Remembering Challenger’s crew

Thirty years ago today, on 28 January 1986, Space Shuttle Challenger launched from Kennedy Space Center on a planned mission to deploy a data relay satellite and carry out several science experiments, including observations of Halley's Comet.

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The Forever Remembered memorial at Kennedy Space Center pays tribute to the 14 astronauts who lost their lives in the Challenger and Columbia disasters. Credit: C. Bramley

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Seventy-three seconds after lift-off, Challenger disintegrated at an altitude of 15km, with the loss of all seven of its crew members.

Six months later, the cause of the destruction was identified as a failed O-ring seal in the Shuttle’s right-hand solid rocket booster, which allowed hot gas out to eventually burn through the external fuel tank.

As a result of the disaster, the Shuttle programme was halted for almost three years while the recommendations of a special commission set up by President Reagan were put in place.

These included an engineering redesign of the solid rocket boosters and organisational changes in management, staff and contractor relations.

The Space Shuttle was to fly again on 29 September 1988 when Space Shuttle Discovery launched on a successful mission, and was to carry on without a major interruption until the Columbia disaster in 2003.

The 14 crew who lost their lives in both tragedies are remembered at the Kennedy Space Center’s Atlantis exhibit.

Here, underneath the decommissioned Space Shuttle, is a permanent memorial to the crew of STS-51L and STS-107.

Items from the personal and professional lives of each of the astronauts are on display in cases on each side of a long, wide, sensitively lit corridor.

It’s an emotional experience to look at the memories of these lives lost in the pursuit of scientific exploration, particularly as items offer a glimpse into the lives behind the names on the mission patches.

It’s touching to see STS 107 Commander Rick Husband’s cowboy boots, Payload Commander Michael Anderson’s Star Trek lunch box, or STS-51L Mission Specialist Ronald McNair’s karate gi, black belt and katana.

Outside, Kennedy Space Center buzzes with excited visitors marvelling at the successes of missions like Gemini and Apollo, and poring over exhibits about the future exploration of Mars.

But in this quiet corner of the Atlantis exhibit is a reminder that sometimes the achievement of such historic feats comes at the ultimate cost.

The seven crew of STS  51L who died in the Challenger disaster were Commander Francis Scobee, Pilot Michael Smith, Mission Specialists Judith Resnik, Ellison Onizuka and Ronald McNair, and Payload Specialists Gregory Jarvis and Christa McAuliffe, a New Hampshire schoolteacher.

The seven crew of STS 107 who lost their lives in the Columbia disaster were Commander Rick Husband, Pilot Willie McCool, Payload Commander Michael Anderson, Mission Specialists Kalpana Chawla, David Brown and Laurel Clark, and Payload Specialist Ilan Ramon, Israel’s first astronaut.


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