24th anniversary of the Challenger disaster

Following Miles O'Brien's Twitter reminded me that today is the anniversary of the destruction of the Challenger space shuttle, which blew up shortly after liftoff on January 28, 1986. You can read O'Brien's memories of covering the aftermath as a young reporter in Florida.

Me, I was 4 when this happened. My memories aren't so interesting. What really sticks out for me is finding out, years later, about the mechanical malfunctions that caused the explosion, the bureaucratic mismanagement that lead known to malfunctions being ignored—and the good, honest people at NASA and contractor Morton Thiokol who tried to make their bosses fix the problem and, after the disaster happened, brought their stories to the public.

This clip from National Geographic's documentary "Challenger: The Untold Story" introduces Robert Boisjoly, an engineer at Morton Thiokol who spotted problems with the space shuttle's O-Rings in 1985, tried to stop the fatal Challenger launch and later testified before the presidential committee. His efforts earned him a Prize for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility from the American Association for the Advancement of Science.


  1. At the time I was working for an aerospace contractor that built part of the orbiter guidance system.

    [shuttles have blown up on launch, and broken up on re-entry, but they’ve never, ever gotten lost.]


    Anyway we’d listen to every launch on the radio or watch it on TV in the lounge – we’d all gone back to work when I heard the word “explosion” come from the radio – to say the least it was a depressing day.

  2. We were watching this shuttle launch live on TV in class when I was in 1st grade. It was just a little scarey!

  3. ahh, i remember this day well. the church attached to the school i attended burned down the same day. everyone at my school was sent home (obviously) and i remember seeing a priest running out of the church, his robes smoking.

  4. I was in the midst of a Earth Science mid-term exam in 8th grade when our teacher stopped the exam momentarily to announce that the shuttle had had launched and then “just blew up”. At that moment, I didn’t believe him. He had a bit of a reputation for messing with us during tests.

    After the test, it became clear from the chatter that it was true. When I got home that afternoon, I watched it over and over on TV. It all seemed very surreal at the time.

  5. To this day when someone flicks a spent cigarette butt and the filter goes one way and the burning end flies off another we call it a “space shuttle”.

    too soon?

  6. Can we stop calling Shuttle accidents “disasters” please?
    When a plane crashes resulting in over a hundred casualties it’s called an accident, when an entire friendly tribe is wiped out by a misguided carpet bombing it’s called “collateral damage” but when a handful of Shuttle crew perishes in a regrettable but nonetheless relatively small accident it somehow is ranked alongside the quake in Haiti and the tsunami in South East Asia.

    Something is wrong with that.

    1. Your idiosyncratic interpretation of the English language shouldn’t force others to change their method of speaking or writing. Look up “disaster.” It can be used for any of a number of circumstances.

      broadly : a sudden or great misfortune or failure (the party was a disaster)

      So even Webster’s recommends it for something as trivial as a party gone wrong. So please take it easy and try to leave your hang-ups out of it.

  7. I was in Kindergarten when that happened. I will not forget that moment sitting in the cafeteria at my grade school and watching that. The teachers had us really interested in the launch. the whole grade level was brought down to the cafeteria to watch the even. I’m sure I didn’t realize at the time the severity of what I had just seen but I knew what was going on was very bad. I can imagine what our teachers were thinking. Twenty-four years ago they were probably regretting showing a bunch of five year olds a space shuttle exploding on live TV. Twenty-four years later I’m sure the kids in that room appreciate being able to see such a historically important event.

    But what really has my brain in overdrive right now is that my office is right across the hall from that cafeteria. Twenty-four years ago I sat in there with 200 or so of my classmates. Today, I work there. Today, all six Kindergarten classes are in the gym/cafeteria just like we were twenty-four years ago. Today, they’re down for a “snowed in day” where they all get to wear their pajamas to school and play games. How odd.

