Today, 29 years ago, the seven souls aboard STS-51-L and Challenger Space Shuttle Orbiter were lost.
Challenger Wreckage Today
I always said I wanted to photograph all of the Space Shuttle Orbiters. I never thought I’d get the chance to photograph Challenger; but I did, sort of. This is as close as I may ever get to actually doing so.
The first photo shows Launch Complex 31 and 32 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. At this launch complex, inside two dormant missile silos, rests the wreckage of Space Shuttle Challenger, meticulously sorted and cataloged in its underground tomb. This was as close as I could get to the highly restricted area. On the left side of the first photograph, you can see a beehive shaped block house which housed Launch Control for LC-31 and LC-32. To the right of the photo, there is a smaller, light colored dome, and to the immediate left of it, a slab of dark brown cement protruding from the ground. Those are the caps to the silos that house the Challenger wreckage.
When I photograph and share an aircraft or spacecraft, I try to attach a corresponding story. I could talk about how or why this disaster unfolded, but this is common knowledge for most people who follow aerospace. Instead, I’m going to share a more personal story. I feel a close connection to Challenger because my father, Bruce Mason, was an applicant in the Teacher in Space Program. If he had been selected, he could have been on the fatal flight. This is an example of what thousands of Teacher in Space applicants and their families went through.
Teacher In Space
The story starts before I was born. In 1984 Ronald Reagan announced the Teacher in Space Program and my dad, a Georgia public middle school science teacher, applied as soon as he heard about the widely publicized program. Before applying to the Teacher in Space Program, he started the “Target Program”, which offers gifted children accelerated learning in the state of Georgia. Before that, he became the first educator in the state to connect a school computer to the internet.
To apply, the teachers had to come up with an educational project that they would perform in space and submit a paper about the project along with their applications. My father’s experiment would have demonstrated and proven Newton’s Universal Gravitation Theory using simple machine mechanics in microgravity. It would have been something students could have watched on camera, seeing it work live from space.
Over 11,000 teachers applied nationwide, but my dad was the only teacher in his school to sign up. Another part of the application process was to get a recommendation from a fellow teacher. When Dad approached a co-worker about the recommendation, she was happy to help, but said that he was crazy. Dad’s school students were in on the project too, and were all very excited about the possibility of their teacher flying in space.
Months went by and tension grew at home. Mom was excited for Dad, but my sister, who was 12 at the time, begged him not to go, expressing fear that he would die. If I were around at the time, I would have fully supported my dad’s mission.
Just before the final 10 applicants were chosen, Dad received a letter saying that somebody else from his region was chosen to move on to the final stage of selection. He was heartbroken at missing the chance to fly in space until he learned about Christa Mcauliffe, the finalist, who was a perfect fit for the position. In his words, Dad said that “Christa was an amazing teacher, and an amazing woman." My father even made plans to attend a teaching convention in San Francisco, where Christa was slated to speak after her spaceflight. She was an English teacher, and her project was to keep a journal during her time in space. This journal would have answered the question that every person has, "What’s it really like up there?”
January 28, 1986, Dad woke up to an extremely cold morning; so uncharacteristically cold that the county declared a “teacher work day”, where the kids would stay at home for their safety. My sister was sick that day, so Mom stayed at home to take care of her. Before going into work, Dad watched pre-launch news coverage of STS-51-L, which showed footage of enormous icicles hanging from equipment at Launch Complex 39B where Challenger sat ready for flight. Looking at the conditions, he assumed that they would scrub the launch, as they did five times leading up to that day.
Later, Dad came back from his lunch break at work. He entered the building, walked down a hall and was stopped by a co-worker and family friend named Jackie. Dad tells me that, to this day he remembers the exact spot where he stopped. Jackie began exclaiming that the space shuttle had exploded. Jackie was known as quite a character and Dad thought she was kidding, just making a tasteless joke. The more insistent Jackie got, the more Dad didn’t believe her. The assistant principal, who was in his office nearby, overheard the conversation and interjected, confirming that the shuttle had exploded and that there would be no possible survivors. At that point, my father said that it felt as if a trap door opened up under his feet and he fell through it.
My mother watched every rocket launch on TV and this flight was no different. Mom watched the whole thing happen from home, on live television. She said, “It went up and it was great. Then it just turned into fireworks and went in all different directions. I couldn’t believe what was happening because NASA is not supposed to do that.” She’d tried to call Dad at school, but these were the days before cell phones and he was out to lunch when it happened.
