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. Philip

    Odd how nobody has mentioned NASAs contributions to humanity. Mankind is facing unprecedented problems today. Surely the shuttle program helped solve at least one of these problems. Right?

    January 29, 2011 at 10:05 am | Report abuse |
    • veggiedude

      Manned space flight does not give much science back to us, when you consider the cost. Unmanned space flights give us the most bang for the buck. Thousands of space probes could have been sent throughout our solar system for the price of the space shuttle program, and we would have learned a whole lot more.

      January 29, 2011 at 2:14 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Philip

    Please convince me that the crews lives were not lost in vain. Someone please post a few of NASAs inventions or something. Surely NASA has done many incredible things that have helped solve todays problems since they've been arounf for a long long time.

    January 29, 2011 at 10:09 am | Report abuse |
    • nini

      No, NASA hasn't done anything worthwhile. They've only landed a man on the Moon, sent up spacecraft to image the planets of Mercury, Venus, Mars, Saturn and Jupiter and are currently in the mist of planning a manned mission to Mars. I hardly call any of these accomplishments "incredible". (end sarcasm)

      January 29, 2011 at 12:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • Geocool

      After three worthless and stupid posts you got a response. Now shut up please!

      January 29, 2011 at 1:42 pm | Report abuse |
  3. bobster

    Man (human kind ) will endure and keep going forward, It's just another pants legg cought in the bicycle chain. America, remember and keep looking up.

    January 29, 2011 at 11:44 am | Report abuse |
  4. missy

    I worked at KSC when this happened. The day before, I was with a friend who was an operations engineer, and would be in the Firing Room during launch. It was SO extremely frigidly cold, I told him we surely wouldn't be launching the next day. He said, yeah, we're gonna launch. I was very surprised. I remember that the launch had been delayed a few times prior, Then President Reagan was to talk live to the teacher in space. There had been talk about pressure to launch because of this. I had never missed watching a launch. That day was so cold I decided to stay inside the office. But at the last minute, bundled up, and went out to watch along with the other engineers I worked with. It was the first launch on Pad B. We had worked together to make the pad Shuttle launchable. So it was exciting to see the first time the pad would be used for the Shuttle. I still felt very doubtful and worrisome about this launch. It was just so freezing cold.

    January 29, 2011 at 11:51 am | Report abuse |
  5. Denise

    That horrible morning is forever etched in my mind, similar to the day when I heard JFK was shot. I watched the take off and explosion live as it was happening and the impact was tremendous. I still cry when I think of the loss of those brave people.
    From that day on, I've NEVER watched anything like that unless it was a tape later on in the day. It's bad enough to hear about it afterward, it's unbearable to watch it unfold.
    God bless their souls.

    January 29, 2011 at 11:51 am | Report abuse |
  6. daj

    I was at work and watched the launch. It was apparent to me immediately after seeing the explosion and sections flying off in different directions that a catastrophic failure had occurred and no one would survive. It was devastating to watch. And it was preventable and not just with hindsight. What many may not remember is that Morton-Thiokol built the booster rockets and their own engineers recommended strongly against launch until such time that temps rose to about 53 degrees (the launch occurred with air temp about 36). They knew the O-ring that failed was vulnerable to failure at low temperatures. NASA management pressured management at Thiokol to launch anyway, and Thiokol management over-rode their own engineer's concerns and ok'd the launch. There were other contributing factors (a NASA culture heady with success of 24 straight previous launches bent on sticking to schedules no matter what, gaps in the technical data base used to support decisions, bullying by managers to subordinates to not rock the boat with negative thinking, turf wars and so forth). But at bottom managers chose not to listen to engineers that knew the risks were significant if they launched that day. A tragedy in so many ways.

    January 29, 2011 at 1:27 pm | Report abuse |
  7. zineddined salem

    i am very sad for Challenger moor than stp 11 2001

    January 29, 2011 at 1:31 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Mike

    Philip, I don't remember but maybe they didn't cover NASA's contributions to society until High School so when you get there, you'll probably learn alot more. In the meantime, here's a breief list of some of NASA's contributions to mandkind:

    Invisable Braces, Scratch Resistant Lenses, Memory Foam, Ear Thermometers, Shoe Insoles, Long Distance Telecommunications, Smoke Detectors, Coodless tools, water filters, the chemical process used in Kidney dialysis machines, advanced physcial therapy methods, freeze dried food, environmental hazord detectors, insulation materials – thero gloves and boots, etc., digital signal process techniques used in CATs and MRI's, satellite television, the vision screening system used by eye doctors today, fire fighting equipment, shock absorbing helmets, failsafe flashlights...

    That's just scratching the surface.