  8. My dad was working the GNC desk in the firing room that day. I was also four, but I remember being taken out to see the launch, as my mom always did. We were at a little park on the Indian River watching the launch when we saw the fork and the disaster. Dad didn’t get to come home that night, or the next. Every man in that firing room had to prove personally that they didn’t cause the disaster. Dad was broken after that. He continued working at the pace center for a while, but never slept well. Watching your friends die while sitting at a useless control station can do that. NASA never really accepted Feynman’s findings. They continued to blame the engineers, praising the managers for their bold approach in “resolving the issues”. Dad retired, but he still has nightmares. There were a lot more than seven casualties that day.

  9. Yeah, I remember that day too. Lost my job after about a month, unlike the guys at Wasatch Division that were laid off within 48 hours or so. As far as I know, I was the last guy Thiokol let go in response to the disaster.

    It’s weird, though perhaps not incorrect, to hear Boisjoly called “good and honest”. I didn’t interact personally with him, and I appreciate his courage and honesty, but he had a reputation at the plant of being a difficult person. The sort of prima donna who could totally eclipse the two other guys who also warned of the impending disaster and not feel guilty about it.

    Incidentally, Boisjoly’s testing of the O-ring joint actually weakened it, as I recall. The test methodology required purposefully breaching one of the seals with embedded thermocouples on live launches.

    We used to say “the salt boys” took over Thiokol and stole the best managers, all the diversified holdings, and an unblemished reputation. The cast-off rocket motor division was bought by Alliant (Honeywell’s old rocket division, I think) and is now ATK.

    I still have code running there, last time I checked… it was actually a great place to work in some ways.

  10. I remember that day well; I was at my first job out of college – I walked into my boss’s office and a bunch of people were standing around the radio. I asked what was going on and someone said, “The Shuttle blew up”. My immediate response was, “No, really – what happened?”. To this day most of the people I know think of this as their versions of “where were you when JFK was shot?”, though now 9-11 is up there as well.

  11. When someone at work told me the shuttle had blown up, I said “no, you’re lying.” We just didn’t have as strong a notion of the dangers of space travel as we have today.

    Personally, I blame Jake Garn. He got the booster rockets made in Utah by Morton Thiokol (btw, that’s Morton as in Morton Salt), instead of in Florida. Because they had to be transported so far, they needed to be divided into sections connected with o-rings. It’s one of those o-rings that failed and caused the Challenger to explode.

    Thiokol was found liable, but if it hadn’t been for then-Senator Garn, the boosters would have been made in Florida, where transporting them to Canaveral could have been accomplished without dividing them. No division, no o-rings; no o-rings, no explosion.

    1. Xopher, Morton-Thiokol (a different company than Thiokol or ATK, in my extremely well informed opinion) did not get “found liable”.

      The blame was laid on NASA, although I prefer to blame that sanctimonious bastard Ronald Reagan, whose famous speech after the disaster was plagarized from the poem “High Flight” incidentally.

      We wanted to use wound case-on-propellant which is completely jointless, but NASA insisted on steel cases because the technology was “proven”. Cheapskates.

  12. I was really young when it happened, 9 years old actually, but I clearly remember it. I was in West Palm Beach at the time, and my class was out on the gym field, watching it with our teacher. Being a long way away, we mostly just saw the smoke plume but could usually pick out elements of the shuttle like the fuel tank as it separated. That day, the teacher was describing each event then sort of got quiet at the forking plumes and downward arc. He said, “I’m not sure what that was,” and led us back inside. Everyone had such big hopes for the first teacher in space. I’ll remember Christie McAuliffe for the rest of my life.

    Just a long way to say, we were all really heartbroken when we found out what had happened.

    I loved watching shuttle launches, especially at night.

  13. When Challenger blew, I said one of the stupidest things I’ve ever said in my life. I say appalling things fairly regularly, so that’s an achievement (I nearly got lynched in the first fifteen minutes after 9-11).

