Fourth in a ten-part series on how weather events impacted U.S. History
Mission Control: “Challenger, go to throttle up.”
Challenger: “Roger” “Go to throttle up.”
Then a massive cracking of the cold Florida air that morning of January 28, 1986. The Space Shuttle Challenger was on its 25th flight with seven astronauts including a civilian turned astronaut Sharon Crista McAuliffe. She was a teacher in a school in New Hampshire who had been chosen to be the first civilian space astronaut in the NASA program.
The launches at the Cape had become almost routine in those days, but this was to be a special morning for all of us. Now, in Florida in the winter it does get cold.
However, this January morning as unusually cold with temperatures in the mid 20’s near takeoff. NASA cancels flights for all kinds of reasons. A clear, beautiful cold day wasn’t going to stop the mounting pressure to get Sharon Crista MaCullife into space that morning.
NASA knew that specific parts of the ship, as well as the boosters, could be impacted by the cold weather. Ice had built up on the shuttle the previous night with temperatures down near 20. Normally, all of these conditions would have been enough for NASA to cancel the flight and wait for warmer temperatures. Not this morning.
As the shuttle lifted off the space pad it zoomed into the atmosphere with breathtaking speed and a glow of the burning boosters powering away into the cold, brisk morning. Thousands watched on the ground and millions on live TV around the world and country cheered the nervous excitement of takeoff. As the plane reached 4 nautical miles into the heavenly skies the last words came from the flight deck:
Mission Control: “Challenger, go to throttle up,”
Challenger: ” Roger” “Go to throttle up.” and unheard as they muttered these last words according to the flight recorder and transcript, “Uh-Oh!”
Challenger was gone. A burst of combustion and a massive, rocking explosion disintegrated the entire ship. The solid rocket boosters shot off into the ocean. Pieces of debris fell all over the Atlantic near Cape Canaveral. Seven beautiful lives were lost. A nation watching as a school teacher who was experiencing the time of her life evaporated in front of her students watching in New Hampshire. It was over in 73 seconds.
Later it was found that due to the cold temperatures the O-ring expanded on the solid booster had started to leak gases which ignited the external tank attached to the shuttle. The ship actually disintegrated not exploded, but the outcome of the crew was never in doubt. They were literally evaporated into thin air. They never felt a thing.
The investigation led to the faulty O-ring but there was a memo circulated around NASA recommending the flight not take place in temperatures below 53 degrees for fear of the O-ring issue. The decision makers never saw that memo. It was 26 degrees in Cape Canaveral that morning. It should of never happened.