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  • On January 28, 1986, only 73 seconds

  • after it lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida,

  • the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded.

  • As the world watched on live television,

  • the ensuing fireball plummeted out of the sky

  • and disappeared into the ocean below.

  • The loss of the Challenger and its crew, Francis Dick Scobee,

  • Mike Smith, Judy Resnik, Ellison Onizuka, Ron McNair,

  • Greg Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe stunned the nation

  • and became a defining moment for a generation of Americans.

  • Today we're going to take a look at some shocking facts

  • about the Challenger shuttle disaster.

  • But before we get started, be sure to subscribe

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  • After that, please leave a comment,

  • and let us know what other space exploration-related topics

  • you would like to hear about.

  • Now, let's go back to January of 1986.

  • Originally built in 1975 as a test vehicle

  • for the Space Shuttle program, the Challenger

  • wouldn't be transformed into an actual spacecraft until 1979.

  • It was first launched in 1983 for the mission

  • that would entail the program's first spacewalk.

  • That wasn't the last first the Challenger

  • would participate in.

  • It was also the shuttle that carried

  • the first female American astronaut, Sally Ride,

  • as well as the first African-American astronaut,

  • Guion Bluford.

  • The flight of the Challenger was supposed

  • to be historic because of one of its crew members, 37-year-old

  • Christa McAuliffe.

  • Though she was normally just a social studies teacher

  • from Concord High School in New Hampshire,

  • McAuliffe had been selected by NASA's Teacher in Space program

  • to be the first educator in space.

  • Designed to inspire children and generate publicity for NASA,

  • the plan called for McAuliffe to accompany the Challenger

  • astronauts into orbit and teach a few lessons

  • while they were there.

  • Because of McAuliffe's presence, the launch

  • was heavily covered by the media.

  • And NASA itself provided numerous schools

  • with a raw satellite feed.

  • This meant thousands of schoolchildren,

  • including those from McAuliffe's own class,

  • were watching live when the tragedy occurred.

  • Christa McAuliffe wasn't meant to be the only passenger

  • on the Challenger who would capture

  • the attention of children.

  • NASA also made efforts to get Sesame Street star, Big Bird,

  • on the shuttle.

  • They even contacted Caroll Spinney, the beloved actor

  • who played the giant, yellow muppet about participating

  • in the mission.

  • The plan was never approved by mission control.

  • But in 2015, NASA did confirm that the conversation

  • with Spinney and the producers of Sesame Street took place.

  • [MUSIC PLAYING]

  • The pilot for the mission, which was called STS-52-L by NASA,

  • was Mike Smith.

  • It was to be the first and last spaceflight of his career.

  • Smith also holds the distinction of speaking

  • the last words recorded by any member of the Challenger crew.

  • Just before the explosion, the shuttle's voice recorder

  • captured Smith saying, uh-oh, indicating that at least one

  • crew member knew something was going wrong.

  • Pilot Mike Smith wasn't the only person

  • who knew something wasn't right prior to the explosion.

  • In fact, on the evening before the launch,

  • a group of engineers from a NASA contractor

  • called Morton Thiokol tried to convince their superiors

  • to delay the mission.

  • A meeting was held where the engineers pointed out

  • the launch was scheduled to take place

  • in colder weather than any previous shuttle launch.

  • This was important because the rubber O-rings, which

  • sealed various parts of the shuttle,

  • had frequently failed to perform under chilly conditions.

  • Sadly, the engineers were overruled by their managers.

  • One of those engineers, Bob Eberling,

  • returned from the meeting and told his wife,

  • it's going to blow up.

  • Decades later, Eberling would recall

  • that NASA had their minds set on going up and proving

  • to the world they were right.

  • And they knew what they were doing.

  • But they didn't.

  • For his part, Eberling would retire after the disaster.

  • Decades later, he told the media that his decision

  • to go along with the plans after being overruled

  • haunted him for the rest of his life.

  • [MUSIC PLAYING]

  • The engineers from Morton Thiokol

  • were exactly right in their predictions.

  • The launch proceeded in below freezing temperatures.

  • And when the shuttle lifted off, the O-ring seal

  • on the right rocket booster failed.

  • Heated gas escaped from the rocket

  • and essentially vaporized the material

  • connecting the booster to the shuttle's tank.

  • This created a deadly mixture of liquid oxygen and hydrogen gas.

  • And at 46,000 feet, the combination

  • ignited turning the challenger's fuel tank

  • into a massive fireball.

  • Despite this, the solid fuel strap-on boosters

  • were unaffected and continued to carry the shuttle upwards.

  • [MUSIC PLAYING]

  • In the immediate wake of the disaster,

  • it was widely believed that the crew of the shuttle

  • had died instantly.

  • However, the evidence would later

  • suggest a far more disturbing scenario, one which

  • NASA had attempted to obscure.

  • The Miami Harold's Tropic magazine

  • undertook an independent investigation

  • of the accident which revealed that contrary to early reports,

  • the shuttle cabin had not depressurized in the explosion.

  • This means that the crew was likely alive and awake

  • for the entire three mile descent from the sky

  • to the Atlantic Ocean below.

  • This conclusion is backed up by the fact

  • that several of the astronauts had time

  • to manually activate their personal emergency air packs.

  • [MUSIC PLAYING]

  • While space travel is incredibly dangerous,

  • prior to the Challenger disaster,

  • NASA had never lost an astronaut in spaceflight.