    Study hard through grade school Philip and someday when you post a message on a site like this, it will show you learned something in school! How exciting would that be kid!

    January 29, 2011 at 2:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • Johnson

      Bravo Mike – And as you say, just scratching the surface indeed. This Philip character seems to have an anti-NASA agenda. So be it.

      No one in this country can go a day without using something NASA developed. People like Philip are too naive to understand that. Considering NASA inventions have save countless lives whether it be in the medical field or protecting our soliders and first responders, you would think people would be more appreciative but being naive to the fact that NASA contributes much more to our world than space exploration, seems to downplay it's importance to some people.

      January 30, 2011 at 12:27 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Philip

    @Mike...these things you mention (some, like water filters, I would argue) have not made contributions to HUMANITY. The problems we humans are facing today are unprecedented in human history. We need cures, not insulated fails-safe flashlights. And you forgot to mention how much ea. of these items cost. (and did we really need to go into space to hop-up our catscans and MRI's?).

    January 29, 2011 at 7:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • Johnson

      Philip – Funny how you take the most minor of the NASA inventions and highlight those, skipping over those that have actually saved countless lives. If you really knew what you were talking about, you'd appreciate the contributions this organization has made.

      I know most people like you don't know about the scientific studies that have been done in space that have helped in the development of vacines and other life saving medicines because all you see is a space shuttle going up and coming down, not what's done in between time.

      If you can't understand that NASA wasn't developed to create peace in the middle east or whatever "unprecedented modern day problem" you are trying to get at (why don't you explain what it is you want NASA to solve) then what's the point of anyone here trying to have a mature discussion with you?

      I don't mean to offend you but you really are too simple minded if you can't understand how signifigantly NASA has impacted this world in ways you probably haven't even thought. You make incredibly stuip comments about NASA never contributing anything to society and then you cry about everyone making fun of you. What do you expect?

      Philip – let's face it, the bottom line is – you are an idiot. Enough said.

      Oh except for one thing – please tell us what major modern issue of humanity you want NASA to solve...

      January 30, 2011 at 12:45 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Philip

    @"Philip's Mom"...my mother is nearing her deathbed, so please refrain. And I would wager that my world travels and travels within our borders would make it seem as if it were you stuck in your mom's basement. (and Cesar, if this is you I'm gonna tan your hide!) he he

    January 29, 2011 at 7:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • LookOutBelow

      Maybe spend more time with mom, since she's on her deathbed (eyes rolling) then posting stupid comments on here?

      Just a thought – whacko!

      January 30, 2011 at 12:55 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Philip

    And as always, personal insult's and being told to "shut up" are indicators that the debate is leaning to one side. Imagine debating on stage in front of a crowd and you told your opponent to shut-up, or insinuated they had not attended high school. (not to mention pretending to be the mommy)What would the audience think? This box is that stage and these posters are the audience. Grow up already.// Now, I have a fair idea as to how much NASA has cost US over the years (my dollar amount questions remain ignored) and given the state of our lagging and poorly funded education sytem, I believe if that if NASAs funding had gone to education, we would be ahead of the game. Any thought's on this?

    January 29, 2011 at 8:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • LookOutBelow

      I agree, insensive comments are just plain wrong. Unless of course they are facts – like the one's posted in response to you – doche bag.

      You would think someone who uses the internet so much would be able to look up all the contributions NASA has made to mankind.

      January 30, 2011 at 12:59 pm | Report abuse |
  12. CaptainAmerica

    I know I'm playing Monday morning quarterback here, but I'm curious why NASA hasn't come up with some sort of escape module that ejects the cabin in the event of such failures? I know it happened so quickly, but I'm sure they could come up with something that jettisons the crew out instantaneously to deliver them safely back to earth.

    January 29, 2011 at 8:39 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Philip

    @Cap'n America...For the same reason we don't have parachutes on jets or seatbelts on school busses. They don't really care. (is that N. or S. America btw?) he he

    January 29, 2011 at 9:07 pm | Report abuse |
  14. CaptainCentralAmerica

    @phil: I mean @Phillip: I actually thought of an idea where the fuel filled wings of an aircraft could blow off and parachutes could ease the plane down in the event of an emergency. The school bus thing I almost don't see a need for seat belts. Any vehicle to vehicle crash usually results in the bus winning, but for the kid's safety we should have them. My name explains my 20. I can't let you pick my choices for me now can I? It's always right vs left or up vs down with you isn't it? Always stereotyping people. Tisk tisk.

    January 29, 2011 at 11:49 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Philip

    That would explain why the shuttle program is getting scrapped.

    January 30, 2011 at 5:24 pm | Report abuse |
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