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31 Years After Challenger Explosion: Timeline Of A Space Shuttle Disaster

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Many can still remember the historic event from Jan. 28, 1986, when the space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after liftoff or in a mere 73 seconds. The tragedy that unfolded on live television killed all seven crew members, including mission commander Francis "Dick" Scobee.

It was a particularly young audience that witnessed the explosion. One of the crew members, Christa McAuliffe, was a New Hampshire high school teacher poised to be the first civilian and teacher to step into space. In fact, the crew members — Scobee, McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, and Michael J. Smith — belonged to the first Teacher in Space Project.

NASA had arranged the mission’s satellite broadcast for students to see the groundbreaking moment across the country.

Later on it was determined that explosion was the result of the failure of an O-ring seal in the Challenger’s right solid rocket booster.

Challenger Mission Timeline

In a 2012 tribute, Space.com dubbed Challenger as one of NASA’s greatest triumphs — but also its darkest tragedy, one that changed spaceflight forever.

The shuttle was originally intended to be a test vehicle. In November 1975, Rockwell started to build it and sent it to Lockheed for structural testing beginning April 2, 1978. NASA said that computer models at that time were not high-tech enough to calculate stresses on the vehicle during different stages of flight.

The shuttle STA-099 underwent nearly a year of vibrating testing via a specialized rig, a custom-designed machine simulating all flight phases including liftoff and landing. Weighing a million pounds of force each, three hydraulic cylinders substituted for the main engines.

Here’s a quick timeline of succeeding events:

1979 The American space agency awarded Rockwell a contract to convert the test vehicle into spacecraft, which would expand the fleet to two spacecraft alongside Columbia.

Oct. 23, 1981 Work on the Challenger was completed, including strengthening the wings and installing an actual crew cabin.

Jan. 20, 1983 Supposed date for the shuttle to go into space to release the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite, later on becoming one of a series that astronauts used for staying connected with controllers on Earth. The delay was caused by factors such as a hydrogen leak found in the No. 1 main engine aft compartment, and cracks in the engine discovered to be causing the said leak.

April 4, 1983 Successful launch on STS-6 mission, with crew members setting the satellite free. This was followed by milestones including the first American female astronaut and first Canadian riding the shuttle.

April 1984 The memorable moment when STS-41C mission featured the first-ever satellite repair by an astronaut.

Jan. 28, 1986 Day of actual space launch, when temperatures were below freezing and worries on the integrity of the seals on the solid rocket boosters already surfaced. Challenger exploded 73 seconds post-launch, and McAuliffe never got to give lessons in orbit as planned.

May 20, 1986 Unidentified remains were buried and honored in an Arlington Cemetery monument.

Salute To The Fallen Heroes

NASA is set to commemorate the crews of Apollo 1, Challenger, and Columbia at a ceremony to be held Jan. 31 on the Day of Remembrance. Similar events will be conducted at different NASA sites honoring the employees and families of those lost in the cause.

“It is hard to believe it’s been more than three decades since we lost the crew, but I’m certain they would be pleased to know their mission has continued and incredibly proud of all that has been accomplished,” June Scobee Rodgers, widow of the Challenger commander and the Challenger Center’s founding chair, said in a statement.

The center is dedicated to keeping the mission’s educational spirit alive, each year providing more than 250,000 students the opportunity to discover innovation and the sciences through learning experiences.

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