  • In fact, the only previous fatalities

  • the program had experienced were the deaths

  • of Apollo 1 astronauts Roger Chaffee, Virgil "Gus" Grissom,

  • and Edward White who all perished in a fire

  • during a ground test on January 27, 1967.

  • January 28th wasn't just the day that the Challenger

  • was supposed to lift off.

  • It was also the date scheduled for President Ronald Reagan's

  • State of the Union Address.

  • However, with the disaster only six hours old,

  • the president opted to delay the annual speech

  • and instead personally update the American people

  • on the tragedy.

  • The crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger

  • honored us with the manner in which they live their lives.

  • This speech would be hailed as one of Reagan's greatest,

  • quite a testament for a man whose nickname was "The Great

  • Communicator."

  • Thank you.

  • The explosion of the Challenger scattered wreckage

  • over a vast swath of the Atlantic Ocean.

  • And salvage crews would spend weeks

  • recovering all of the pieces.

  • In fact, it would take six weeks until Naval divers finally

  • located the resting place of the crew cabin

  • 100 feet beneath the water, approximately 15 miles

  • east of Cape Canaveral.

  • The remains of the astronauts were recovered.

  • And those that could be identified

  • were returned to their families.

  • Those that couldn't were buried under a monument

  • at Arlington National Cemetery.

  • Following the disaster, investigators

  • determined that NASA had deliberately

  • violated launch rules.

  • Engineers had warned their superiors

  • that it was too cold for the mission to proceed.

  • And launching in such low temperatures

  • was against NASA's own procedures.

  • A former chief scientist at NASA, named Ken Iliff,

  • later claimed that this failure to observe the rules

  • was the primary cause of the accident.

  • So why did NASA ignore the warnings and press ahead?

  • There were many factors that influenced the launch decision.

  • But the Rogers Commission noted that in an effort

  • to speed launch times to meet NASA's goal of 24 missions

  • a year, the agency had pushed its people and systems

  • beyond their capabilities.

  • This drive to achieve more launches

  • was tied directly to the survival of the Space Shuttle

  • program as it tried to fulfill its designed intent

  • as a single-launch vehicle that could serve the nation's

  • growing commercial, scientific, and military launch

  • requirements.

  • The explosion of the Challenger made headlines

  • throughout the world.

  • And almost immediately there were calls for the entire Space

  • Shuttle program to be halted.

  • This suspension would last three years, during which time

  • NASA worked to implement the safety

  • recommendations of a presidential panel called

  • the Rogers Commission.

  • The commission, which included high profile astronauts

  • like Neil Armstrong and Sally Ride,

  • was formed to help prevent similar disasters

  • from happening again.

  • And it mostly worked.

  • It wouldn't be until 2003 that NASA would experience

  • another tragic incident.

  • That time it was the Space Shuttle Columbia

  • that burned up during reentry.

  • [MUSIC PLAYING]

  • Debris from the Challenger would continue

  • to wash up on the coast of Florida

  • long after the disaster.

  • For example, in December of 1996,

  • almost 11 years after the explosion, beach-goers

  • at Cocoa Beach, over 20 miles away from Kennedy Space Center,

  • found two large pieces of the shuttle washed up in the surf.

  • The pieces were so big, NASA had to use a front end loader

  • to pick them up and move them from the beach.

  • The death of a civilian, Christa McAuliffe,

  • was especially damaging to the space program.

  • And the fallout would last for decades.

  • In fact, it would be 22 years before NASA

  • would send up another civilian.

  • Incidentally, that civilian would

  • be Barbara Morgan, who was Christa McAuliffe's

  • backup for the original Challenger mission.

  • Morgan, who like McAuliffe was a teacher of social studies

  • and English, joined the crew of Space Shuttle Endeavor

  • for a successful mission in 2007.

  • [MUSIC PLAYING]

  • The explosion of the Challenger changed America and its space

  • program forever.

  • It would also prove to be an inspiration to artists

  • who would memorialize the tragedy in sculptures, songs,

  • and television shows.

  • One memorable example of this took place

  • at the Rendez-vous Houston concert

  • in 1986, where musician, John Michel Jarre,

  • a friend of Challenger astronaut Ronald McNair,

  • played a saxophone solo McNair himself intended to play

  • during the doomed mission.

  • The track would go on to be sampled in the music of Frank

  • Turner, Adam Young, John Denver, and even Beyoncé.

  • The brave, wonderful people who were aboard the Challenger

  • Space Shuttle.

  • It's called Flying For Me.

  • The disaster was also acknowledged

  • in the scripts of then popular television shows

  • like Punky Brewster and Star Trek The Next Generation.

  • We were watching the Space Shuttle take off.

  • It exploded.

  • [MUSIC PLAYING]

  • At the time of its destruction, the Challenger

  • was carrying more than astronauts

  • and scientific equipment.

  • It was also carrying a soccer ball.

  • Crew member Ellison Onizuka had brought with him

  • a soccer ball that had once been used

  • by his daughter, Janelle's, high school soccer team.

  • The soccer ball miraculously was recovered intact

  • from the wreckage of the shuttle.

  • It was returned to Onizuka's daughter who

  • allowed it to be put on display as a memorial at Clear Lake

  • High School.

  • Fast forward 30 years to when Shane Kimbrough,

  • another astronaut with a daughter who attended Clear

  • Lake, asked the school if he could take the ball with him