Eventually, Dad saw the footage of the launch. Even now, he says that it’s hard for him to watch. Especially the moment when the camera cuts to the horrified face of Frederick Gregory in Launch Control, an astronaut who gave Dad a tour of Kennedy Space Center. Dad knows Frederick as such a glowing, positive person and it was impactful to witness him go through such shock. Later that evening, my family watched president Ronald Reagan’s speech after the accident, feeling as though it was our president’s finest moment. Reagan said, “We mourn seven heroes: Michael Smith, Dick Scobee, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe…We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.”
The next day, the students were back at school. All the kids that were in Dad’s class when he applied had moved on to the next grade, but they all managed to find him during the school day and express their shock and condolences.
Quickly, Dad’s thoughts went to Christa, her family and especially Christa’s students who watched the launch live, all wearing party hats and using noisemakers, cheering their teacher before she was lost. Dad had been able to relate to Christa because she had a daughter at the same age as my sister who also didn’t want her parent to go into space.
Instead of going to the teaching convention in San Francisco, where Christa would have spoken after her flight, my parents visited Christa’s hometown, where she lived and taught. Later, once I was born, Dad made sure to share Christa’s legacy with me. I can’t remember a time in which I didn’t know who she was and what she did. Ever since the accident, Dad displayed a sign on the wall in his classroom that said “Christa Mcauliffe teaches here too.”
Some officials and astronauts express anger or sadness with regards to the Challenger disaster and I understand why. I have similar feelings. But these feelings are ultimately overshadowed by pride for the fact that we pushed on with the shuttle program after each accident. I am confident that humans will never stop adventuring for the sake of science. Exploration is instinctually ingrained in every person. And every person that flies into space, who takes such risk for the betterment of the human race, is a hero, no matter if their flight fails or succeeds.
The Challenger shuttle crew, of seven astronauts–including the specialties of pilot, aerospace engineers, and scientists– died tragically in the explosion of their spacecraft during the launch of STS-51-L from the Kennedy Space Center about 11:40 a.m., EST, on January 28, 1986. The explosion occurred 73 seconds into the flight as a result of a leak in one of two Solid Rocket Boosters that ignited the main liquid fuel tank. The crewmembers of the Challenger represented a cross-section of the American population in terms of race, gender, geography, & religion. The explosion became one of the most significant events of the 1980s, as billions around the world saw the accident on television and empathized with any one of the several crewmembers killed.
STS-51-L crew: (front row) Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee, Ronald McNair; (back row) Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnik.
“Nineteen years ago - almost to the day - we lost three astronauts in a terrible accident on the ground. But we’ve never lost an astronaut in flight; we’ve never had a tragedy like this. And perhaps we’ve forgotten the courage it took for the crew of the shuttle; but they, the Challenger Seven, were aware of the dangers, overcame them, and did their jobs brilliantly. We mourn seven heroes: Michael Smith, Dick Scobee, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe. We mourn their loss as a nation together. For the families of the seven, we cannot bear as you do, the full impact of this tragedy. But we feel the loss, and we’re thinking about you so very much. Your loved ones were daring and brave, and they had that special grace, that spirit that says, "Give me a challenge and I’ll meet it with joy.” They had a hunger to explore the universe and discover its truths. They wished to serve; and they did. They served all of us. We’ve grown used to wonders in this century. It’s hard to dazzle us. But for twenty-five years the United States space program has been doing just that. We’ve grown used to the idea of space, and perhaps we forget that we’ve only just begun. We’re still pioneers. They, the members of the Challenger crew, were pioneers. And I want to say something to the schoolchildren of America who were watching the live coverage of the shuttle’s takeoff. I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It’s all part of the process of exploration and discovery. it’s all part of taking a chance and expanding man’s horizons. The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we;ll continue to follow them… There’s a coincidence today. On this day 390 years ago, the great explorer Sir Francis Drake died aboard ship off the coast of Panama. In his lifetime the great frontiers were the oceans, and a historian later said, ‘He lived by the sea, died on it, and was buried in it.’ Well, today we can say of the Challenger crew: Their dedication was, like Drake’s complete. The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for the journey and waved goodbye and 'slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to 'touch the face of God.’“ – United States President Ronald Reagan’s Speech on The Challenger Disaster; January 28, 1986 (photos by Paul Hildebrandt, director/filmmaker, 'Fight for Space’)
This week, and forever, the crew of Apollo1 AS-204 and Space Shuttle Challenger STS-51-L are remembered and heralded for their achievements in the human spaceflight program. During this time, it’s become routine for many around the space community and amongst our human family on Earth to reflect upon and mourn those relatives of ours who put their lives at risk for the study, protection, and preservation of life on this biologically diverse biosphere we call home.
