34 years ago the Challenger explosion kills 7 astronauts

Reporter: Erika Jackson
Published: Updated:
Photo: NASA

On Jan. 28, 1986, seven astronauts lost their lives when the space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after takeoff from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

The explosion happened after the Challenger’s external fuel tank collapsed. The space shuttle then broke apart and fell approximately 46,000 feet to the Atlantic Ocean. It was later determined that cold weather, combined with a design flaw, led to the accident. A seal on one of the solid rocket boosters was not working properly.

The tragedy unfolded on live TV as many students across the country watched.

Christa McAuliffe, a high-school teacher from New Hampshire, was one of the seven crew members who died. She was the first civilian teacher ever chosen for a space mission. NASA had arranged a satellite broadcast of the full mission for students to watch the historic moment in schools across the nation.

The rest of the Challenger crew, remembered fondly, include: Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Michael Smith, Francis (Dick) Scobee and Gregory Jarvis.

Thirty-three years after the tragic accident, President Donald Trump signed into law a bill that will create a commemorative coin honoring McAuliffe. The coins will be minted in 2021 to commemorate the 35th anniversary of the tragedy.

Lawmakers said the coin reaffirms Congress’ commitment to invest in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics education.

Today, more than 40 education centers around the country help millions of kids learn about science and space; there they are encouraged to reach for the stars.

“That’s really the legacy I think of Challenger — that mission, that focus on outreach and education,” says Capt. Kenneth S. Reightler, a former astronaut. “I think (the Challenger crew members) would be very, very proud.”

One man who helped in the recovery that day is U.S. Navy Veteran Captain John Arens. He was the commanding officer of a Navy ship that was just a half-mile from where the crash happened.

“It was a disaster that wasn’t supposed to happen and then it did,” Arens said.

An American tragedy that was seen on TV by many.

“It was an awful day for the whole country because you see everybody was watching it,” Arens said.

But Arens witnessed the historic event with his own eyes.

“She came down a half a mile from my ship and hit the water,” he said. When asked if he realized the significance of that day as it was happening, he said, “We had no idea because it all happened so fast when it blew up into space.”

Arens was the commanding officer of the USNS Redstone, anchored half a mile off the Florida coast the afternoon of Jan. 28, 1986.

“I just couldn’t believe what I was looking at,” Arnes said. “It is remarkable that it hit a half a mile within my ship…It was 73 seconds into space when it blew up.”

I directed the Coast Guard because I know that it was 150 feet of water because it’s under me…They called me an hour and a half later and said, ‘Thank you, Captain, for telling us where it was,’ and ‘We found it.’ They think that I was responsible for it and then I told them, I said, There’s nothing wrong with my equipment,’ and then the admiral answered back, ‘Oh, all right. It’s not you then.’

Thirty-four years later, Arnes still recalls every small detail from that day.

“Even though it was years ago, nobody forgets it,” he said, “that day when they saw the thing happen,” and remembers the seven heroes who died making history.

Before the explosion, Challenger had an impressive resume.

The first American female astronaut and the first African American astronaut both reached space on the shuttle.

In 1984, two women flew on one mission for the first time.

It also had the first night launch and landing.

Here are some fast facts about the Challenger crew:

Francis R. (Dick) Scobee

  • Spacecraft Commander
  • Born on May 19, 1939
  • Birth place – Cle Elum, Washington
  • Family – Wife, June, and two children

Michael J. Smith

  • Pilot
  • Born on April 30, 1945
  • Birth place – Beaufort, North Carolina

Judith A. Resnik

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