patrick and I) had just finished breakfast - it actually was, I feel, our second breakfast of the day!. I had made french toast. I distinctly remember the television being on in the living room and I was in the kitchen cleaning up the dishes. (This was Silver Spring, not Berkeley Springs).

    Elizabeth yelled from the living room and said "Mom, there are fireworks, lots of fireworks! " We had seen fireworks on December 31 and I was certain Elizabeth was confused. I went to the living room only to watch the Challenger explode.

    Elizabeth was correct. On that day there there were lots of fireworks, Not the good kind though.

    It is a memory that is very poignant for me.

    January 28, 2011 at 5:02 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Mando

    I was in second grade and at home because of the flu. My mother turned on the television so that we could watch the launch. I'll never forget what I saw 25 years ago nor will I forget the sadness.

    January 28, 2011 at 5:40 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Philip

    @Mo...Columbus set sail for the new world armed with a copy of a map made by Chinese explorers who visited America in 1421. And the Chinese aren't "catching up" as you say. When we think of Chinese products, we think of plasti-crap sold at wal-Mart. This is an illusion. example: For about a decade now, The Vhinese have been producing pre-fab nuclear powerplants that cannot "melt down" like the military designed types we use. Haliburtons's KBR division used to build nuclaer plants befor the Chinese did. Back in '07 they sold KBR to an outfit in Alabama, who now specialize in debris removal. More people have checking accounts in China than can be found in the US, where a full 20-25% of our population do not bank. China thinks in terms of the next 50 years, while most of us think in terms of making it to the end of the month. In China, fraud is punishable by death.(about 1,200 were executed last yr.) If we had that law, more than that would be executed daily. They aren't catching up. They are leading.

    January 28, 2011 at 5:53 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Mo

    You are correct. It was near the end of the 1400's that the decline started, they were a global power earlier that century. I was indicating that from ~1500's to late 1900's they had lagged because they chose not to explore or extend boundaries. They are not caught up in terms of a middle class or average standard of living, in fact most the population live in poverty. But yes, nationally, the Chinese are showing superiority in many areas.

    January 28, 2011 at 6:03 pm | Report abuse |
  12. rsdunphy

    All you freikin people can't just leave well enough alone and remember the moment without putting your freikin political 2 cents in. That is why we have such a violent society. Me vs You. Its the way we are headed as a society. And most folks are not even educated or experienced in time or old enough enough to make a comment.

    January 28, 2011 at 6:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • Robert A.M. Stephens, LLC

      Amazingly and sadly accurate post. I am reading these comments, save for a few, and what has happened to our culture. So many of these posts are from people who seem to have an IQ of 6, suffer from tourettes, interbred, drug crazed or et, al.....where do these minions of idiocy come from? Disturbing.

      Robert A.M. Stephens LLC
      Scaled Dynamics
      NASA Visual Exploration
      Pan America
      USA
      ---------------
      Have Jeep, Have Heart, Will Travel

      January 29, 2011 at 5:00 am | Report abuse |
  13. rsdunphy

    And thank you all who just said where they were at this moment in time.

    January 28, 2011 at 6:20 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Philip

    Mo...that would depend on what you call poverty. In my book, someone living within their means and not borrowing in order to have luxuries they cannot afford is a rich man. Someone or some nation deep in deep in debt would not count as being rich. More debt does not equal more wealth. And have you seen china's ultra-modern cities? They have about 200 cities with populations exceeding 1 million now. They aren't living in poverty like before. The poverty stricken nations are the ones who have their natural resourses stolen by foreigners who bribe government officials. If Haliburton would have gotten caught bribing a Chinese official instead of an African official, heads would have rolled, literally. Bribery is punishable by death in China.

    January 28, 2011 at 6:26 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Ed

    It's seeing the shock and bewilderment on the faces of those who were there in person to watch the launch that always hits me hardest. Looking for answers, knowing something has gone wrong, that awful moment of realization.

    I lived near Daytona in the mid-90's, and I don't think I missed watching a single launch in five years. Each time was exhilarating, and as the shuttle became a small glowing dot in the sky and faded from view, we all breathed a sigh of relief that they'd made it past the dangerous early part of the liftoff and ascent. When the shuttles would come in for landings we'd wait for that double sonic boom, almost a salute. Wow, how vivid the memories of the Challenger and the other missions still are.

    January 28, 2011 at 6:50 pm | Report abuse |
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