NASA
An official portrait shows the STS-51L crew members. Back row, left to right, are mission specialist Ellison S. Onizuka, teacher Christa McAuliffe, payload specialist Greg Jarvis and mission specialist Judy Resnik. In the front row are, left to right, pilot Mike Smith, commander Dick Scobee and mission specialist Ron McNair.
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updated 1/24/2011 4:29:42 PM ET 2011-01-24T21:29:42

NASA is commemorating three space tragedies this week, which brings the 25th anniversary of the shuttle Challenger accident that killed seven astronauts. The space agency is also pausing to remember the 2003 loss of the shuttle Columbia and its crew and the earlier Apollo 1 fire that killed three astronauts.

"It just always gives us pause at this time of the year, those of us that are in the industry, to reflect on our sad experiences in the past and the lives of those that made such a great contribution to our country," said Wayne Hale, a former space shuttle program manager and flight director who was working at NASA during both space shuttle accidents.

The somber week begins on Thursday — the 44th anniversary of the day three astronauts died when a fire broke out in their Apollo 1 module during a ground test roughly a month before launch. On that day in 1967, Apollo astronauts Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom, Edward H. White II and Roger B. Chaffee perished in what was then NASA's first major tragedy.

While an accident review board never conclusively determined what ignited the fire, a series of design flaws were blamed for making the module so flammable and difficult to quickly escape from. The investigation into the disaster delayed the Apollo program by more than a year-and-a-half and led to redesigns for the Apollo module, as well as procedural changes at NASA.

"We have not forgotten the lessons from Apollo, and I sure hope we as an agency don’t forget these lessons we have learned," said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for space operations.

Challenger accident at 25
It was almost 20 years before tragedy struck NASA again. This time it was during a launch — the first in-flight calamity the space agency had experienced.

Seven astronauts died when the space shuttle Challenger broke apart 73 seconds after lifting off on the orbiter's 10th flight on Jan. 28, 1986. Among those killed was teacher Christa McAuliffe — NASA's very first educator astronaut. Before being selected for the special educator program, McAuliffe taught social studies at Concord High School in New Hampshire.

"They're both very personal events for us in the agency because it's not just our co-workers, but it's also our friends that perished in these events," Gerstenmaier said of the two shuttle accidents. "I think the mood is a time to reflect back on the things we're doing and think about the way we do things … what things we can learn from both of these events that we can carry forward."

That calamity halted the shuttle program for almost three years while NASA studied what went wrong and worked to get back on track.

The source of the accident was traced to the exceptionally cold weather, which caused a seal called an O-ring on one of the shuttle's twin solid rocket boosters to fail at liftoff.

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When hot gas escaped from the solid rocket motor, it damaged the attachment between the booster and the orbiter, eventually causing the adjacent external fuel tank to explode. Ultimately, Challenger disintegrated, and the astronauts were killed when their crew cabin impacted the Atlantic Ocean.

This was also NASA's first disaster to take place on live television.

Millions were watching when astronauts Francis "Dick" Scobee, Ron McNair, Mike Smith, Ellison Onizuka, Judy Resnik, Greg Jarvis and McAuliffe were killed. The presence of McAuliffe — a civilian and a teacher — on the Challenger increased the public interest in the flight.

"The Challenger crew was doing something wonderful for all of us and it has to do with education and opening doors for our young people and all of us for the future," said Barbara Morgan, McAuliffe's backup, who later went on to fly on the shuttle Endeavour in August 2007. "It was devastating."

Columbia's final flight
NASA's most recent space tragedy occurred Feb. 1, 2003, when seven astronauts lost their lives as the space shuttle Columbia attempted to return home to end the STS-107 mission. Commander Rick Husband, pilot William McCool, mission specialists Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Clark, David Brown, payload commander Michael Anderson and Ilan Ramon, Israel's first astronaut, were killed when the orbiter's damaged heat shield failed to protect it from the heat of re-entry into Earth's atmosphere.

Later analysis revealed that a bit of foam insulation from Columbia's fuel tank broke off during launch and impacted the orbiter's left wing, causing the vehicle to break up as it flew over Texas.

"I think the real underlying lesson is, our business is not easy," Gerstenmaier told Space.com. "The things we do are very unforgiving. Very small, minor details count a lot and you really have to pay attention to those and really work those hard."

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He said it was important for the memory of these tragedies to shape the direction of NASA in the future.

