Last week was Space Week and, amid the celebrations of advances in astrophysics, astronomy and space exploration, it seems only right to also mark the 30th anniversary of the disaster involving the space shuttle Challenger. I was nine, the same age as my son is now, when Challenger exploded barely a minute into launch. Some estimate that almost one-fifth of all Americans, and closer to 50 per cent of all schoolchildren, watched the disaster unfold on TV. On board Challenger was Christa McAuliffe, who was supposed to become the first teacher in space. I remember the build-up and the excitement, the chairs circled round the television, and the shock and confusion as years of planning and seven lives exploded in front of us. I do not recall the news aftermath, but histories of the disaster confirm that there was extraordinary coverage.
Like all such disasters, the Challenger led to a period of questioning about humanity’s relationship to science and technology. The shuttle programme was temporarily discontinued and many asked whether space exploration represented hubris in action. Both Nasa and the Reagan administration launched investigations into the disaster and the agency’s funding was cut. Dark humour from the time suggests just how damaging the disaster was to Nasa’s reputation: What does Nasa stand for? Need another seven astronauts.
Space Shuttle Challenger - Wikipedia
Myth #2: Challenger exploded
The shuttle did not explode in the common definition of that word. There was no shock wave, no detonation, no "bang" — viewers on the ground just heard the roar of the engines stop as the shuttle’s fuel tank tore apart, spilling liquid oxygen and hydrogen which formed a huge fireball at an altitude of 46,000 ft. (Some television documentaries later added the sound of an explosion to these images.) But both solid-fuel strap-on boosters climbed up out of the cloud, still firing and unharmed by any explosion. Challenger itself was torn apart as it was flung free of the other rocket components and turned broadside into the Mach 2 airstream. Individual propellant tanks were seen exploding — but by then, the spacecraft was already in pieces.