Photos: The Challenger tragedy in pictures

loading photos...
  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
  1. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  2. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  3. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  4. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  1. Christa McAuliffe
    Jim Cole / AP
    Above: Slideshow (30) The Challenger tragedy in pictures
  2. Image:
    Y. Beletsky / ESO
    Slideshow (12) Month in Space: January 2014
By
updated 1/27/2011 1:32:49 PM ET 2011-01-27T18:32:49

For many, no single word evokes as much pain.

Challenger.

A quarter-century later, images of the exploding space shuttle still signify all that can go wrong with technology and the sharpest minds. The accident on Jan. 28, 1986 — a scant 73 seconds into flight, nine miles above the Atlantic for all to see — remains NASA's most visible failure.

It was the world's first high-tech catastrophe to unfold on live TV. Adding to the anguish was the young audience: Schoolchildren everywhere tuned in that morning to watch the launch of the first schoolteacher and ordinary citizen bound for space, Christa McAuliffe.

She never made it.

McAuliffe and six others on board perished as the cameras rolled, victims of stiff O-ring seals and feeble bureaucratic decisions.

It was, as one grief and trauma expert recalls, "the beginning of the age when the whole world knew what happened as it happened."

"That was kind of our pilot study for all the rest to come, I think. It was so ghastly," said Sally Karioth, a professor in Florida State University's school of nursing.

The crew compartment shot out of the fireball, intact, and continued upward another three miles before plummeting. The free fall lasted more than two minutes. There was no parachute to slow the descent, no escape system whatsoever; NASA had skipped all that in shuttle development. Space travel was considered so ordinary, in fact, that the Challenger seven wore little more than blue coveralls and skimpy motorcycle-type helmets for takeoff.

  1. 25 years after the Challenger tragedy
    1. MSNBC TV
      The saga of the shuttle Challenger

      NBC’s veteran Cape Canaveral correspondent, Jay Barbree, recounts the story of the Challenger space tragedy from start to finish in an exclusive eight-chapter series.

    2. The Challenger tragedy in pictures
    3. Grief ... and hope ... 25 years after Challenger
    4. America's wound still aches over space tragedy
    5. President and NASA honor fallen astronauts
    6. Space disasters still have lessons to teach
    7. New spaceships should be safer than shuttle
    8. Astronaut teacher still mourned in N.H. hometown
    9. First educator to orbit looks back at Challenger
    10. 7 myths about the Challenger shuttle disaster

In a horrific flash, the most diverse space crew ever — including one black, one Japanese-American and two women, one of them a Jew — was gone. The name of NASA's second oldest shuttle was forever locked in a where-were-you moment.

"You say 'Challenger' and then we see that figure of smoke in the sky," said Karioth, who teaches death and dying classes.

There has been a growing list of calamities since then.

Waco. Oklahoma City. Columbine. 9/11. Shuttle Columbia. Katrina. Virginia Tech. And now, Tucson.

With so much carnage, another space catastrophe wouldn't have the same impact as Challenger, Karioth noted. "We're used to everybody dying now," she said.

Surly bonds of Earth
The death of a young, vivacious schoolteacher, combined with NASA's stubborn refusal to share information about the accident and the realization that America's space program was fallible, added to the nation's collective pain.

President Ronald Reagan's poetic tribute soothed the day's raw emotions.

"The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives," Reagan told a grieving nation after canceling that night's State of the Union address. "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.'"

NASA safely had launched shuttles 24 times before, and a sense of routine and hurry-it-up had crept in. The space agency wanted to pull off 15 missions in 1986. Repeated delays with Columbia on that year's first flight and then with Challenger were spoiling the effort.

The first federal Martin Luther King holiday had just been observed. NASA's Voyager 2 probe, flying farther than any previous spacecraft, had swung past Uranus, discovering 10 new moons. "That's What Friends Are For," the AIDS charity anthem, topped the music charts. And a 37-year-old schoolteacher from Concord, N.H., was about to rocket into orbit.

"Imagine a history teacher making history," McAuliffe observed before the flight. She got an apple from a technician atop the ice-encrusted launch pad, before boarding Challenger one final time.

In the 20s at daybreak, the temperature had risen only into the mid-30s by the time Challenger blasted off at 11:38 a.m. "Go at throttle up," radioed commander Francis "Dick" Scobee.

What happened next was unthinkable, his widow says.

"It was really a shock wave that went across our country and around the world," June Scobee Rodgers said in an interview this week with The Associated Press. "People witnessed the loss of Challenger over and over on their televisions."

Dick Scobee. Michael Smith. Ellison Onizuka. Judith Resnik. Ronald McNair. Christa McAuliffe. Gregory Jarvis. The first of the shuttle astronauts to die on the job.

Columbia and beyond
Seventeen years later, almost to the day, seven more astronauts were killed, this time at the end of their mission. Instead of booster rockets and freezing launch weather, fuel-tank foam insulation was to blame. The similarities between Challenger and Columbia, though, were haunting. Another multiethnic crew lost, more poor decision-making, an intolerant work culture, drum-beating pressure to launch.

This week, as NASA observes the 25th anniversary of the Challenger disaster, the shuttle fleet is grounded once more. Fuel tank cracking is the latest culprit.

NASA hopes to get Discovery flying by the end of February. Endeavour — Challenger's replacement — will follow in April. It will fly with or without commander Mark Kelly, who's tending to his wounded wife, Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot Jan. 8 in Tucson. Atlantis will close out the 30-year shuttle program with a summertime flight, No. 135.

Shuttle program manager John Shannon prefers not "to compare and contrast" the Challenger era and now. But he points out that he's felt "zero pressure" to rush the remaining flights, even though "we kind of get beat up a little bit" in some quarters for all the delays.

  1. Most popular

Roger Launius, a senior curator at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, says: "When we look back 50 years from now on the shuttle program, we are going to view it as this remarkable technological achievement. The one and only reusable human space vehicle in the world. And it had a remarkable run for 30 years. Some tragedies along the way, but enormous successes as well."

For their part, the families of the lost Challenger crew dwell on the good that came out of the accident: a network of education centers. The 48th Challenger Learning Center opens Friday in Louisville, Ky.

Widower speaks out
On Thursday, Steven J. McAuliffe, the widower of Christa McAuliffe, said in a statement that remembrances by people across the country are "both comforting and inspirational to our family."

McAuliffe, a federal judge in Concord, N.H., said, "Christa confidently and joyfully embraced life, no less than her friends and colleagues on Challenger, and no less than the crews of Columbia, Apollo 1, and all of those people who courageously follow their own paths every day. I know Christa would say that that is the most precious lesson — ordinary people can make extraordinary contributions ..."

He said she would be especially pleased by the Challenger Center for Space Science Education. Dick Scobee's widow, June Rodgers, is an educator and founding board chairman of the center.

As she has on every Challenger anniversary, Rodgers will visit a learning center to watch the children in action. First, she will take part in NASA's public memorial service Friday morning at Kennedy Space Center, some 10 miles from Challenger's grave. The remains of the spacecraft — what was retrieved from the ocean — are buried in a pair of abandoned missile silos on Air Force property.

"I wonder if it's because the image is so ingrained in our brains, that it seems like yesterday," Rodgers said.

Almost as many years have passed since the accident, as the span of her 26-year marriage to Dick Scobee.

"Isn't it interesting about the number 25?" she asked softly. "Challenger was the 25th mission. This is 25 years."

A full generation has come and gone.

Mark Hamrick in Washington contributed to this report.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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.

Interactive: Remembering the Challenger crew

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments