Challenger Disaster – One of the Darkest Events in America’s History


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On the chilly Tuesday morning of January 28, 1986, the world watched in delight and excitement as the Challenger rocketed up from its launch pad. Millions were tuned in on their televisions and more were at Cape Canaveral witnessing it with their own eyes. Little did everyone know, their expressions of joy would soon turn into screams of horror. Seventy-three seconds after launch, the Challenger exploded, killing all seven crew members, including the first citizen ever launched into space, scientist and teacher, Sharon “Christa” McAuliffe. At first, people were confused at what happened or were cheering because they thought that was a part of the launch. However, they all quickly realized what had occurred and were left in states of shock and terror. These were the first American deaths in space, so this tragedy changed the entire nation. These seventy-three seconds affected NASA and how it dealt with space travel, they changed the world’s view on the risks and rewards of launching shuttles, and they caused all Americans to come together and grieve. Due to the Challenger explosion, NASA had to take a huge step back and rethink how they handled shuttle launches and safety protocols for all spaceships. This was the first time crew members were killed in a space vehicle, so it was obvious that they needed to find out what happened and prevent it from occurring on other missions.

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When the Challenger exploded, it caused NASA’s fleet to go from three to four, and it forced all other important shuttle missions to be put on hold or canceled. After the accident, NASA took it upon themselves to learn from their mistakes and make space travel a lot safer. These changes however, didn’t stop the backlash towards NASA ignoring serious problems that were found in the Challenger from coming up. NASA technicians allowed defective O-rings, rubber seals in the two rocket boosters, to be used on the shuttle. These rings eventually allowed heat to escape, which turned the Challenger into a giant, ticking time bomb. Jo Ann Jacobs-Priest, who was a human resources manager at the time and watched the event live, said that, “Once I had figured out that NASA basically knew most of the problems with the Challenger, that made me angry.”

In the years following Challenger, NASA has had problems with creating goals, but not having enough funds to reach said goals, and this has been an ongoing issue, even today! The Challenger has been a dark cloud over NASA for decades and it doesn’t look like the storm will lift anytime soon. The Challenger not only put a dark cloud over NASA, it also put a cloud over the morale of the world when it comes to space travel. Before the explosion, the world was beginning to take launches for granted, so much so that a shuttle blowing up was never even thought of and people always expected a mission to be a success. The Challenger caused everyone’s confidence to come back down to Earth. That’s why when it blew up, the crowd at Cape Canaveral initially cheered or was confused; they had never thought at any moment something could go wrong, so they thought it was all a part of the launch. Obviously, after a couple minutes passed, people started to realize what had happened. Millions were in shock, not believing what they had just saw. People had forgotten the real risk of sending people into space. Something could go wrong at any second and everything could fall apart. From then on, people started questioning whether or not the reward for a successful mission was worth the extreme risk that space travel presented. Launching unmanned spacecraft is the more popular option today. We can explore deep parts of space and the planets around us without having to risk lives.

There was one good thing to come out of the Challenger tragedy however. It brought all of America together. The only other time America was fully united in grief would be the terrorist attacks on 9/11. This explosion made our nation stand together and honor those who died doing what they loved. The Challenger did weaken America’s pride, but everyone came together to prove to the world that in our darkest hours, we become even stronger than we were before. This does not mean that we were able to move past it quickly though. My aunt stated that, “…it took me months, maybe even a year, to fully get over the explosion.” Relatives of the victims are still grieving today, and will most likely never stop. They deserve to though, someone they loved and cared for was killed due to NASA’s neglect of safety protocols and their deaths could have been easily prevented. The disaster also saddened teachers, students, and administrators everywhere. The fact that Christa McAuliffe could have easily been any of the other 11,000 teachers that participated in the Teachers in Space program shook schools nationwide. My aunt at the time was a teacher and she said that, “…being a teacher made the tragedy that much harder to deal with. It could have been one of my co-workers, or teachers from other schools that I knew! I grieved not only for Christa, but for the school she worked for. I can’t even fathom what Christa’s students were going through. That school had to watch live as their co-worker, teacher, and friend was killed. That is absolutely tragic.”

Not many tragedies have hit America harder than the Challenger disaster, but all the world can do today is rewatch the live footage of the explosion and learn from our mistakes. Those seven crew members could have easily made it into space and could be here to tell their fascinating story to classrooms across the nation, but because of numerous poor decisions, rushing to get the shuttle in the sky, and ignoring potential problems with the spacecraft, innocent lives were lost. As a result of these circumstances, NASA had to create many new safety features and protocols for all shuttles and launches, space travel was taken much seriously globally, and America was thrown into some of its darkest hours. The Challenger is, and has always been, a reminder as to how dangerous the journey into space can be, and how nothing in this world is guaranteed and anything can go wrong at any time. For Challenger’s crew, their families, NASA, American schools, and people globally, that time was 11:39 AM, Tuesday morning on January 28th, 1986.

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