    I was coming in from the test range, where I had to deal with a hang-fire on a nuclear-capable cruise missile that Reagan was selling the House of Saud, and I missed the initial launch. I walked into the room and everybody – I mean everybody, even the Arabs – was silently staring slack-jawed at a monitor on a ceiling bracket (we watched all the launches, of course, on a jury-rigged antenna wired into the test monitoring CCTV system) and the very first replay was beginning.

    As the rollover started, I jovially said “Look at that, isn’t that beautiful?” and they all turned their sheet-white faces towards me. Then the strut went, and the SRMs split off, and I said, “THAT was a SIMULATION, RIGHT? That’s what WOULD happen if the external fuel tank blew, RIGHT?” and they all shook their heads in unison.

    Then the phones started ringing.

    1. Yeah. When I walked into a class that day, I saw the towers on TV and said, “What movie are you watching?”

  14. I grew up in Cocoa Beach and later Winter Haven, Florida and could see the launches quite well. My father was an Air Force Major liaison to NASA and brought me along as a spectator for the second launch, and there was no shortage in my household of astronaut memorabilia and space flight patches. My earliest memories of reading are split between Dr. Seuss and Aviation Week and Space Technology. To say I was invested in NASA and space exploration as a child and young man would be a big understatement.
    I was a freshman asleep in my Louisiana Tech dorm room when the Challenger accident occurred. A friend pounded on my door shouting that the “Space Shuttle done blew up” (he’s from Arkansas) but I was extremely dubious. And hungover. The rest of that day was just grief and disbelief. That afternoon my car was up on a lift and a cowboy hat wearing good-ol-boy was examining a broken roto-flex joint and watching the endless replays of the explosion on a tv in a corner of the shop. He muted it and turned to the other employees, spit some tobacco on the floor and loudly drawled “if God had meant for us to go into space he would have built us a road there”. Shocked, I fumbled for a retort and told him that if God had meant for us to drive He’d have given all of us Corvettes. I don’t think he got the sarcasm.
    What scares me is that guys like that can VOTE.

  15. I was in kindergarten, or first grade and my mother had let me stay home to watch the launch. I was huge into NASA at the time. I’d mail ordered the shuttle glossies and I had old 50’s books on the Apollo projects and thought that anyone associated with the program was cool.
    I would look at the wet landings from the Apollo series and think those Navy guys were pretty damn cool too.
    Seeing the shuttle go was a very influential moment in my life. I look back on it and it summarizes the transitory nature of existence and that while we have this transitory thing, we have to use it.
    @above The shuttle event is what Nassim Taleb refers to as a Black Swan in his book by the same name. The event was improbable, yet possible. In retrospect it seemed all too possible, but was impossible to predict. It sounds like lot of regressive prognostication was going on after the fact.

  16. I was also four at the time and seeing it live on TV is one of my earliest memories. At that age I didn’t quite understand the scope of what had happened, but I remember my mom being pretty distraught about it. Later that day at the store I wanted my mom to buy me a little die-cast space shuttle toy, but she refused.

  17. Hey, can we stop being snarky and nitpicky about the small shit, fellow commenters?

    I was 12 when the Challenger blew. I was on a boat, whale watching.

  18. I was 13 when the Challenger exploded. I remember watching with my entire 7th grade class in the school library. A few teachers left the room, students cried, and I just sat there, stunned.

    They’d made such a huge deal of sending a teacher into space, I wouldn’t be surprised if more students watched that launch than any other in history.

  19. I was in first grade at a school in Sanford, FL, about 50 miles from the cape. My class was outside watching the launch. I remember I climbed up on a chainlink fence with my friend Amy and stared up at the sky and watched it happen with our own eyes. Amy was insistent something was wrong, and I was insistent the two largest chunks of arcing debris were the booster rockets and that everything was fine. Then we went inside to see the replays on the TV, and then we all were sent home. There was a creepy S-shaped cloud that slowly dissipated as the day headed toward evening. I remember the Orlando Sentinel and perhaps some NASA folks came at some point afterward and talked to us, passed out glossy photos. One with a cartoon of a sad-faced space shuttle in space with seven doves flying out of the cargo bay, the other of a “new” space shuttle-shaped constellation consisting of seven stars.