"One of the best ways we can honor the sacrifice of our friends is to keep moving forward in the exploration of space," Gerstenmaier said.

NASA is planning a series of memorials for the tragedies this year, including a ceremony on Jan. 28 at 9 a.m. ET at the agency's Kennedy Space Center Visitor's Complex in Florida, where NASA leaders, astronauts and June Scobee Rodgers, widow of Challenger commander Dick Scobee, will speak. The service will be broadcast live on NASA TV, which is available here: http://www.nasa.gov/ntv

You can follow SPACE.com senior writer Clara Moskowitz on Twitter @ ClaraMoskowitz. Return to Space.com each day this week for a closer look at the 25th anniversary of the Challenger space shuttle disaster.

© 2013 Space.com. All rights reserved. More from Space.com.

Photos: The Challenger tragedy in pictures

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  1. From joy to tragedy

    The shuttle Challenger's mission in 1986 was meant to mark a milestone in spaceflight: the first orbital voyage of an American teacher. NASA's choice for the honor was Christa McAuliffe, a social-studies teacher at Concord High School in New Hampshire. Here, McAuliffe rides past the New Hampshire State House in Concord with her daughter Caroline and son Scott, during a Lions Club parade on July 21, 1985. (Jim Cole / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Packing for Houston

    High-school teacher Christa McAuliffe folds her training uniform as she packs for the trip to Johnson Space Center in Houston on Sept. 8, 1985. (Jim Cole / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Preparing Challenger

    The space shuttle Challenger is transferred to the high bay of the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Dec. 17, 1985. Inside the cavernous VAB, the Challenger orbiter was mated with its solid rocket boosters and external tank in preparation for its launch a month later. (Terry Renna / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Zero-G and she feels fine

    Christa McAuliffe gets a preview of microgravity on NASA's specially equipped KC-135 "zero gravity" aircraft on Jan. 13, 1986. The plane flies in a parabolic pattern that provides short periods of weightlessness. For some people, those bouts of zero-G can induce nausea - which is why the airplane was nicknamed the "Vomit Comet." (Science & Society Picture Library / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. To the launch pad

    The shuttle Challenger is delivered to its launch pad at NASA's Kennedy Space Center atop a mobile crawler-transporter. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Practicing for an escape

    Challenger's crew members practice the procedure for escaping from the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center using slide wire baskets. From left are Ronald McNair, Gregory Jarvis and Christa McAuliffe. Directly behind them are astronauts Judy Resnik and Ellison Onizuka. The basket system was designed to take the astronauts off the pad quickly if an emergency arose just before launch. (NASA Headquarters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Ready for flight

    Challenger's crew members stand in the White Room at Launch Pad 39B after a dress rehearsal for launch. From left are Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Judy Resnik, commander Dick Scobee, Ronald McNair, pilot Michael Smith and Ellison Onizuka. (NASA Headquarters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Heading for the pad

    Challenger's crew members leave their quarters at Kennedy Space Center for the launch pad on Jan. 27, 1986. Commander Dick Scobee is at the front of the line, followed by Judy Resnick, Ronald McNair, Gregory Jarvis, Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe and pilot Michael Smith. NASA had to scrub the launch attempt on Jan. 27, due to high winds at the pad, and liftoff was rescheduled for Jan. 28. (Steve Helber / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. The first sign of trouble

    A launch-pad camera captures a close-up view of the shuttle Challenger's liftoff on Jan. 28, 1986. From this camera position, a cloud of gray-brown smoke can be seen on the right side of the solid rocket booster, directly across from the letter "U" in "United States" on the orbiter. This was the first visible sign that a breach in the booster's joint may have occurred. Investigators determined that frigid overnight temperatures caused the booster joints' normally pliable rubber O-ring seals to become hard and non-flexible. The failure of the seals caused hot exhaust gases to blow through the joints, cutting into the external fuel tank. (NASA Headquarters) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Liftoff!

