An Aerial Explosion: The Challenger Mission

An Aerial Explosion: The Challenger Mission

Daniel Oh, Journalist

It’s January 28, 1986, and the crowd is excited as they look at Kennedy Space Center. As the countdown gets closer to 0, the crowd cheers louder and louder. 



The space shuttle’s solid rocket boosters fire and the spacecraft starts lifting into the sky. 


73 seconds into the launch, the smoke trail splits into two. 


You can hear quiet mutters mentioning the rocket boosters. As the crowd gets quieter and quieter, concern starts to silently arouse. It was then that the crowd slowly realized what may have truly happened. The loudspeaker goes off with Steve Nesbitt’s voice: “Flight controllers here are looking very carefully at the situation. Obviously a major malfunction.” 


The crew in Challenger’s 10th launch were meant to inspire people. Christa McAullife, a teacher from New Hampshire, was the first civilian to attempt to fly to space. Nowadays, we have programs building on that concept, trying to get civilians to space and turn humanity multi-planetary. Challenger would have been that first step. 


The loudspeaker goes off again: “We have a report from the flight dynamics officer that the vehicle has exploded.” And that was it. People were sobbing in the crowd. What was supposed to be a great moment in American history instantly turned into one of the worst American tragedies. 


We often think of space travel as difficult and rare to come by, but most people don’t internalize how rare it is to travel to space. Only around 600 people in the entire world have traveled to space, way less back then when Challenger was scheduled to take off. Going to space was, and still is, an amazing feat for the entirety of life. These people got that amazing opportunity to do what most of life hasn’t done before, so it’s an incredible shame that they never got to follow through with it. 


How could this happen, though? NASA was known for pulling off incredible launches and making them look easy. Some considered the explosion to occur just due to the fact there was risk involved, not knowing exactly what that risk is. In reality, there were many mistakes made by the crew behind the scenes, all of them leading up to an explosion 46,000 feet in the air. 


The decision to launch was originally stopped by the worry of the ice on the structures and rocket, as there was a chance they would break off due to the force of the launch, and fly into one of the engines. What some people didn’t account for was the general coldness of the launch, causing the o-ring seals to not work properly. 


To launch a rocket into space, you need a lot of force. Where does this force come from? The solid rocket boosters. These are the iconic-looking white tubic rockets located alongside the giant fuel tank. An o-ring is a seal specifically designed for the solid rocket boosters. After being tested in Utah, reports of erosion around the o-ring came in. NASA was warned that the o-rings wouldn’t perform well in the cold. Challenger’s flight was rescheduled several times, mostly due to weather conditions. Each time, the public was disappointed to not see the launch. This pressure on NASA eventually drove the decision to officially launch on a cold day, even when they were warned the o-rings wouldn’t hold up well. As Bob Ebeling drove to watch the launch of Challenger, he told his daughter over and over, “The shuttle is going to explode!” A minute after the launch, it seemed like he would be wrong. 13 seconds later, the smoke trail split in two, and all of the crew on board were killed. 


The crew didn’t die instantly. The Challenger actually remained intact for a bit, and continued traveling upwards. However, without the rocket boosters and fuel tank below it, powerful aerodynamic forces pulled the shuttle apart. It’s likely that the crew lost consciousness because of cabin pressure and later died due to lack of oxygen. 


Multiple people tried to stop the launch, but all of the attempts wouldn’t be successful. Ever since, safety measures have improved, reflecting on what went wrong with Challenger, to make sure this never happens again. To this day, NASA has launched over 200 successful missions, learning from their mistakes all those years ago in the Challenger liftoff.