30 years and 73 seconds: The Challenger disaster

Thirty years ago, the space shuttle Challenger exploded over Kennedy Space Center. 9NEWS explores how that day affected Coloradans, as well as the nation as a whole, and what space programs have done since then to make space travel safer.

The space shuttle Challenger exploded over Cape Canaveral 30 years ago this week. 9NEWS.com. 1/24/2016.

KUSA - On Jan. 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded over Kennedy Space Center. Debris from the orbiter fell to Earth.

The US space shuttle exploded 73 seconds after lift-off, killing its crew of seven. The Challenger was traveling at nearly 2,000 mph at a height of 10 miles when the explosion happened. Suddenly, it was enveloped in a red, orange and white fireball as thousands of tons of liquid hydrogen and oxygen fuel exploded.

The Challenger disaster was not the first time lives were lost in the pursuit of space, and it, unfortunately, was not the last. But, it was arguably the toughest for the nation to absorb. Space is such a big place, and it holds so many mysteries, and trying to solve those mysteries involved stories of wonder. 

On Jan. 23 and Jan. 24, 9NEWS aired a 30-minute special to honor the 30th anniversary of the Challenger disaster. 9NEWS Anchor Gary Shapiro and Photojournalist Manny Sotelo were at Cape Canaveral when the space shuttle exploded. On Sunday, Feb. 7 at 6 p.m., the 30-minute special will reair.


Boulder classroom witnesses Challenger disaster firsthand

Checking on the class three decades later

9NEWS was at the Challenger launch, covering several important Colorado connections to the mission. Traveling with a group of elementary school students and teachers from Boulder County who won a contest sponsored by Ball Aerospace, they got a chance to go to Florida to see the shuttle launch. 

The trip started so well. The kids got to go to Epcot and play tourists for the day. There were a lot of firsts for many of the students: First big trip, first plane ride, first time away from home, and, of course, the first time to see a space shuttle launch.

After several weather delays, the group went to the viewing area on the very cold morning. They were wrapped in blankets. Some even wore socks on their hands to keep warm. 

But after the Challenger lifted off to oohs and aahs, the magical moment turned so sad very suddenly. Seventy-three seconds into the flight, they saw a flash in the sky. The class was confused about what happened until an announcement was made over the speaker system: "The vehicle has exploded." There was silence, followed by more confusion and then, finally, tears.

"We had to keep it together for the kids," Bill Dennler, their teacher, said. "I remember walking down along the ocean, looking up where the explosion occurred, and the cloud was still hanging there even after two hours. And I just cried."

The cause of the explosion was determined to be a failed rubber seal on the solid rocket booster called an O-ring. The company that made it had warned NASA that it wasn't designed to be used in very cold weather and could fail. NASA decided to launch anyway.


Two years later, after investigations and criticism of how it handled the Challenger launch, NASA was ready to "return to space." The O-rings were redesigned, and NASA procedures were reworked. The Space Shuttle Discovery was ready to go up, and Ball Aerospace took the same group of Colorado students and teachers back to watch it. 

As Discovery climbed into the blue Florida sky, the kids, teachers and nation were holding their breath. All went well, and it seemed like a bit of closure for America. 

Now, three decades later, the kids are in their 40s, some with kids of their own. They have forged a very special bond over the years. 

9NEWS spoke to some of them about their experience as "shuttle kids."

The class was confused about what happened until an announcement was made over the speaker system: "The vehicle has exploded." 9NEWS.com. 1/24/2016.

They talked about how quickly they had to grow up and how difficult it was to deal with it. Some mentioned how it was their first brush with mortality.

However, they said the Challenger disaster helped forge their career paths and has not affected their excitement about space exploration. 

CU's connection to the Challenger

CU alumnus Ellison Onizuka was on the mission

The Challenger explosion affected many communities, and one such community was the University of Colorado-Boulder. CU had several connections to the mission. 

One of the days leading up to the launch had been declared CU Day at the Cape. VIPs ranging from the president of the university to members of the board of regents to state legislators and school alumni had made the trip to watch the historic event.

Crew member and astronaut Ellison Onizuka had attended CU for his undergraduate and postgraduate work. 

CU had also designed and built a satellite on board called Spartan Halley. It was going to study Halley's Comet which came around only once every 76 years. Dr. Alan Stern was a young project scientist for CU during the Challenger mission. He went on to become a well-known planetary scientist and recently led the highly acclaimed New Horizons Project to study Pluto. 

He was at the Cape when the Challenger disaster happened, too. He had worked closely with the crew on the Spartan Halley experiments and was deeply affected by the tragedy.

"For my friends who lost their lives on Challenger, for the loss of an opportunity to study Halley's Comet, that is all tragic," Dr. Stern recalled. "But I hope that some of the things that I've accomplished and some of the rest of us have accomplished since then can pay tribute to their sacrifice."

The Challenger disaster had a big impact on CU's aerospace program as both a setback and inspiration to carry on with future research. Just outside the aerospace engineering complex on CU's campus is a plaque memorializing Ellison Onizuka as a "graduate, astronaut and friend."

Science after the explosion

Soul searching after the Challenger

The explosion changed NASA forever. 9NEWS.com. 1/24/2016.

In the skies above, Challenger took the lives of its crew. Back on the ground, it took something else – a piece of the soul of aerospace in America.

For the agency in charge of America's space exploration, the Challenger accident was a first in many respects, and that day changed NASA forever. 

"It was our first real accident in space," Jim Voss, a former NASA Shuttle astronaut, who flew five shuttle missions and lived on the International Space Station for six months, said. "We had things happen on the ground before, but this was the first one where we lost a vehicle -- and we didn't think that we ever would."

