They slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God

Twenty two years ago today, the Challenger Space Shuttle, designation STS-51-L, broke apart shortly after launch, due to a cracked O-Ring in the right solid rocket booster, costing the lives of the seven crew members on board the orbiter.

The Challenger was the second orbiter to be put into service for NASA, following Columbia, in April of 1983. The shuttle was slightly different than the Columbia, having been constructed based off of a test platform (to save costs), and integrated some new technologies that had not been used earlier. It was also lighter, which allowed it to carry a larger payload than its predecessor. Over the three years of its life, the shuttle flew nine successful missions.

The excitement for this mission was part of a move from NASA to try an invigorate the agency’s image, and to do so, they selected a school teacher, Christa McAuliffe, to participate in the mission, who would broadcast lessons down to the classroom from orbit. The rest of the mission called for a satellite deployment to study the Halley Comet, as well as several other scientific experiments.

The mission failed because of what has been alleged as gross negligence on the part of the Agency, in their haste to maintain a launch schedule. On the launch day, temperatures around launch site had dropped to just under freezing. The launch had already been delayed a couple of times due to equipment problems and poor weather. The sub-freezing temperatures are thought to have caused one of the o-rings, leaking fuel and ultimately destroying the orbiter.

As congress discovered, this was an accident that could have been prevented. Had the mission commanders not pushed to maintain an unreasonable schedule, listened to weather reports and what technicians told them about problems with the O-Rings, the seven astronauts, “Dick” Scobee, Michael J. Smith, Judith ResnikEllison Onizuka, Ronald McNair, Gregory Jarvis and Christa McAuliffe, would likely be alive today.

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