    A wide-angle view shows the ascent of the shuttle Challenger on Jan. 28, 1986. In the seconds after ignition, the rocket engines' hot blast began the process of destruction. (NASA Headquarters) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Ice at the pad

    Why did the O-rings fail? On the day of the shuttle Challenger's launch, icicles draped structures at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The unusually cold weather, beyond the tolerances for which the rubber seals were approved, most likely caused the O-ring failure. (NASA Headquarters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Watching the launch

    Classmates of the son of America's first teacher-astronaut cheer as the space shuttle Challenger lifts skyward from Launch Pad 39B on Jan. 28, 1986. Their delight turned to horror as the shuttle exploded 73 seconds into flight. The boy in the white hat and glasses at center is Peter Billingsley, the star of "A Christmas Story" and a spokesman for the young astronaut program. (Jim Cole / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. The final seconds

    The right solid rocket booster on the shuttle Challenger begins to explode, just a little more than a minute into the shuttle's ascent from NASA's Kennedy Space Center on Jan. 28, 1986. (NASA via AFP-Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Moment of tragedy

    An orange fireball marks the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger on Jan. 28, 1986. (Bruce Weaver / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Remains of the rockets

    At about 76 seconds, fragments of the orbiter can be seen tumbling against a background of fire, smoke and vaporized propellants from Challenger's external fuel tank. The left solid rocket booster is still shooting skyward. A reddish-brown cloud envelops the disintegrating orbiter. The color is indicative of the nitrogen tetroxide oxidizer propellant in the orbiter's reaction control system. (NASA Headquarters) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Flying fragments

    This picture, released by the presidential commission that investigated the Challenger tragedy, shows fragments of the orbiter flying away from the explosion on Jan. 28, 1986, 78 seconds after liftoff. The top arrow shows the orbiter's left wing. The center arrow shows the orbiter's main engine; and the bottom arrow shows the orbiter's forward fuselage. Investigators suggested that some of Challenger's crew members may have survived the explosion itself but died in the fall down to Earth. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. The tragedy sinks in

    Flight director Jay Greene studies data at his console inside Johnson Space Center's Mission Control Center in Texas, just minutes after the announcement that Challenger's ascent was not nominal. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. A family's sorrow

    Members of teacher-astronaut Christa McAuliffe's family react shortly after the failed liftoff of the space shuttle Challenger from NASA's Kennedy Space Center on Jan. 28, 1986. Christa's sister, Betsy, is in front, with parents Grace and Ed Corrigan behind. (Jim Cole / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Death of a celebration

    Carina Dolcino, senior class president at Concord High School, is stunned by the news that the space shuttle carrying Christa McAuliffe, one of the school's teachers, exploded after launch on Jan. 28, 1986. Students watched the launch on television sets scattered throughout the school in Concord, N.H., and a celebration had been planned for a successful liftoff. (Ken Williams / Concord Monitor via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. White House watch

    President Ronald Reagan, center, is surrounded by members of his senior staff on Feb. 3, 1986, as he watches a TV replay of the Challenger shuttle explosion at the White House. From left are Larry Speakes, deputy White House press secretary; presidential assistant Dennis Thomas; special assistant Jim Kuhn; Reagan; White House communications director Patrick Buchanan; and chief of staff Donald Regan. (Peter Souza / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Sympathy at school

    Lisa Mitten of Concord, N.H., wipes tears from her eyes as her daughter Jessica reads some of the letters of sympathy that were on display at Concord High School on Feb. 1, 1986. Hundreds of Concord residents visited the school library to see the many telegrams and letters that were sent from all over the United States. (Toby Talbot / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Recovering debris

    Debris from the ill-fated shuttle Challenger is unloaded from the Coast Guard cutter Dallas during February 1986. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. A piece of Challenger

    For weeks after the accident, search and recovery teams went out to retrieve Challenger debris from the Atlantic Ocean, with the help of the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Navy. Vessels brought pieces of debris to the Trident Basin at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, from which they were shipped to Kennedy Space Center for investigation. The Coast Guard cutter Dallas transported this fragment of exterior tiling. (NASA Headquarters) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Retrieved from the ocean

    A piece of debris from the space shuttle Challenger is hoisted onto the deck of the Stena Workhorse off the coast of Florida during a recovery mission. (Time & Life Pictures via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Farewell to the fallen

    The remains of the shuttle Challenger's seven crew members are transferred from seven hearses to a MAC C-141 transport plane at the Kennedy Space Center's Shuttle Landing Facility, for transport to Dover Air Force Base, Del. (NASA Headquarters) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. In memoriam

    President Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy, stand with the wife of astronaut Michael Smith and other family members at a memorial service for the victims of the Challenger disaster. (Diana Walker / Time & Life Pictures via Getty Image) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Grim investigation

    Apollo 11 moonwalker Neil Armstrong, a member of the presidential panel investigating the Challenger explosion, listens to testimony before the commission in Washington on Feb. 11, 1986. Another commission member, David Acheson, listens in the background. A model of the space shuttle sits on the table. (Scott Stewart / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Solving the puzzle

