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January 28, 1986. The space shuttle Challenger breaks apart in the sky 73 seconds into its flight, killing all seven astronauts on board.
This episode of History Daily has been archived, but you can still listen to it as a subscriber to Noiser+, Wondery+, or as a Prime Member with the Amazon Music app.
It’s the morning of January 28th, 1986, at an elementary school in Ohio.
A young teacher walks through the crowded cafeteria. She surveys the hundreds of students whose eyes are glued to a television set that’s been wheeled in on a cart.
She joins other teachers at the back of the room, feeling just as excited as the students are.
Today, the normal Tuesday morning lessons have been set aside. Instead, students and teachers watch a live television broadcast from Florida, where the space shuttle Challenger is about to blast off.
Looking at the crowd of students, young teacher considers how profound this moment is; just how many young people are likely watching.
And indeed, all across America, more than two and a half million students have tuned in for this momentous occasion.
Over the past five years, there have been many space shuttle flights, but there has never been a mission like this one before. Among the seven astronauts onboard is another schoolteacher named Christa McAuliffe. Christa is the winner of a competition to put an educator in space. The competition was put on by the American space agency, NASA. And today, in a lunch room in Ohio, this young teacher is rooting for the success of her fellow educator as she prepares to go to space.
The excitement grows in the cafeteria as the final countdown begins.
"TV Announcer: “And lift-off! Lift-off of the 25th space shuttle mission and it has cleared the tower…”
The cafeteria erupts with cheers and excitement as Challenger soars into blue skies.
The spacecraft climbs higher and higher, throttling up to a speed of a thousand miles an hour as it powers its way toward orbit.
But then, after just over one minute, there is a sudden flash.
The young teacher covers her mouth with her hands. The children don’t know what they’ve seen. Their cheers give way to confused silence. On the television screen, a fireball blooms in the sky, and the camera quickly cuts away.
The Challenger Disaster, as it comes to be called, will take the lives of all seven astronauts on board, including Christa McAuliffe. The tragedy will play out in front of the astronauts’ horrified families watching on the ground. And it will traumatize countless others who saw it unfold on television. The disaster will reveal a culture of complacency and recklessness at NASA, and it will call into question the very future of America’s manned space program.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is January 28th: The Challenger Disaster.
It’s January 5th, 1972, fourteen years before the Challenger fails to complete its mission.
At the California residence of President Richard Nixon, a meeting is about to begin that will decide the future of manned space exploration. James Fletcher, the head of the American space agency NASA, waits in a corridor for the President. He’s brought with him to the meeting a model of NASA’s proposed new spacecraft unlike anything flown before. But in order to build it and launch it into space, he needs Nixon’s final approval.
This new spacecraft has been in development for years. Even before NASA landed a man on the moon in 1969, there were discussions about what the next great project for the agency would be. Some thought the logical next step was to go to Mars. But Congress was already looking to cut NASA’s budget and the agency simply didn’t have the political backing for a mission to the red planet. Instead, NASA decided to pursue a project that they hoped was less costly but just as ambitious; a project to prove that space exploration could be affordable and self-sufficient.
After years of preliminary design and engineering, and horse-trading over the projected cost and planned capabilities, result is the “Space Shuttle”. In the past, manned spacecrafts could only be used once. But the Space Shuttle is designed to be reusable; to go into space, return to Earth and be ready to fly again in a matter of weeks.
After Nixon arrives at the meeting, NASA Administrator James Fletcher shows him a model of the new spaceship. The President takes it and turns it this way and that, as Fletcher explains the components of the design: the seven astronaut crew will ride in a winged shuttle, or orbiter, that will carry them into space. The orbiter will be propelled into the sky by a large external fuel tank, the one expendable part of the spacecraft used only for lift-off. Attached to the fuel tank are two reusable solid booster rockets that will be jettisoned after they run out of fuel, parachuted down to the earth, and later recovered in the sea. At the end of every mission, the winged orbiter will reenter the Earth’s atmosphere and glide down through the sky to land on a runway.
Fletcher tells Nixon that the program promises a tenfold reduction in the cost of spaceflight. With a fleet of such space shuttles, the agency will be able to launch a mission as often as every week. And by delivering both military and civilian satellites into orbit, Fletcher explains, space exploration will finally add to the government’s revenue and the economy.
The meeting was scheduled to last just fifteen minutes, but Fletcher and the President end up speaking for almost an hour. Later that day, the Nixon administration announces that NASA will receive funding for the Space Shuttle Program.
It’s early morning on November 16th, 1982. More than ten years have passed since the meeting between NASA Administrator James Fletcher and President Richard Nixon.