  20. Freshman year in college. Just got back to my dorm room from a morning class and flipped on the tv (natch) and HOLY F_CKING SH_T! I think I scared the crap out of my entire dorm suite. We spent the rest of the day watching the coverage.

  21. Strange as this sounds, it was a pretty deep childhood trauma for me. A teacher at my school, actually my teacher from the previous year, had gotten pretty far into the running from what I understand. I was in 2nd grade and we were doing a section on, yes, the space program when the school janitor ran in the door and yelled “The (something) blew up!”

    At the time I, and a few others, thought he said the school had blown up. Which you’d think we would have noticed. But we quickly figured out what had happened.

    My younger cousin was had my old teacher at the time. He remember seeing her go completely pale and rush to the bathroom, deeply freaked out. Apparently she knew Christa McAuliffe quite well.

    I’m a total space nerd to this day. This and the Columbia disaster tug at me as much as any tragedy can. To dare and reach beyond this tiny little dot of a planet and ride fire into the black, what more noble endeavor is there? God Speed Challenger.

  22. Remember sitting in my third grade class along with the rest of my school watching it on live on tv. I don’t think any of the kids quite understood what happened, but I still remember the look of shock and disbelief on my teacher’s face when she sent us all out of the room for recess. It was like she was in another world, which in retrospect..she was. I miss getting hugs from her and squeezing my head between her huge boobs.

    I find it hard to believe the shuttle is still flying, it’s an amazing old bird. Hopefully more interest will be shown in space exploration by future leaders in positions to direct funding for such exploits.

  23. I was 6 at the time and was watching it live on TV. My Grandmother was a teacher and was excited about the ‘Teachers in Space’ program so we were watching together.

    I was always thankful that she didn’t whisk me away saying “nothing to see here!” when everything went wrong. She saw I was puzzled and upset, as she were, so we kept watching the news updates. She collected the newspaper articles for me in a notebook so that I could read about what happened and why. She was really awesome that way.

    A few months later, she did the same thing for me for the Chernobyl disaster. What a year :(

  24. I actually called out that day. I was living in Jacksonville at the time (and where I am currently…). It was bitterly cold, and my wife at the time and I lived in a mobile home off of US 1 in an not too good part of town. None of the local channels were showing the launch, not even old reliable CBS (channel 4 locally at the time). I wandered down to a good spot in the mobile home park that gave me a clear shot south-southeast. I had my trusty old 7×35 Focal (Tasco) binoculars in my hands as I reached the spot where a few weeks before I had watched another launch. A neighbor, who was listening to a local news radio broadcast, walked out to join me.
    This launch was special for me. I had studied to be a science teacher but hadn’t completed the process at that time. My friend Dr. Mike Reynolds was one of the teacher candidates to ride on board; he had the year before been voted teacher of the year locally.
    At the appointed time plus a few seconds, the bright flare and smoky trail cleared the pines; she was up. I pulled my binoculars up and began following her as she climbed. It was a few seconds later that flare that marked the SRB’s suddenly flared brighter, and an orange-white cloud appeared where the stack was just a second before. The cloud grew, and then the two SRB’s emerged. This… was not right.
    My neighbor asked “they’re just staging, right?” By this time I was running back to the trailer, looking back over my shoulder just as the SRB’s were blown by the RSO.
    “That’s not right! The shuttle doesn’t stage like that!” I called back.
    As I emerged inside, CBS News with Dan Rather was interrupting the daily game shows.
    To say the least, it was a little hard on me.

    1. I was in Jacksonville that day, too – driving north on US1 so we probably just missed one another. You forgot to mention the snow! It was really really snowing that morning – to the point where I almost turned the car around and went home. Had I done so, I probably would have seen the explosion. Rather glad I didn’t.