However, I can’t help but reflect on the above speech following Challenger’s demise feeling the same sentiments the world did then, while knowing what we know now, and what few were aware of at the time this speech was given. We certainly are explorers, pioneers, as asserted by President Reagan in 1986. But we were involved with an endeavor deserving the best of our energies and skills, as suggested by John F. Kennedy, who initiated this effort.
Apollo 1, Challenger, and Columbia were not accidents, they were (are) examples of human negligence. We 'should’ have taken proper precautions. We 'should’ have and 'could’ have done a lot of things. The United States government was in a competition of superiority - who was going to gain the "high ground” in space - with the Soviet Union. The astronauts involved were not astronauts by definition, they were active/former military pilots – they were soldiers. Their mission, as they chose to accept it, was not to advance a frontier of discovery and human advancement into space with the goal of settlement among new worlds; their mission was to carry out their positions on the front lines of a battle between [U.S.] and them.
Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, Edward H. White II, and Roger B. Chaffee of Apollo 1 burned alive inside a crammed Command/Service Module – a mock space capsule riddled with mechanical failures, faulty equipment, and ultimately, an extremely dangerous environment overall to even be considered the testing platform for any human to operate with confidence. Seconds before the fire, “Gus” Grissom, exhausted and frustrated, is recorded saying:
“How are we going to get to the moon if we can’t talk between three buildings?”
The 'Challenger Seven’ crew perished 73 seconds into its flight not due to an “accident”, but mismanagement and leadership. The Space Shuttle itself was an extremely sensitive and dangerous vehicle to haul into space. Built for access into Low Earth Orbit only, it was critical that all precautions were taken, as meticulous subsystems on board were necessary for full reliability and service from launch to landing. However, instead of equipment or infrastructure at fault, it was that of the directors responsible for moving forward with the mission itself.
The day NASA was pressed to launch, temperatures that morning were well below what were suggested by the manufacturer/contractor of the rubber O rings responsible as a seal between the joints of the Solid Rocket Boosters (SRB) that contained the external fuel source, thus the breach and explosion.
A critical figure in the investigation leading up to and beyond the disaster was science communicator and notable physicist Richard P. Feynman, who submitted the most sober assessment of all those involved (and responsible) in one sentence:
“For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.”
NASA was being pressed and pushed by non-scientists to not delay another launch date, which would draw critique and cost-assessment from Congress and negative press from the media, who grew consistently tired and irritated of assembling their crews to attend launches only to be let down due to some technical information pertinent to a higher percentage of mission success, resulting in grumpy communication to the press, who continually lacked true insight into how this inspirational and massive space program was being coordinated behind closed doors.
Space Shuttle Columbia’s fateful reentry was no accident, either, paralleling the prior fates of cargo and crew. The vehicle was vulnerable to exterior damage, as demonstrated by a piece of foam insulation (applied to the external fuel tanks to prevent ice from forming due to the liquid hydrogen/oxygen contained inside) shedding upon launch and puncturing the shuttle’s left wing, which inevitably led to disintegration upon reentry.
Configuration of the Space Shuttle: strapping precious cargo alongside a very costly and flammable structure, where the slightest malfunction or puncture would amount to a very explosive situation. Prior to this assembly however, the steadily evolving human spaceflight program graduated from the rockets of Redstone (Mercury) to Titan (Gemini), then the true giant leap of our technological capability and prowess – the Saturn V rocket at the height of the Apollo program.
It worked. It could’ve taken us beyond the moon, and kept astronauts at a much safer distance from the fuel tanks, equipped with a more efficient mechanism to propel a human crew to safety when an abort maneuver was needed than the Space Shuttle ever could. While equipped with this knowledge, the human spaceflight program was downgraded into a joint crew and cargo effort to do what smaller rocket configurations eventually ended up doing, taking over the bulk of NASA’s directive, sending up astronauts to Low Earth Orbit “when necessary."
