January 31, 2014

28 years ago this week: Christa McAuliffe and space disaster remembered

by Bonnie Denmark

This week marks the 28th anniversary of the biggest tragedy in the history of the US space program, the explosion of space shuttle Challenger, taking the lives of its seven crewmembers.

On January 28, 1986, a crowd of over 3,000 gathered at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, to watch the Challenger launch.  Millions more were riveted to their TV sets on that Tuesday morning. Every space shuttle launch is a major event, but Challenger’s tenth mission was especially anticipated because it would carry the first American civilians to space: an electrical engineer and a teacher.

The shuttle had returned safely from each of its previous nine missions.  Among other firsts in Challenger’s noble history, it had previously carried the first American female astronaut, Sally Ride, and the first African-American in space, Guion Bluford.

The excitement about this flight centered on New Hampshire school teacher Christa McAuliffe, who responded to President Ronald Reagan’s announcement that NASA would “choose as the first citizen passenger in the history of space program one of America’s finest, a teacher.” McAuliffe beat out more than 11,000 other applicants to NASA’s Teacher in Space Project and planned to teach two lessons from outer space: “The Ultimate Field Trip” and “Where We’ve Been, Where We’re Going, and Why.”

The flight crew of the Challenger

McAuliffe told NASA that she wanted to be the first private American citizen in space because it was “a unique opportunity to fulfill my early fantasies; I watched the Space Age being born, and I would like to participate.” She planned to keep a space journal, “just as the earlier American pioneers did when they traveled West.”

The flight was originally scheduled for January 23, but the launch was canceled due to bad weather. Five days later, the countdown began but was halted. The reason? Weather once again. It was unusually cold for Florida, and the shuttle had never been launched in such extreme weather.  The extreme temperature was of particular concern to engineers on the project because, though the technical evidence was incomplete, “there appeared to be a correlation between temperature and [the] resiliency [of the O-ring]” (Harris et al., 2000). Chief O-ring engineer Roger Boisjoly was particularly concerned, knowing the problems with the O-ring could lead to disaster.

Despite recommendations from the shuttle engineers  to postpone a second time, the launch went forward. Countdown resumed, and the controller yelled, “Liftoff! Liftoff!” and then, “The shuttle has cleared the tower!”

Family and friends cheered and hugged each other. McAuliffe’s students clapped.

Seven seconds into the flight, Challenger was travelling more than 1,000 miles per hour.

Ten seconds into the flight, Challenger was slammed by the strongest winds ever encountered in a shuttle launch.

A little over sixty seconds into the flight, at over 35,000 feet, ground control ordered “go at throttle up” to give engines full power.

Seventy-three seconds into the flight, the world stared in horror as a giant fireball engulfed Challenger.  At 50,000 feet, it exploded, killing all seven of its crew. Lost that day were

  • Francis R. (Dick) Scobee, Commander, on his second flight
  • Michael J. Smith, Pilot, on his first flight
  • Judith Resnick, Mission Specialist and the second American woman in space, on her second flight
  • Ellison S. Onizuka, Mission Specialist and native of Hawaii, on his second flight
  • Robert E. McNair, Mission Specialist and the second African American astronaut in space, on his second flight
  • Sharon Christa McAuliffe, Teacher and Lebanese American, on her first flight
  • Gregory B. Jarvis, Electrical Engineer and Payload Specialist, the other civilian aboard the shuttle, on his first flight

In an address to the nation, President Regan called the astronauts pioneers and heroes. He told the children that the future “belongs to the brave.”

McAuliffe understood the risks but was not dissuaded from the chance to fulfill a lifetime dream. She said that after being chosen for the program, “people used to come up to me and say, ‘I really admire you, but I wouldn’t want to do it.’ I can’t understand that. If you had a chance, wouldn’t you want to do it?”  She also once said, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful for a history teacher to make history?”

She did. But as a pioneer who never got the chance to keep her space journal.

Additional Note: The event also marked an important moment in the realm of engineering: the development of the discipline of engineering ethics.  Particularly, the tragedy caused engineers around the world to question ethics in light of superiority, as Robert Lund, the supervising engineer on the Challenger was famously told in response to his concerns, “take off your engineering hat and put on your management hat” (Harris et al., 2000).


To learn more about ethics in science and engineering, read our Scientific Ethics module.

Read about the ethical lessons learned from the Challenger explosion here.


Harris, Charles, Michael Pritchard and Michael Rabins. 2000. Engineering Ethics, Concepts and Cases, second edition.Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Written by

Bonnie Denmark holds an MA in linguistics and teacher certification in English, ESL, and Spanish. She has devoted her professional life to educational and accessibility issues as a computational linguist, multimedia curriculum developer, educator, and writer. She has also worked nationally and internationally as a language instructor, educational technology consultant, and teacher trainer. Bonnie joined the Visionlearning team as a literacy specialist in 2011, assisting the project by developing comprehension aids for science modules and creating other STEM learning materials.

Science In Your Inbox