  25. I cut a morning college class to watch, and all I could think of when it happened was the manila folder back in my bedroom at home that I had put together after reading Harry Stine’s column in Analog called “The Sky is Going to Fall”. Stine predicted that any complex system would fail, and that we had to be ready for it, ready to weather the attacks on the space program that would follow. That folder had the names and phone numbers of local reporters in Cleveland who had covered space or aviation, and talking points, and my job was to start calling them. But I’d left it at home, and I hadn’t made a new one for St. Louis yet. If the shuttle never launched again, it would be my fault.

  26. Yet the gods do not give lightly of the powers they have made
    And with Challenger and seven, once again the price is paid
    Though our nation watched her falling, yet a world could only cry
    As they passed from us to glory, riding fire in the sky


  27. It’s worth noting that Challenger held the first Israeli astronaut and it blew up over Palestine, Tx.

    G_d moves in mysterious ways, eh? :-)

  28. I was working 2nd shift for GE Cable as a dispatcher back then. Our weather was icy that day, lottsa lines down, so I got called in early. Barely had time to get acquainted with the various outages in the system when the Challenger blew. Up until 4a.m. the next day I sat in the radio office, surrounded by six TV sets looking at our major trunk feeds and headends. Everyone passing through wanted updates, and the news outlets were obviously the most important channels of the day to deliver, so for almost 17 hours I watched the launch replay, over and over and over and over….

    Of course my first thoughts were for the flight and ground crews, but after a few hours I began to think of the kids…. I was in second grade the day JFK was killed; we were sent home within 30 minutes of the shooting, and news tech back then being what it was, we were not deluged with full-screen replays, impromptu punditry and endless factoid crawls. On Challenger day, my girlfriend had the presence of mind to leave work early and collect all the latchkey kids around our house, keeping them occupied and diverted until parents got home. (My lasting impression is that the end of the world will be televised, but not very well….)

  29. I was seven years-oldwent to a small religious school at the time. They didn’t really bother taking the time out of class to show us things like shuttle launches, despite the big astronomy section in that year’s science curriculum. Thusly, I didn’t find out about the explosion until that evening, when my dad picked me up from my first ever Cub Scout meeting.

    Dad knew I was a huge space nut, so he actually took a fair amount of time to sit with me and tell me about the accident before turning on the evening news. I think some part of me still really appreciates that.

    On a weird note, the day before the disaster, my family moved into a new apartment. Most of my folks’ china was (and still is, in some cases) wrapped in the issue of the Boston Herald that contained interviews and puff pieces about Christa McAuliffe. Spooky.

  30. I was a freshman in high school. My father was in the first wave of NASA employees at VAFB prepping for a west coast shuttle launch site. They sent us home from school early. I’ll never forget when he came home from work that night. It was the first time I’d ever seen him cry.

    To a whole generation of us, this was our Kennedy moment.

    And another interesting observation, I don’t recall anyone ever thinking for a moment that it might have been a terrorist act.

  31. I was in the second grade, and I remember returning from gym or library or one of the “specials” when my teacher had the class sit on the rug. She solemnly told us what had happened. It was the first time I ever felt the cold punch of mortality in the pit of my stomach.

    I also remember that our classroom had a well-thumbed paperback book with lots of glossy color photos of the space shuttle and an ancient copy of a science supplement to “Highlights for Children” (IIRC) all about the planned space shuttle program. The date of the magazine was about 1975.

    I was in fifth grade when the shuttle flew again, and I have equally vivid memories of the fifth grade classes in my school crowding into a single room to watch the launch on TV.

  32. The day this happened, I had just finished writing a highschool English exam. After the exam, I was in a Radio Shack where all the TV’s were playing the footage. Days later, President Regan made his speech…and also read the poem “High Flight”. Would you believe that this very poem was on my English exam? Spoooky…..