It’s essential and necessary to criticize our efforts. We all realize that the mission to the moon moved so quickly due to the threat of being outperformed by the Soviet Union. But the citizens of Earth didn’t see it this way. Surely patriotism influenced support for these programs, but we saw much more of ourselves when viewing the Earth from space. We envisioned a society with space hotels, spinoffs and everyday marketplace catalysts making their way into our daily lives at an accelerating rate, dreams of venturing off to other worlds, seeing our home planet from afar, being granted a wonderful new perspective on our existence together, and doing bold and risky things for the benefit of an entire planet.
We associated the term "hero” with those who dove to extraneous depths beneath the sea, rushed headstrong into fires to save lives, and sometimes, rode a behemoth of a launch vehicle into the sky amidst the quiet cold of space to extend our human presence beyond our terrestrial home.
Indeed, we will speak to our children about these incidents, but we will not be coy with them. We will explain the risks involved, the arduous task it is from conception to construction and launch to landing. We’ll illustrate the importance of space exploration alongside the tremendous impact it’s had on shaping our culture, our present understanding of the universe, ourselves, and our future as a species. We will not, however, lie to them about the cause and effect relationship in regards to the decisions that were made, and continue to be made. We’ll explain why space exploration companies like SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, XCOR Aerospace, Planetary Resources, Deep Space Industries, Astrobotic, and countless emerging others are poised to disrupt the political oligarchy whose kept the space program essentially “grounded” from doing what it is capable of.
Indeed, as President Reagan asserted, “the future does not belong to the fainthearted, it belongs to the brave."
And we intend to equip our children with the knowledge necessary to recognize when there’s a problem, meet that problem with the same open mind that propelled us to discover it, and after meticulous scrutiny, extract everything we can from it to gain further perspective. We will tell our children that yes, these new endeavors being explored and performed by multiple space companies are the things we’ve been capable of since the American space program started; but those who direct the funding decided to pull back, even while it was bringing the world together toward a common evolving vision of the humankind’s future amongst the stars.
Today’s 'space entrepreneurs’ haven’t all had the same coincidental epiphanies. They witnessed the developing space program during their childhood, watched it whither and drift from mainstream news, pop culture, and most notably – Congressional priority. Having learned from a model of what not to do, they’re taking advantage of the plethora of modern scientific advancements along an accelerating exponential growth curve, and applying them toward the development of ambitions worthy of our attention, support, and above all – hope for the spacefaring future of humankind we anticipated not so long ago. The lives lost, accomplishments achieved, technologies developed, knowledge gained…the benefits accumulated throughout our efforts in space should have amounted to more than memories of a brief era of time where we once celebrated human beings worthy of recognition as heroes and explorers.
The human mistakes we’ve made have since passed, but what have we learned? Instead of steadily investing our funds and potential into a spacefaring future reflective of those who died for it – we’ve retracted, demonstrated by the budget we’ve misappropriated to developing technologies in preparation for warfare:
As we progress forward in an age where we are more digitally connected than ever before, maybe we’ve become victims of our own success. We’ve taken advantage of technologies the space program is directly responsible for, whereby we’re permitted quicker access to witness history unfolding in front of us. The difference however, between the space age of the 60’s/70’s is that the connectivity we’ve gained from those space assets bridged from exploration beyond Earth now allows us to take part in a means of activism and change like never before.
On January 28, 1986, NASA Challenger mission STS-51-L ended in tragedy when the shuttle exploded 73 seconds after takeoff. On board was physicist Ronald E. McNair, who was the second African American to enter space. But first, he was a kid with big dreams in Lake City, South Carolina.
29 Years ago today. I remember watching this on TV when I was 5.
The Space Shuttle Challenger disaster occurred on January 28, 1986, when the NASA Space Shuttle orbiter Challenger (OV-099) (mission STS-51-L) broke apart 73 seconds into its flight, leading to the deaths of its seven crew members. The spacecraft disintegrated over the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Cape Canaveral, Florida at 11:38 EST (16:38 UTC).
Ron McNair took off aboard NASA’s Challenger STS-51-L flight, his final outer space mission, 29 years ago today. But before that, he was a bold little kid who ignored boundaries and constantly ventured where others would not.
