In Memoriam: Crew of Space Shuttle Challenger (1986) Mission 51-L


“Did  you hear? The Shuttle blew up,” said the man standing in front of me to the man standing behind me in the cafeteria. At first I thought he was talking about one of the vans used to shuttle people between the company’s three facilities. Then, I realized my error.

As quickly as I could, I hustled back to my office. There was a radio down the hall from my office. By the time I got there, everyone in the department was cloistered around it. In 1986 there was no internet, we didn’t have cell phones or Facebook or twitter or really, even TV’s at work. We had the radio, just like when the Hindenburg exploded or the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor or JFK’s assassination.

“I wonder if the astronauts got out?” asked one of my coworkers.

My heart was in my throat. I knew the astronauts didn’t get out – there was no way out. It was up or down with the vehicle – period.

The aftermath was bad.

Mismanagement, cover-your-ass paper trails, everyone running for cover.

While the blame swirled around all the participants – NASA, Morton-Thiokol, President Reagan, Congress and really, anyone who stood still long enough to be targeted by any one of the above, we heard the voice recordings from Challenger.

Dick Scobee, Spacecraft Commander: “Roger, go at throttle up.”
Mike Smith, Shuttle Pilot: “Uh oh.”

Then, nothing.

They were aware that something was wrong. At least long enough for Smith to comment before radio transmission abruptly ended.

It got worse.

We saw the footage of the intact crew cabin emerging from the explosion and arching upwards to an altitude of 64,000 feet before spinning and tumbling to the ocean’s surface.

We learned three of the astronauts personal egress air packs on the flight deck were found switched on – something that can only be done manually.

Investigators also discovered that several electrical system switches on Smith’s right-hand panel had been changed from their launch positions. These switches were protected with locks requiring them to be manually pulled outward before they could be “switched.” Further analysis proved that neither the force of the explosion nor the impact could have moved them, indicating that Smith moved the switches in a vain attempt to restore electrical power to the cockpit after the crew cabin detached from the rest of the spacecraft.

How long did they survive?

It was over three minutes from explosion to impact with the Atlantic.

Were they alive and conscious all the way down?

I hope not.

It’s horrifying. I try not to think about it.

For a few weeks everyone knew their names – now, twenty five years later,  might be a good time to remind ourselves of just who these people were:

Ellison S. Onizuka – First Asian American in Space, Air Force test pilot. In Star Trek: The Next Generation, a shuttle craft bears his name in three episodes.

Christa McAuliffe – A Massachusetts native and was selected as the first Teacher in Space. The Soviet Union discovered a crater on Venus and named it McAuliffe.

Greg Jarvis – Earned his Masters at Northeastern University and worked, for a time, at Raytheon in Bedford. Almost immediately after the crash, students at the University of Buffalo, where he earned his bachelors degree, nailed the name “Jarvis Hall” onto the side of an engineering building, and in 1987 the name was made official with a dedication ceremony.

Judy Resnik – The first Jewish woman to fly in space. Her long, weightless hair was a memorable image during her first space mission.

Michael J. Smith – Graduated from the Naval Academy and earned the Distinguished Flying Cross during Vietnam. His was the last voice heard on the cockpit recordings.

Dick Scobee – An Air Force test pilot and Vietnam veteran. Scobee piloted Challenger into space in 1984.

Ron McNair – Received his Ph.D in Physics from MIT and flew with Scobee on Challenger in 1984. During that mission, McNair became the first man to play the saxophone in space. He had planned to record a saxophone solo during the flight to be used on an album he was working on.

We should never forget them.







If you enjoy science, follow me on Twitter @Science_186000

One Response to “In Memoriam: Crew of Space Shuttle Challenger (1986) Mission 51-L”

  1. 1 Anne

    Mark that was a wonderful tribute to the Challenger.. Thanks for reminding us, it was such a tragic accident. We take trips into space so lightly sometimes but there is nothing easy about it and many good men and women have given their lives to advance our knowledge of space.

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