    Search and recovery teams located pieces of both the left and right sidewall of the shuttle Challenger during the months-long retrieval effort that followed the explosion on Jan. 28, 1986. Heat and fire damage scarred the right sidewall. But the left sidewall, depicted here, escaped the flames and suffered only from overload fractures and deep gouge marks. The largest intact piece formed part of the payload bay sidewall and measured approximately 30 by 12 feet. (NASA Headquarters) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Washed ashore

    Some pieces of the shuttle Challenger did not surface until long after the explosion. A tractor carries one of the shuttle's elevons after it washed ashore on Cocoa Beach, Fla., on Dec. 17, 1996 ... almost 11 years after the loss of Challenger and its crew. (AFP-Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Day of remembrance

    Every January, NASA recalls the Challenger explosion as well as other space tragedies on a "Day of Remembrance." Here, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe lays a wreath at the Space Shuttle Challenger Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia on Jan. 28, 2003. O'Keefe also paid tribute to the three astronauts of Apollo 1 who died in a launch pad fire on Jan. 27, 1967. Sadly, seven more astronauts died just days after this picture was taken, on Feb. 1, 2003, when the shuttle Columbia broke up during re-entry. (Bill Ingalls / NASA via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Christa McAuliffe
    Jim Cole / AP
    Above: Slideshow (30) The Challenger tragedy in pictures
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    Slideshow (12) Month in Space: January 2014

Interactive: Remembering the Challenger crew

Video: 25 years after Challenger, teacher’s words still resonate

  1. Closed captioning of: 25 years after Challenger, teacher’s words still resonate

    >>> as nasa prepares to retire its space shut hadal fleet this year this week marks a somber anniversary that reminds us while shuttle flights became come mop, they never became routine. it was 25 years ago this coming friday the shuttle "challenger" exploded over florida, killing all seven crew members, including a new hampshire high school teacher. christa mcauliffe had had hoped to take teaching to new heights but despite the tragedy, her mission continues today.

    >> this was her last visit to our school.

    >> christa mcauliffe was the kind of teacher everyone wanted to v.

    >> let's hear from it. wila's group back there.

    >> reporter: and the kind of teach michaela pond aspires to be.

    >> i was so sad i never got to take her class my senior year because would you walk by her classroom and you would see her jumping off desks and making thens come alive and could you hear her laugh.

    >> reporter: now teaching in arlington, virginia, hahn was a student at concord high school in new hampshire when christa mcauliffe was chosen by nasa from among some 11,000 applicants to become the first teacher in space .

    >> to hear that there's going to be a way to talk to a teacher in space , this was all new ideas and how does that happen?

    >> reporter: mcauliffe trained for a year with the crew of the "challenger" and prepared a series of lesson plans she would teach from orbit.

    >> t minus ten.

    >> reporter: her dream, to inspire students to literally reach for the stars .

    >> we have main engine start.

    >> reporter: mary liscomb studied teaching with christa . teaching is something that i think christa was born to do.

    >> roger, "challenger."

    >> reporter: but fate interveeped on a cold january morning.

    >> "challenger," go at throttle up.

    >> reporter: all seven crew members perished went "challenger" exploded 73 seconds after liftoff. of course, christa mcauliffe never got to teach those lessons from space but after all these years, she has reached more classrooms and more students than she likely ever imagined.

    >> we acknowledge, we are standing by.

    >> reporter: in mcauliffe 's native massachusetts and some 50 other places, "challenger" learning centers are continuing the educational mission mcauliffe and her crewmates started. at the "challenger" center, students and often teachers embark on simulated space missions . the aim, to create excitement about math, science and space in schools and demonstrate the value of team work, the very things mcauliffe and the "challenger" crew had had hoped to accomplish.

    >> see how her legacy through this is teaching children,cooperate, how to communicate, to love math and science. it makes science and technology relatable.

    >> here is a teacher who took a risk. it didn't turn out the way she expected, but the high hopes she had for education impact all of them every day. they, too, can reach for the stars .

    >> reporter: today there are dozens of schools around the world named after christa mcauliffe , but there are countless teachers who have turned her life's story into a teachable moment.

    >> i always say there's nothing you can't do, you just have to try. and i try to talk in the way i know that christa inspired her students.

    >> there's more on the legacy of christa mcauliffe and the challenger crew our website, nightly.msnbc.com.

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