After over a decade of work on the program, the space shuttle Columbia glides down through an overcast sky. Below, stretching out across California’s Mojave Desert is Edwards Air Force Base and the runway where the Columbia is set to land. After five days in space, the shuttle’s first fully operational mission is about to come to an end.
Despite the success, for NASA, it’s been a long and difficult journey to get to this point. The agency planned to build a whole fleet of reusable shuttles. But ten years after the program was announced only one has been finished – the Columbia. Two more orbiters are under construction, the Discovery and the Challenger. But NASA’s promise of weekly shuttle flights to drive down the cost of space travel now seems hollow.
Despite their enthusiasm and confidence at the outset of the program, the Space Shuttle Program has been plagued with design problems, manufacturing delays, budget overruns - and terrible publicity. Even this first mission has not gone perfectly. The Columbia successfully carried two commercial satellites into orbit as planned. But a scheduled spacewalk had to be abandoned due to technical problems.
Then at 6:33 AM on November 16th, 1982, the Columbia touches down at Edwards Air Force Base. As it lands on the runway, the shuttle looks more like a commercial airliner than a rocket ship, with its brilliant white tiles gleaming in the morning light.
As the orbiter coasts to a gentle stop, onlookers cheer and applaud with delight. This is a good day for NASA. But the agency knows one shuttle and one mission is not enough to win over the public and the skeptical politicians in Washington.
Over the next two years, Columbia is joined by two more orbiters, Discovery and Challenger. But even with this fleet of three shuttles, the promised weekly flights fail to materialize. Instead, months pass between each shuttle mission. And pressure increases on NASA to fulfill the promises made to President Nixon all those years ago.
Eager for some much-needed good publicity, in 1984, NASA will launch a new initiative to take an ordinary American into orbit. The agency hopes the Teacher in Space program will transform the reputation of the beleaguered space shuttle and give one lucky educator the experience of a lifetime.
It’s October 16th, 1985, three months before the Challenger Disaster.
America’s first citizen astronaut, 37-year-old Christa McAuliffe, is weeks into her training. She sits in the back of an airplane, waiting to take off.
The Teacher in Space Project was launched by President Ronald Reagan in August 1984. It was designed to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers – and give NASA a welcome dose of good publicity after a difficult time for the agency.
McCauliffe was one of more than 11,000 applicants. She had little confidence she would be selected since she waited till the last possible moment to apply. So she was shocked when, on July 19th, 1985, Vice President George Bush announced from the Roosevelt Room of the White House that she was the winner. The social studies teacher from New Hampshire impressed NASA’s judges with her enthusiasm, her character, and charm.
But today is a day Christa’s been dreading. She’s about to take a ride on a plane many astronauts call, “The Vomit Comet.”
It's a specially modified Boeing 707 that takes astronauts high into the sky. And by flying a series of steep dives and climbs, the plane mimics the weightlessness astronauts experience in space. It’s a vital part of training. And it’s not Christa's first time on the Vomit Comet, but still, she is nervous. She felt very queasy on her last flight and almost got sick. Today, she hopes she’s able to keep it together again so that the crew of the Challenger – all professional astronauts – won't lose respect for her.
As the plane takes off, McAuliffe wonders whether she made the right decision. She has a family at home and students at school who need her. She questions whether her dream of going into space is selfish.
But just then the modified 707 levels off from its climb and enters a dive. McAuliffe floats, weightless, in the air of the cabin. She catches the eye of one of her fellow crew members who smiles as he drifts past her. She laughs, the sheer joy of the moment banishing all her doubts.
But there is one man who does not feel joy about the upcoming Challenger mission. Engineer Allan McDonald fears that if the launch goes forward as planned, Christa McAuliffe and the rest of the crew might be in danger.
Allan’s concern centers around a shuttle component called the “o-ring”, a large rubber gasket that seals the solid rocket booster. Allan is deeply familiar with these rocket boosters. He works as an engineer for the company NASA contracted to help build them. The long, cylinder-shaped rocket is made up of several sections, or segments, that are held together by a series of joints, which are sealed by the rubber “o-rings”.
Alan knows the o-rings are supposed to contain hot, high-pressure gases that are produced during takeoff. And if just one of them were to fail, gases may leak and combust, and the rocket might explode. Allan has been concerned about the integrity of these o-rings for some time, especially in cold weather conditions which makes Allan very uncomfortable about the upcoming launch.
The temperatures on the day of the Challenger launch will likely fall to 26 degrees or lower, making it the coldest launch in NASA’s history. The night before the scheduled takeoff, Allan is asked to sign a document recommending the Challenger for launch. He refuses, citing safety concerns related to the o-ring. But the higher-ups at NASA do not heed Allan’s warning.
