On This Day in 1986, the Challenger Space Shuttle Exploded During Liftoff

"We will never forget them...as they...'slipped the surly bonds of Earth' to 'touch the face of God.'

Tom Franklin
January 28, 2019 - 7:51 am

Photo provided/NASA

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (KMOX) — On January 28, 1986, students all across America gathered around TV sets to watch the first school teacher, Payload Specialist Christa McAuliffe, get launched into space on the NASA space shuttle Challenger.

Sadly, she and her crew didn't make it, and a nation was left stunned in silence after Challenger blew up in the sky.

It was a particularly cold morning on the east coast of Florida. Overnight temperatures hit 18 °F and ice had actually formed all over the launch pad. By the time the shuttle launched, it was still below freezing (28.0 to 28.9 °F), and a launch under such cold temperatures had not been attempted before. The coldest launch up to that point was at 54 °F.

The launch was postponed an hour after a final inspection revealed ice to be melting, and Challenger was given clearance to launch at 11:38 a.m. EST.

Because of the cold temperatures, the O-ring seals on one of the shuttle's joints couldn't seal the gases coming from the solid rocket motor because they were frozen from the cold temperatures. This is what led to the explosion 73 seconds into its flight.

Crowds gathered at Kennedy Space Center could be heard openly gasping and expressing their shock when the shuttle carrying the crew broke apart in the sky.  Many schools allowed their students, who witnessed the tragedy from classrooms across the country, to go home early for the day.

In one of his most memorable speeches during his time in the Oval Office, President Ronald Reagan addressed a stunned nation.

The launch was watched by an estimated 17 million Americans, due to McAuliffe's historic rise into space. Also losing their lives in the launch were Commander Francis R. Scobee, Pilot Michael J. Smith, Mission Specialist Ronald McNair, Mission Specialist Ellison Onizuka, Mission Specialist Judith Resnik, and Payload Specialist Gregory Jarvis.