sts 51l

In this image, Space Shuttle Challenger waits on Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center before its first mission, STS-6, launched on April 4, 1983. Originally built as a test vehicle, in 1979 NASA issued a contract to convert it to a fully space-rated orbiter. It became the second operational Shuttle, delivered to Kennedy Space Center in July 1982. Challenger was destroyed shortly after lift off on her 10th mission, STS-51L, on January 28, 1986.

Image credit: NASA

The Challenger Disaster, 30 years later

Please stop in your day and take a moment to remember the Crew of STS-51L, who all perished on this day, January 28, 1986.  Pictured here, the crew pose for their official portrait on November 15, 1985. In the back row from left to right: Ellison S. Onizuka, Sharon Christa McAuliffe, Greg Jarvis, and Judy Resnik. In the front row from left to right: Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee, and Ron McNair.  The shuttle they flew was called the Challenger: a challenger was someone who defied expectations, who disputed what could be done or what was known, who attempted a difficult task or problem.  These seven people did not see space as an empty void but rather as the next step in a series of steps ever upward, ad astra.  It was for them not a challenge at all but a privilege to fly, and they did so willingly, hopefully, happily, taking all of our hopes and dreams with them.  I watched this launch live with my high school science teacher Terry Uselton (who had applied for the Teacher in Space program) and remember both the excitement and promise that morning and the horrible aftermath.  

To these seven people and their families, I say thank you for daring to challenge us all with your determination and bravery.  And to the tens of thousands at NASA and its contractors and affiliates around the world, I say thank you for devoting your lives to science to make my life and world better.  And to Terry Uselton, thanks, Teach, I’m still working in my own way on science!

Image courtesy NASA, in the public domain.

Remembering the Space Shuttle Challenger: The Teacher in Space Project:

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.

Click through the slideshow for more information about the photographs.

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

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 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.

Additional Resources:

via The Challenger’s Teacher in Space Project: Photos and Video | The Unwritten Record

Remembering the crew of STS-51L.

51L-S-156 (28 Jan. 1986) — The space shuttle Challenger lifted off from Pad 39B Jan. 28, 1986 at 11:38 a.m. (EST) with a crew of seven astronauts and the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS). An accident 73 seconds after liftoff claimed both crew and vehicle. Photo credit: NASA

Astronauts Story Musgrave, left, and Don Peterson float in the cargo bay of the Earth-orbiting space shuttle Challenger during their April 7, 1983, spacewalk on the STS-6 mission. Their “floating” is restricted via tethers to safety slide wires. Thanks to the tether and slide wire combination, Peterson is able to translate, or move, along the port side hand rails.

First called STA-099, Challenger was built to serve as a test vehicle for the Space Shuttle program. Challenger, the second orbiter to join NASA’s Space Shuttle fleet, arrived at Kennedy Space Center in Florida in July 1982.

Challenger launched on her maiden voyage, STS-6, on April 4, 1983 and saw the first spacewalk of the shuttle program, as well as the deployment of the first satellite–the Tracking and Data Relay System. The orbiter launched the first American woman, Sally Ride, into space on mission STS-7 and was the first to carry two U.S. female astronauts on mission STS-41-G.

The first orbiter to launch and land at night on mission STS-8, Challenger also made the first Space Shuttle landing at Kennedy Space Center, concluding mission STS 41-B. Spacelabs 2 and 3 flew aboard the ship on missions STS 51-F and STS 51-B, as did the first German-dedicated Spacelab on STS 61-A. A host of scientific experiments and satellite deployments were performed during Challenger’s missions.

Challenger’s service to America’s space program ended in tragedy on Jan. 28, 1986. Just 73 seconds into mission STS-51L, a booster failure caused an explosion that resulted in the loss of seven astronauts, as well as the vehicle.