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Challenger Disaster: A Space Flight Tragedy

VO: Rebecca Brayton
One of the most heartbreaking moments in American space travel came on January 28, 1986 when the Challenger Space Shuttle broke apart only 73 seconds into its launch. Killing all seven crew members on board, including the inaugural member of the Teacher in Space project, the tragedy marked the first time multiple lives were lost on an American space flight. Devastating the nation, and the NASA program, the event served to make future space flights safer as regulations were tightened following the catastrophe. In this video, learns more about the events that led to the Challenger disaster.

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The Challenger Disaster

This tragedy marked the first time multiple lives were lost on an American space flight.

The Teacher in Space Project

The Challenger Space Shuttle had flown nine successful trips prior to its final one in 1986. This flight was unique because it was also the launch of the Teacher in Space Project, which aimed to spark interest in science, math and space exploration. School teacher Christa McAuliffe was the first teacher selected to take part in this program, and was on board the day of the tragedy. Because of her presence, the launch was transmitted live to a number of schools across the nation. Along with McAuliffe was a crew of six astronauts, who also perished.

Initial Problems

A number of problems plagued the Challenger flight of 1986, including multiple delays that pushed the launch date from January 22nd to the 28th. It was predicted to be an uncommonly cold morning at Kennedy Space Center on the 28th, with temperatures falling below freezing. It was suspected this frigid weather could affect the flight’s rubber O-rings, which were a vital piece of equipment. Failure of these O-rings to properly seal could mean destruction of the Orbiter and its crew. Despite these doubts, NASA decided to go ahead with the launch. Workers cleared the shuttle of ice overnight and it was ready the morning of the 28th.

Take-Off and Disintegration

At 11:38am, the flight took off. Within 73 seconds, the shuttle had broken up in the air. It continued to propel itself into the atmosphere, before finally falling into the ocean off the coast of Florida.


President Ronald Reagan set up an official investigation into the Challenger disaster. The Rogers Commission found that the O-ring had failed, initiating a series of events that ultimately caused the shuttle to break apart. It was later discovered that the crew members were not killed instantly during this breakup, but more likely upon their impact with the ocean. The Commission also faulted NASA officials who failed to heed suggestions that the shuttle was in trouble prior to launch.

NASA Programs on Hold

Following the Challenger disaster, NASA programs were grounded for almost three years while investigations continued and modifications were made to prevent similar failures in the future.


A number of learning centers were set up following the Challenger tragedy, in order to honor the fallen heroes and educate generations. Despite its heartbreaking result, this moment in space exploration is considered an important one, as it may have helped avoid further problems in the future.

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