28 Years Ago: A Nation Stunned by Space Shuttle Challenger’s Explosion

Today in history….

Challenger CrewJanuary 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger lifts off from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The first U.S. non-military, ordinary civilian to have the honor to travel into space is school teacher Christa McAuliffe. Ms. McAuliffe had won a contest for teachers in space.  Crew members: Christa McAuliffe, Dick Scobee, Mike Smith, Ron McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Gregory Jarvis.

Seventy-three seconds into the launch,  Christa’s family and hundreds others, “stared in disbelief as the shuttle exploded in a forking plume of smoke and fire. Millions more watched the wrenching tragedy unfold on live television. There were no survivors.”

On the night of the disaster, President Ronald Reagan was to give his annual State of the Union address, but it was postponed for a week and President Reagan instead addressed the nation on the Challenger disaster from the Oval Office.  President Reagan ended his speech with a line from the poem High Flight written by 19-year-old Royal Canadian Air Force fighter and United States Citizen. The last line of Reagan’s speech is a quote of the poem, “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.’

The memorial service for the challenger crew was attended by 6,000 NASA employees and 4,000 guests, as well as family. Many may not remember that there was a Presidential Commission Committee created to investigate the Challenger disaster. The committee members were: Chairman William P. Rogers, Vice Chairman Neil Armstrong, David Acheson, Eugene Covert, Richard Feynman, Robert Hotz, Donald Kutyna, Sally Ride, Robert Rummel, Joseph Sutter, Arthur Walker, Albert Wheelon, and Chuck Yeager.  The committee discovered it was the O-rings that didn’t seal a joint on the right rocket booster.  Even more disturbing was that the defect had been known since the late 70’s but was never disclosed by NASA and listed as “an acceptable flight risk”.

It should be noted that the Challenger disaster brought about the creation of the Office of Safety, Reliability and Quality Assurance by NASA and The families of the Challenger crew organized the Challenger Center for Space Science Education as a permanent memorial to the crew.

A transcription of the poem: High Flight

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds,—and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of—wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air. . . .

Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark nor ever eagle flew—
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

© All Rights Reserved 


6 thoughts on “28 Years Ago: A Nation Stunned by Space Shuttle Challenger’s Explosion

  1. I thought this poem might interest you:


    Their tomb is the sky
    they inhabit and sanction
    faces of cloud
    over Canaveral

    Spirits of the cape
    protect us, lift us
    to velocities of absolute light

    —Richard O’Connell

    from The Caliban Poems, Atlantis Editions, Boca Raton, 1992

  2. EXCELLENT tribute and homage paid to a courageous and amazing group of Americans, inclusive of one the most Beloved and reviled Presidents of this still great Nation.
    Thank you, Babette, for your constant reminders of our inherent Greatness as a Nation of diverse peoples, called to a singular purpose: Growing and Building upon the marvelous works of our forebears that which Honors God.

  3. I remember watching the launch with my mother in Colorado Springs….we were involved with school teacher Christa McAuliffe through some of my mother’s charity work. Our delight at the launch’s start that turned to horror was a moment neither of us will forget. As we held each other and cried we both wondered if America’s space program was doomed. When later we heard the inspiring words of Ronald Reagan we knew that OUR America would overcome the setback and emerge stronger and wiser. Reagan was a leader of men by pointing out their strengths, by focusing our natural optimism to positive results, by including everyone in the bounty and the results. I’m afraid that a similar event today would only draw division from the White House….finger pointing and blame. We did lose another shuttle and the men and women of our space program accepted the risks and STILL got the job done…….here’s to the memories of those we lost and to the kind prophetic words Mr Reagan shared.

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