    1. Whoa, lurch, you have some memory mixups there. Peggy Noonan wrote Reagan’s speech, and she included a few lines from John Gillespie Magee’s poem “High Flight”, which she assumed he would recognize since he’d heard it about a bazillion times (presumably she had not heard the rumor that it was dedicated to the USSR by the author). Reagan apparently did not recognize it, perhaps because another speechwriter tweaked the lines a little, and believed the lines were original. Later it was some cause for embarrassment since the Young Republicans thought Reagan came up with it himself.

      I’m still a little messed up from all the memories this has dragged up. I left the space biz after Challenger, because with the cessation of the space program all that was left was working on titanic death machines. I decided to do something more meaningful with my life, but my dad toughed it out until retirement and my brother-in-law still drives the Hubble. Sometimes I still miss being part of the great leap outward… although I don’t miss building nuclear missiles at all.

      “We’re on for the big show tonight
      so fly on wing to wing
      we’re angels of hell and we fly
      for country and for king…”

  33. Re: Shuttle disaster jokes. It’s a free country (probably) so feel free to ask us all “What Nasa stands for” and other related jokes relating the Challenger tragedy.

    But don’t expect all of us to laugh.

    I grew up in the final years of the cold war and I’m not naive about the motives behind any given countries interests in Space(tm) over the last few decades. But as an enthusiast in space exploration and the long term preservation of the human race I find these moments especially tragic and humbling.

    Those astronauts died that day for something much greater than geo-politics or corporate balance sheets. They gave their lives in the pursuit of science, and truth, and a greater understanding of our universe – to contribute to the canon of knowledge and expand humankind’s understanding of the cosmos.

    If NASA “Needs Another Seven Astronauts” and I thought for a second that I was remotely qualified for that honorable position, I’d sign up.

  34. i was in second grade and it happened to be launching during science class.
    living in central florida, the whole school always went outside to look up and watch. by that time we had all seen a few shuttles launch.
    i remember we all just stood there in silence, because every single member of my class knew that there weren’t supposed to be that many trails in the sky, going in different directions.
    we had a tv in the classroom for watching the countdown so the teacher would know whether to take us outside or not [if it scrubbed before launch] and after the smoke trails started to dissipate we went back in and she turned on the tv so we could watch the news reports and find out what happened.
    what had always been a high point in my life [shuttle launches] became a moment when i would stop what i was doing and just watch, breath held, anytime there was a launch, until i moved out of state.

  35. I had just turned 4, and was brought outside to watch the launch with the rest of my pre-school class in South Florida. We could see a little sliver of smoke trail, from the ground to the blue skyed heavens, teachers exclaiming of wonder we could but imagine. Suddenly, a *poof*- it was only by the reactions of the adults around me that this memory is so firmly set. Years later, this memory is more indelible than my first kiss.

  36. I should add on top of my earlier comment that my dad retired from the Air Force and took a PM position with the Shuttle program for Rockwell out in Downey CA. He knew from the very beginning via formal internal risk-assessments based on the enormous complexity of the Shuttle that they calculated a 1 in 100 risk of calamity on any flight. When the Shuttles finally retire after 134 launches (assuming no more accidents) their estimates can be revised to 1 in 67. Once upon a time I too wanted to be an astronaut … but those are not odds I care to gamble my life on. I’m sure that the Orion replacement will be vastly safer, I hope.

  37. The memory of Christa McAuliffe’s parents as they realize their daughter just blew up in the space shuttle … still gets me every time, like nothing else does. It’s a sure shot.

    More than seven victims, indeed.

  38. Eighth grade for me; I was barely attending a junior high school in Alexandria, VA. We watched it live. I eventually got kicked out for always skipping school, but that was one of the days I hadn’t. I sort of wish I had.

  39. I was working at KSC when Challenger blew up. I worked at tne VAB and was standing outside when Challenger launched. As I had seen so many , shortly after the launch I headed back to the VAB. I heard a noise from the crowd but paid no attention to it. After I was back in the VAB for a while I noticed a group of people around a radio with grim looks on their faces. I asked what was wrong, that’s when I first learned of the Challenger disaster. There I was during one of the most traumatic moments in history and by a matter of seconds had failed to see it.

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