On January 28th, 1986, Allan gets up at 4:30 in the morning and heads to the Launch Control Center in Florida. After he finds his seat, he scans the video monitors and sees large icicles hanging from the shuttle and the supporting equipment. He thinks to himself, “[surely] they aren't… going to launch this thing today.”
And at three hours to takeoff, NASA officials do briefly pause the countdown to send an Ice Team to assess the situation. The team members see a thick build-up of ice, and they report it back to their superiors. But NASA doesn’t delay the launch. They resume the countdown and order the Ice Team to remove as much ice as possible before lift-off. Allan is shocked and terrified.
At 11:38 AM, the final countdown begins. When the shuttle’s main engines roar to life, Allan breaks into a cold sweat. But as the shuttle lifts off the ground, he relaxes for a moment. He feared the o-rings would fail on lift-off, and that the shuttle would never make it off the pad. As he watches the Challenger climb into the sky, he breathes a sigh of relief.
But then, 73 seconds into the flight, Allan’s worst fears come true when the Challenger starts to break apart before going up in flames, killing all seven astronauts on board.
But for Allan, there’s no time to mourn. The very next day, he hops on a plane and heads to the Huntsville Operations Support Center, a facility at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. There, he will join the rest of NASA’s Fail Team to determine what went wrong.
It’s January 29th, 1986, at the Huntsville Operations Support Center, the day after the Challenger Disaster.
Inside the facility, Allan gathers with other members of NASA’s Fail Team to determine what went wrong less than 24 hours ago. But Allan is confident a failed o-ring is not to blame. If one had failed, Allan is certain the shuttle would never have made it off the launch pad. Allan agrees with the consensus of the Fail Team: the problem was likely caused by an engine failure or an issue with the larger fuel tank.
The next day, Allan gathers his things and heads for the airport. As he steps outside the building, another member of the team frantically runs after him and instructs him to come back. When Allan asks why, team member explains that one of their colleagues saw something while watching film of the take-off: “hot gas coming out of [a hole] in the side of the [right] solid rocket booster.”
Incredulous, Allan replies, "Tell him he doesn't know what the hell he's talking about… a solid rocket isn't going to go [take off] with holes in [the side]." The team member encourages Allan to come back and see for himself.
While watching a video of the Challenger lift-off from a different angle, Allan and his colleagues notice a black plume of smoke emanating from the right solid rocket booster moments before it catches fire… but the smoke is not coming from a hole on the shell of the rocket as his colleague believes, it’s coming from inside the rocket; from the joint the o-ring is designed to seal.
Seeing this, Allan realizes he was right, at least in part. Due to the cold weather, the o-ring did fail to seal the joint, causing gas to leak and combust. But the Challenger didn’t immediately explode as Allan feared it would. Soon, Allan discovers why: the extreme heat from the combustion melted materials inside the rocket, temporarily sealing the joint shut and enabling the Challenger to lift off and take flight… but only for a tenuous 73 seconds before the seal broke again and the rocket went up in flames. In the wake of the disaster, Allan tells his wife that he blames himself for not doing more to stop the launch.
For Allan, the next few months are extremely difficult. After being demoted at work, he’s called to testify before a presidential commission of astronauts, scientists, and politicians. He tells them that he tried to warn NASA about the o-ring issue, but they didn’t listen. When the commission publishes its final report, they blame NASA’s leadership; and they offer a series of recommendations to improve safety in the future.
The commission also forces Allan’s employer to reinstate him and put him in charge of redesigning the rocket booster. Allan makes the most of his second chance. The improvements he helps orchestrate result in over one hundred successful shuttle missions with no rocket booster issues. Allan retires in 2001 after 42 years on the job.
But two years later, another disaster will strike when the space shuttle Columbia breaks apart in the skies over Texas, killing all seven astronauts on board. A subsequent investigation reveals that the Columba Disaster was caused by many of the same institutional failures that led to the Challenger Disaster decades earlier. As a result, NASA shutters its Space Shuttle Program.
Still, the endeavor of space exploration endures. NASA, and other agencies worldwide, continue to find new, innovative ways to explore space. But as they do, these institutions would be wise to remember the words of Allan McDonald: "In my career, I don't know how many times people have raised their hand and said, 'This may be a dumb question, but…’ I always [tell them], 'I've never, ever heard a dumb question… but I've heard a lot of dumb answers.” If Allan’s story is remembered, perhaps the world will never again witness the kind of tragedy that occurred when the Challenger broke apart in the skies over Florida on January 28th, 1986.
Next on History Daily.January 31st, 1874. Jesse James and the James-Younger gang commit one of the most infamous crimes in the American Old West.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Music and sound design by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by William Simpson.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.