Voss now teaches at CU-Boulder. The day of the Challenger explosion, he was at Cape Canaveral.

"I was with the families, actually, when this happened, and so it was a terrible thing," Voss said. "I'll never forget it."

After the initial shock of the accident wore off, NASA underwent deep soul-searching as it looked at what happened and how things could have gone wrong so catastrophically.

"We learned a lot from it – not just about the hardware, but about the people that were involved in the decisions that were made, the maintenance of our vehicles, how we try to make them safe," Voss said.

Then, it was back to work, sending science experiments up with crews on the remaining space shuttles. Those experiments included some conducted at BioServe Space Technologies at CU-Boulder.

"From micro-biology, looking at bacteria and fungal cultures – to cell and tissue cultures, to whole organisms and animals that are used for preclinical research," Louis Stodieck, BioServe Space Technologies' director, said.

BioServe began in 1987. Back then, the shuttle program was one of the few ways humans could conduct hands-on experiments in space.

"Virtually all of the research that we did was dependent upon the crew to be able to carry out the experiment," Stodieck said.

That meant the shuttles needed to be safer. It would not be until 1998, though, when one of the space shuttle program's greatest legacies would begin to take shape.

"The space shuttle was used to assemble the International Space Station," Stodieck said. "The ISS is an enormous and complex and fantastic laboratory for conducting research. So, that's where we have been conducting research for quite a number of years."

The International Space Station welcomed its first live-aboard crew in 2000. It's a place Jim Voss ended up calling home for six months and marked the end of a 10-year period where he flew on shuttle missions to space.

"If you think about how often we had accidents – once every 56 times we flew the space shuttle – you'd think, 'Those are not very good odds,'" Voss said. "They're really poor, poor odds, and I flew five times. My chance of that bad thing happening on one of those flights was really quite high. And if I looked at it analytically like that, I'd be stupid to fly, but I did."

Why? Because, Voss said, there is nothing like it.

"It's such a special, unique experience, and it's something that I really wanted to do personally," he added. "We, and the world, benefit from flying in space, and that's why a lot of nations want to do it and try to do it. We've been fortunate to be able to get there and do that and continue to do it."

It is a legacy that has continued for the past 30 years and now heads into tomorrow.

Orion's Challenger legacy

Crew safety on future deep-space missions

While the shuttle program no longer exists, NASA and several private companies are still working on taking humans much farther into space. One of those is Colorado-based Lockheed Martin Space Systems, which is building the Orion capsule. 

Orion is often called "the next step on the Journey to Mars," and the spacecraft is expected to carry the first humans to Mars. 

Inside the Orion Test Lab, engineers say astronaut safety is their No. 1 priority, to get humans safely through deep space. Everything that can go wrong gets checked over and over again.

"We have really incredible capabilities here in the lab," Orion wiring engineer Karrie Abelein said.

For those working on Orion, the health and safety of the four astronauts who will eventually go to Mars is of the utmost importance. 

"As we design the Orion vehicle, astronaut safety, crew safety is the most important thing that we do," avionics systems engineer Casey O'Hayre said. "Every decision we make, crew safety is the biggest parameter in that decision."

Part of the years-long rigorous testing of Orion started in December of 2014, at Cape Canaveral, Fla. 9NEWS was there as the test launch of Orion sent it 3,600 miles into space. That was farther than any spacecraft designed for humans had gone in more than 40 years.

"We were able to test out 10 of our 16 critical components with that launch alone," Abelein said.

Those tests included looking at the crucial heat shield, which is designed to withstand searing temperatures of 4,000 degrees when Orion re-enters Earth's atmosphere.  

Re-entry is something the shuttle program dealt with, too, but engineers say Orion is far different from anything attempted before.

"We have a very different mission than the shuttle mission or even the Apollo mission," Abelein said.

The Challenger disaster had a huge impact on space travel and exploration. But most of all, the nation remembers the lives that were lost that day. 9NEWS.com. 1/24/2016.

That's because the shuttle was restricted to low-Earth orbit and astronauts could get back to Earth within two hours. The mission to Mars, set for some time in the 2030s, will be much longer than nine months just to get to the famous red planet. The total length of the deep space mission is expected to be two years.

"If something goes wrong out in space, they're out there by themselves," Abelein said. "We have to design in capabilities to return the crew safely to Earth, if something were to ever go wrong."

Those capabilities include safety features suggested by astronauts themselves.

"We have an emergency entry survival controller that has been added to vehicle and that is for the crew to manually control the re-entry back into the Earth's atmosphere, and that was something that the crew wanted the capability to do," O'Hayre said.

Aside from physical safety, there's also the psychological one, too – making sure cabin fever doesn't set in, for the four astronauts during the long journey.

"As a runner, I understand the importance of exercise on my own mental stability and coming to work fresh every day," Abelein said. "Some of the things that we are implementing for crew sustainability throughout this time is we're putting exercise vehicles into the crew module, where our crew can actually exercise, which is very different from the Apollo mission."

Planning down to the small details is an exacting process, to try and ensure the best possible outcome.

"We are trying to do a very difficult mission, and it's going to be something that I think can inspire America and everybody can be really excited about," O'Hayre said.

Engineers at Lockheed Martin are now testing more of Orion's components, in preparation for when astronauts will conduct their first vehicle tests onboard in 2021.


On Jan. 23 and Jan. 24, 9NEWS aired a 30-minute special to honor the 30th anniversary of the Challenger disaster. 9NEWS.com. 1/24/2016.

*Photojournalists Andy Buck, John Kuhrt and Manny Sotelo as well as Digital Producer Blair Shiff contributed to this special report*

(© 2016 KUSA)


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