The Space Shuttle Challenger is best known as a spectacular failure. However, Challenger successfully completed nine prior missions before the tragic launch of January 28, 1986, which killed every crew member aboard just seventy three seconds after launch.
Perhaps it is time to revisit some of the great success of Challenger, who unlike some disaster icons such as Titanic, made much more than one trip. Challenger contributed much knowledge, technical expansion and many milestones to the United States space program and to the world.
Manufactured by Rockwell, in 1982, Challenger made her maiden voyage on a mission to deploy the first Tracking and Data Relay System (TDRS) satellite which maintains support and expansion of NASA missions. This mission was also the occasion of the first space-walk, performed by astronauts Story Musgrave and Donald Peterson.
Another significant first was the June 1983 launch of Challenger which lifted, Sally Ride, the first American Female astronaut to orbit the earth. A few months later, Challenger would be the first to carry two women explorers to space. That same year, Challenger was also the first shuttle to launch at night, on August 30, 1983.
Like all shuttles in the fleet, Challenger had become a payload workhorse. Even missions that were milestone firsts became seemingly routine. Before her tragic mission of January 1986, Challenger also was the first shuttle to land at Kennedy Space Center and to participate in historic Spacelab missions.
Noting that the public interest was turning away from space exploration, NASA began a public relations campaign to recruit the first teacher and public citizen on a shuttle mission. Teacher Christa McAuliffe, out of nearly 12,000 eager applicants, was chosen to address children around the world aboard Challenger from the new frontier of space.
Also aboard for another Challenger “historic first” mission were crew members Ellison Onizuka, Michael J. Smith, Ronald McNair, Judith Resnik, Dick Scobee and Gregory Jarvis. Each one represented, in their own way, remarkable talents, diversity and courage.
When frozen launch conditions resulted in the infamous failure of the Challenger’s “O” ring, these heroes perished within seconds of launch. It was not just a failure of machinery, but a failure of management to pay heed to engineers. In their haste for yet another milestone and public event, sensible judgment had failed. Investigating the Challenger disaster, eminent physicist Richard Feynman said in concluding remarks: “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”
Even as the nation mourned, more heroes were stepping up to keep the dream alive and continue the NASA program. Almost a century before Challenger, Jack London had written about the necessity of the human spirit to reach for the stars: “I would rather be ashes than dust! I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot. I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet. The function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.”
Did Christa McAuliffe and crew succeed in “using her time” in her mission to inspire? Yes, the lesson of combining caution and courage together should never be ignored. Subsequent missions were safer. The crew of Challenger gave even more than that to the world. As American heroes determined to explore, learn, educate and accelerate human progress, the Challenger astronauts used their time for a higher calling.