The Challenger Mission Explained

The Challenger Mission was special in the mix of all of the other missions that were happening in the time because this was the first time there was an ordinary citizen, Christa McAuliffe, would be traveling into space. (See Christa McAuliffe interview)

The flight was originally scheduled for July 1985, but by the time they could get a crew together it was already January 1985, so they postponed it too late November to accommodate changes in payloads. Then it was delayed further and finally rescheduled for late January 1986. According to the Rogers Commission Report on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident ordered by the President to see what went wrong with the Challenger Mission, the reason for the second delay was there Mr. Jarvis was not added to the crew as the Payload Specialist Two until October 25, 1985, so they only has two months to make final decisions on things such as: The crew activity plan, formal flight requirements, flight design status, status of engineering integration, the photo and TV requirements and crew compartment stowage. (Rogers Commission, 13)

The final launch of the Challenger Mission (51-L) was postponed 3 more times and scrubbed once from the planned date of January 22, 1986. The first change was to January 23, 1986 to accommodate the final integrated simulation schedule that resulted from the slip in the launch date of mission 61-C. Then on January 22nd, the Program Requirements Change Board changed the launch from January 23 to January 25, but was then changed to January 26th because of the work requirements caused by the late launch of the 61-C mission. The third postponement occurred due to an evening management conference on January 25 (1 day before launch) because the forecast was unacceptable throughout the launch window on the 26th, even though some of the early countdown activities had begun. The launch on the 27th of January began at 12:30 am and the crew had strapped into the shuttle at 7:56 am, but at 9:10 am the countdown was halted because there was an issue with the exterior hatch handle, but when that was fixed at 10:30 am the winds had exceeded the allowable velocity for a safe launch. Before the launch on January 28th there was a video conference done by the management team to assess the possible effects of temperature on the launch. No critical issues were identified in this meeting. There were multiple ice checks leading up to the launch. and the flight began at 11:38:00.010 am on January 28, 1986. (Rogers Commission, 17)

The flight lasted 73 seconds. There were no alarms that sounded, the crew had no idea there was a problem. The ambient air temperature was 36 °F, which was 15°F colder than any previous launch. After .678 seconds into the flight, photographic data shows a strong puff of grey smoke around the right Solid Rocket Booster. The two cameras that would have recorded the precise location were inoperative. There were 9 more puffs and then the explosion happened. (Rogers Commission, 20)

The commission looked at the following things that may have gone wrong: the launch pad, the External Tank, the Space Shuttle Main Engines, the Orbiter and related equipment, payload/Orbiter interfaces, the payload, Solid Rocket Boosters and, Solid Rocket Motors. Ultimately the consensus has been put on the failure of

but ultimately the consensus has been put on the failure of the o-ring, which has a diameter of 0.280 inches. Because it had been so cold the o-rings didn’t have the same flexibility needed to protect the gases from escaping and exploding. 2

On this flight there were seven astronauts that died:

Christa McAuliffe- the first teacher in space

Ronald McNair – the second African American in space

Judith Resnik- the second female NASA astronaut in space

Ellison Onizuka- the first Asian-American astronaut

payload specialist Gergory Jarvis, pilot Michael Smith and commander Dick Scobee. 3

**Below you will find videos, articles and podcasts that go into further detail explaining what went wrong or other perspectives on the explosion.

Challenger Space Shuttle History as told by NASA

“Challenger was built to serve as a structural test article for the shuttle program. A lighter-weight orbiter was NASA’s goal during the years in which the orbiter fleet was being built, but a test article was needed to ensure that a lighter airframe could handle the stress of space flight. Computer software of the era wasn’t able to accurately predict how the orbiters’ new, optimized design would respond to intense heat and stress. The design underwent a year of intensive vibration and thermal testing.

NASA awarded shuttle manufacturer Rockwell International (now The Boeing Co.) a contract in 1979 to convert STA-099 to a space-rated orbiter, later named Challenger. Conversion began late that year. Although STA-099 would be more easily converted than would the shuttle prototype Enterprise, such major modifications involved disassembly and replacement of many parts and components.

Challenger, the second in NASA’s orbiter fleet, arrived at Kennedy Space Center, Fla., on July 1982. Challenger made seven landings at Edwards, the last at the conclusion of STS-61A on Nov. 6, 1985.

The shuttle was named after the British naval research vessel HMS Challenger that sailed the Atlantic and Pacific oceans during the 1870s. The Apollo 17 lunar module also was called Challenger. Like their predecessors, Challenger and its crews made significant scientific contributions.

Challenger’s first mission was STS-6, launched April 4, 1983. That mission included the first spacewalk of the shuttle program, as well as deployment of the first satellite in the Tracking and Data Relay System constellation. The orbiter’s crew included Sally Ride, the first female American astronaut, on mission STS-7. Challenger also was the first shuttle to host a crew that included two U.S. women astronauts, on mission STS-41G.

The first orbiter to launch and land at night, on mission STS-8, Challenger also made the first shuttle landing at Kennedy, concluding mission STS-41B. Spacelabs 2 and 3 flew aboard Challenger on missions STS- 51F and STS-51B, as did the first German-dedicated Spacelab, on STS-6A. Challenger’s missions included a host of scientific experiments and satellite deployments.

Challenger and its crew of seven astronauts on STS-51L were lost on Jan. 28, 1986. Please see the special salute to the vehicle and its crew elsewhere in this publication. Challenger and its crew live on as part of NASA’s space shuttle legacy. The discoveries made on the shuttle’s many missions continue to improve mankind’s knowledge of space flight and its applications to life on Earth.” 1

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