How the Challenger Disaster Still Resonates with Me

The STS-51L crewmembers are: in the back row from left to right: Mission Specialist, Ellison S. Onizuka, Teacher in Space Participant Sharon Christa McAuliffe, Payload Specialist, Greg Jarvis and Mission Specialist, Judy Resnik. In the front row from left to right: Pilot Mike Smith, Commander, Dick Scobee and Mission Specialist, Ron McNair.

Thirty-four years ago, The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) thought it would be a good idea to send a teacher to space. She would teach her class from the most unique perspective available at the time: in orbit around the Earth. Her students, along with teachers and students across the country, watched as the seven astronauts began to make their own history.

They never made it.

Seventy-three seconds after its 11:38am ET launch, we watched in shock as Challenger suddenly burst into flames. I will never forget the giant plume of smoke where the shuttle was once ascending to space. I’ll never forget the booster rocket still trying to make its climb after it was blown free.

I was 10 years old sitting in my 5th grade classroom. Our teacher wheeled the TV in that morning, so we could all watch the launch. I remember the classroom buzzing with excitement, thankful to have a break from the usual classwork. None of us were prepared for what happened.

Initially, we were told that there was no way the crew could have survived the blast, and they were dead almost instantly after the explosion. However, 11 years after the explosion, MSNBC published a story from Jay Barbree that stated otherwise. Despite what we were told, the explosion did not destroy the shuttle cockpit; instead, the force of the blast threw it from the rest of the shuttle largely intact. The initial shock of the blast, between 12-20G, did not last long enough (about four seconds) to cause serious injury. The cabin eased below 4G as it descended into free-fall, which their suits were designed to easily withstand. In other words, as Barbree states in his piece:

NASA’s intensive, meticulous studies of every facet of that explosion, comparing what happened to other blowups of aircraft and spacecraft, and the knowledge of the forces of the blast and the excellent shape and construction of the crew cabin, finally led some investigators to a mind-numbing conclusion.

They were alive all the way down.

Barbree, Chapter 5: An Eternity of Descent, MSNBC

It took two minutes and forty-five seconds for the Challenger cabin to plummet into the Atlantic Ocean. During that time, there is evidence that at least some of the crew struggled to survive the crash. Three of the four Personal Egress Air Packs (PEAPs) were activated, and several switches to the right of pilot Michael Smith were not in their usual position. These switches were the type that need to be pulled before they are toggled, so it is highly unlikely that the explosion or subsequent crash moved them. This means Smith was trying to do something to keep them all alive during their descent.

I wonder what I would do with less than three minutes to live. Would I be the one lighting off PEAPs (Judith Resnick)? Would I try everything I could possibly think of to keep everyone alive (Smith and Scobee)? Would I say a prayer and put my soul into God’s hands? I honestly don’t know.

Recent events have reminded me that nothing in this life is guaranteed, least of all, tomorrow. We never know which second will be our last. As I look back on that time, I remember President Reagan’s speech and how those words still resound today, “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.'”

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