Thirty years ago on January 28, 1986, seven astronauts–including teacher Christa McAuliffe–lost their lives after the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded during liftoff.
The inclusion of a teacher, who would become the first private citizen in space, made the Space Shuttle Challenger mission especially exciting. This was the U.S. Government’s twenty-fifth space shuttle mission, twenty-four of which had been completed successfully.
In August 1984, President Reagan announced @nasa‘s new “Teacher in Space Project,” which was a part of NASA’s Space Flight Participant Program, an education and outreach initiative. The application process was demanding and lengthy.
Out of over 11,000 applications, state, territorial and agency review panels each selected two nominees. A total of 114 nominees then participated in June 1985 in a week-long conference on various aspects of space education in Washington, DC. Ten teachers were selected through a national review process to continue on to the next step.
306-PSF-85-2488c: Sharon Christa McAuliffe, a 36 year old mother of two was chosen from a field of some 10,000 applicants to be the first teacher in space. A Social Studies Instructor at Concord High School in New Hampshire, she flew aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger in January 1986. Behind her, in the airplane, are some of the 10 finalists who joined her in testing for the assignment. The teacher-in-space program resulted from a campaign pledge made by President Ronald Reagan during the election campaign of 1984.
In July 1985, at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, the ten finalists participated in thorough medical examinations and briefings about space flights. A NASA evaluation committee made up of senior NASA officials conducted further interviews with each teacher. This committee then made recommendations to the NASA Administrator, who made the final selection of two teachers.
The primary participant was Sharon Christa McAuliffe, a social studies teacher from Concord High School in Concord, New Hampshire. Years earlier, McAuliffe had been excited about the Apollo moon landing program. In her astronaut application she wrote, “I watched the Space Age being born and I would like to participate.” The back-up was Barbara Morgan, a teacher from McCall-Donnelly Elementary School in McCall, Idaho.
Video footage documented McAuliffe and Morgan’s training at the Johnson Space Center. The Teacher in Space Project required that two classroom lessons be taught in space, and preparing the lesson plans also was documented. Finding aids for the records provide detailed descriptions of the film clips and are available in the Motion Picture, Sound, and Video Research Room at the National Archives in College Park, MD.
255 STS-13778 (Teacher Training: Meeting)
255-STS-113910 (Teacher Training: Space Station Briefing)
The seven-member crew of the Challenger Shuttle was surprisingly diverse. They were American men and women of Asian, African, and European ancestry from across the United States, including Hawaii.
Photographs available in the Still Picture Research Room include images of the individual crew members, the shuttle craft, the explosion during the launch on January 28, 1986, the recovery mission, and the members of The Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident. The National Archives expects to receive many more records from NASA in the near future.
255-CB-86-H-56: Space Shuttle Challenger atop Crawlex Transporter on its Way to Pad B, Launch Complex 39, at the Kennedy Space Center.
While the Teacher in Space Project ended following the Challenger Shuttle accident, NASA’s work with teachers has continued through its Educator Astronaut Project. The main difference is that teachers selected for the Educator Astronaut Project are required to leave their teaching careers and are trained to serve as part of NASA’s Astronaut corps. With their classroom experience, these educator astronauts explore new ways to connect space programs with classrooms.
On August 8, 2007, Barbara Morgan, who was the backup teacher for the Challenger Shuttle mission, became NASA’s first Educator Astronaut. She was assigned to the crew aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour. The Challenger crew’s spirit of adventure and love of exploration and learning clearly lives on.
The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) holds millions of photographs, motion pictures, audio-visuals, and cartographic records–special media–created by federal government agencies. The majority of the special media are preserved and made available at Archives II, the National Archives facility in College Park, Maryland. Some of these holdings are also available online at archives.gov anddocsteach.org.
Federal government agencies send their permanently valuable records to NARA after an agreed-upon time so they may be preserved and made available to the public. Special media records related to the Space Shuttle Challenger can be found in the records of:
For textual records related to the Space Shuttle Challenger, check archives.gov and National Archives facilities in College Park, MD, Philadelphia, PA, Atlanta, GA and Fort Worth, TX, as well as the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.
Many thanks to volunteers Harry Kidd who scanned records for this post, and Jan Hodgesand Jim Tomney who described them for the online Catalog. Much appreciation to Special Media staff Billy Wade, Carol Swain, and Audrey Amidon.