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. Just Trust Me

    What is a NASA Spin-off.

    If you can't name three, take some time to read instead of posting.

    January 28, 2011 at 11:41 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Kevin

    We shall remember these brave

    January 28, 2011 at 11:47 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Daughter of teacher in space finalist

    My families prayers were not answered when we prayed it would be my daddy that was on that shuttle....I still have my father and my kids have their grandfather. My life could have been very different. Please be kind with topics like this, remember the pain so many endured!

    January 28, 2011 at 11:56 pm | Report abuse |
  4. canada

    I often read peoples comments and chuckle but rarely leave comment, this time however i feel compelled, Jim (not so brighteske) sorry but genetically altering babies would be far more expensive and time consuming than any type of spacecraft, even if it didn't sound like the idea of a mental case, you sound like a ranting ten year old please go chirp off to your friends on world of warcraft, magic, D&D or whatever leave the adults to honor the people with far more courage than you will ever understand, that we lost on what was supposed to be a triumphant day. Unfortunately exploring comes with many risks, and without exploring we can't find your happy little earth planet to send our genetic super robot babies to, which means we need the brave folks at Nasa because sillypants like you would rather stay home and tell everyone their doing it wrong.( oh and Phillip you probably say praise jesus alot, and the only reason you do is because you were born here, had you been born in the middle east you'd probably say praise allah, or whatever else you were told to believe in.( just before you go off that wasn't an attack on either religon just your closed weak mind ) bless the magnificant 7 we lost to whatever religon you believe in they deserve it.

    January 29, 2011 at 12:14 am | Report abuse |
  5. blahh

    just watching the video makes me cringe.

    January 29, 2011 at 12:25 am | Report abuse |
  6. EllenRose

    I remember this very well as I was almost 40 yrs old when it happened. It makes me very ill to think I could have prevented it as I had a premonition the day before that it would happen. I told a relative this premonition and I wanted to call Cape Canavral about it but I didnt because they would have called me a nut case. I will always have this horrible feeling the rest of my life..
    May God bless the the families of this disaster.

    January 29, 2011 at 12:34 am | Report abuse |
  7. Mike

    I was 8 when it happened and I remember like it was yesterday. My class had given money to Christa McAuliffe's mission. We were so proud a school teacher was flying in the shuttle. What a disaster. I will never forget it was so horrible. I was dumbfounded in 2003 when Space Shuttle Columbia blew up. Some very unfortunate disasters but most missions very progressive and accomplished.

    January 29, 2011 at 1:14 am | Report abuse |
  8. J. Clifford

    How quickly, or not, 25 years has passed.

    I live in the Los Angeles area.

    In 1986, I was in my last year in College, at Cal Poly University, 30 miles east of Downton LA.

    Ironically, I did a paper, for a Political Science Class, on NASA (I had thought of it in terms of the "I Dream of Jeannie" realm and "Star Trek" fantasies), and was the first one to do a presentation, on January 16, 1986. I remember my professor making sure to ask questions, and, politely, guide our presentations, so he asked me to send a request for some back-up information he thought I should know (he gave me good markes for my research, though). The letter was sent, a few days later, but no answer came from NASA.

    Instead, on January 28th, I remember finishing vacuuming a room at the School's University Union, where I worked as a part-time custodian. I overheard some commentary on a radio broadcast, and was thinking "What Happened!!!", in regards to the launch, which they said would be attempted, again, that day. I had hoped that things went okay, and that the Crew, including Christa McAuliffe, was in space, or back on Earth.
    Not long after that, the recap ("If you have just joined us....") came on, and I, along with others lsitening to the News, found ourselves in shock.

    When the Game Room opened that morning, everyone, it seemed, rushed in to watch the newscast on the big-screen TV. That was where many of us saw the first images of the disaster.
    I was so upset that I drove home to be with my parents (they were 60 miles away), as I did not want to be alone that day; even brought them the afternoon paper, one of the first headlines of the tragedy.

    I, also, recall that local station KFI followed up on a suggestion by one of its listeners, and asked everyone who was driving to turn on their vehicle lights, as a way to say "I agree" to the idea of having the LA Memorial Coliseum Torch relit. This was the Torch used for the 1932 and 1984 Olympics.
    The word got out, and many people notified "the Powers that be" about how many vehicles were seen with their lights on, during the day.

    The Coliseum Commission noted this, and for the rest of the day the Coliseum Torch was relit, in memory of the Challenger Crew.

    January 29, 2011 at 1:26 am | Report abuse |
  9. JBK

    As of right now, NASA has no big and firm goal oriented idea or specific project the public can understand or support. Boots and communities on the Moon and Mars could be one of those. There would be very useful spin offs from same just like the ones from the Apollo program....I think NASA must have a point or vision to justify it's existence. Apollo was a good start...A lot of what NASA does now can likely be absorbed by other government agencies. If NASA doesn't come up with a next big thing with a general deadline soon, I don't think confusing technical jargon and nicknack endeavors add up to why the agency deserves any furthur major support from taxpayers...It would be a shame and disrespectful to the memory of all the brave astronauts who made the ultimate sacrifice to help move humanity forward. Perhaps even to a future among the stars...

    January 29, 2011 at 2:12 am | Report abuse |
  10. TributeSong

    Watch the moving new 25th anniversary tribute song: youtube.com/watch?v=nK0QE68_Dds

    January 29, 2011 at 2:53 am | Report abuse |
  11. TributeSong

    Watch the moving new 25th anniversary tribute song: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nK0QE68_Dds

    January 29, 2011 at 2:53 am | Report abuse |
  12. aeiou

    The part of the tragedy is the astronauts didn't die instantly.

    January 29, 2011 at 4:38 am | Report abuse |
  13. aeiou

    Sorry, the worst part of the tragedy is the astronauts didn't die instantly.

    January 29, 2011 at 4:39 am | Report abuse |
    • steve crichton

      The shockwave from the explosion killed the outright. They didnt suffer at all. Luckily.

      January 29, 2011 at 5:03 am | Report abuse |
  14. Robert A.M. Stephens, LLC

    Finally, someone, among a few here, who is accurate to the letter. Well posted.

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

    January 29, 2011 at 4:42 am | Report abuse |
  15. steve crichton

    that really sucked. It was on of the worse days in my life. To see this. I carefully watched the first space shuttle pass by with my mum in Australia. CANT REMEMBER THE DATE. 79/80. Staring into the stars and then "mum its here". The shuttle mum. And we saw it. together. It was bigger and slower moving than the satellites we could see. I love these people that risk there lives to make our lives better. They are great and amazing people.

    January 29, 2011 at 4:47 am | Report abuse |
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