Categories: Spaceflight
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Published on: January 28, 2012

In Memoriam

STS-51 Patch

Twenty six years ago I was on my way to class when I decided to watch the the Challenger launch at the Student Lounge in the Science Building at the University of Texas at San Antonio.  Little did I know that the two dozen students in the lounge and myself would be among the relatively few Americans who actually saw the Challenger break apart live on CNN 73 seconds into its flight

Yes, I said “break apart”. The Challenger did not explode, at least in the in the conventional definition of that word. There was no shock wave, no detonation, no “bang”. Witnesses on the ground reported they just heard the roar of the engines stop. When the right solid rocket booster (SRB) began to leak, lateral thrust was added causing the Challenger to begin to turn. The stress on the fuel tank caused it to crumple, spilling liquid oxygen and hydrogen which formed a huge fireball at an altitude of 46,000 ft. Both SRBs climbed up out of the cloud, still firing and unharmed by any explosion. Challenger itself was torn apart as it was flung free of the fuel tank and SRBs and turned sideways at Mach 2. Several individual propellant tanks were seen exploding, but the spacecraft had already broken apart by that point.

Challenger 3-Frame SRB Leak

Pieces of Challenger continued ascending until they reached an altitude of 65,000 feet and began to fall back to Earth. The crew cabin was intact after the breakup and hit the water at 200 mph 2 minutes and 45 seconds after the break up and the crew survived the break up. The impact generated a force around 200 G’s
Destruction of the Challenger

On the night of the disaster, President Ronald Reagan had been scheduled to give his annual State of the Union address. He postponed the State of the Union address for a week and instead gave a national address on the Challenger disaster from the Oval Office of the White House. What is most remembered from his address was the quoted from the poem “High Flight” by John Gillespie Magee, Jr. at the end of the 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.’


Three days later, Reagan and his wife Nancy traveled to the Johnson Space Center in Houston to speak at a memorial service honoring the astronauts where he stated:

Sometimes, when we reach for the stars, we fall short. But we must pick ourselves up again and press on despite the pain.


Do you remember where you were when the Challenger was lost?

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