Space Shuttle Explodes, Killing Crew

By Boyce Rensberger
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 29, 1986

The space shuttle Challenger, carrying six astronauts and schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe, exploded in a burst of fire 74 seconds after liftoff yesterday, killing all seven aboard and stunning a world made witness to the event by television.

The unexplained explosion occurred without warning as the flight seemed to be proceeding flawlessly at about 2,900 feet per second, 10 miles above Earth and eight miles down range from Cape Canaveral. The spacecraft appeared to disintegrate into bits of debris that rained into the Atlantic Ocean. Those aboard, still strapped into their seats, had no means of escape.

In addition to McAuliffe, those killed were spacecraft commander Francis R. (Dick) Scobee, Navy Cmdr. Michael J. Smith, mission specialist Judith A. Resnick, mission specialist Ronald E. McNair, Air Force Lt. Col. Ellison S. Onizuka, and payload specialist Gregory B. Jarvis.

It was the worst accident in the history of space exploration and the first time anyone has been killed during an American space flight. The tragedy occurred 19 years and one day after U.S. astronauts Virgil I. (Gus) Grissom, Roger A. Chaffee and Edward H. White died during a training session when a fire broke out in their sealed Apollo spacecraft on the launch pad.

Five hours after yesterday's tragedy, Jesse W. Moore, associate administrator for space flight of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, announced from Cape Canaveral that the shuttle program had been suspended for an exhaustive investigation. But President Reagan, who postponed his State of the Union speech from last night to next Tuesday, vowed in a nationally televised statement from the Oval Office that exploration of space would continue.

"There will be more shuttle flights and more shuttle crews and, yes, more volunteers, more civilians, more teachers in space," Reagan said. "Nancy and I are pained to the core over the tragedy of the shuttle Challenger. We know we share this pain with all of the people of our country. This is truly a national loss."

NASA officials, appearing shaken and bewildered by the fate of the 25th mission in five years of shuttle flights, said they could offer no reason for the accident and declined to speculate on causes.

The accident occurred just before 11:40 a.m. EST. Soon afterward, NASA's normally detailed mission commentary went silent. Not until Moore's brief statement five hours later did space agency officials offer any comments.

"We thought everything was in good shape for a launch this morning," Moore said.

He told reporters that he had appointed an "interim investigating board" that would impound all data on the flight, including technicians' notes, and turn them over to a formal review board to be appointed "in the next day or two" by NASA's acting administrator, William R. Graham.

Graham, along with Vice President Bush, was dispatched by President Reagan to the Kennedy Space Center to begin an investigation. Bush arrived at the Florida cape late in the afternoon and immediately went to comfort relatives of the crew.

Crew members, praised by President Reagan in his televised statement as "seven heroes," were: McAuliffe, 37, a social studies teacher from Concord, N.H., with a degree in education from Bowie State College here. She was chosen last July to be the first teacher in space. Spacecraft commander Scobee, 46, a NASA astronaut from Cle Elum, Wash., who was on his second shuttle flight. Navy Cmdr. Smith, 40, the pilot, an aeronautical engineer from Beaufort, N.C., and a NASA astronaut since 1980, who was on his first shuttle flight. Resnik, 36, the second American woman in space, a mission specialist from Akron, Ohio, with a doctorate in electrical engineering from the University of Maryland, who was on her second shuttle flight. McNair, 35, the second black American in space, a mission specialist from Lake City, S.C., with a doctorate in physics, who was on his second shuttle flight. Air Force Lt. Col. Onizuka, 39, a Hawaiian-born aerospace engineer and astronaut since 1978, who was a mission specialist and crew member on the program's first secret mission for the Defense Department. Jarvis, 41, a Hughes Aircraft Co. electrical engineer from Detroit who was on his first mission as a payload specialist.

CONTINUED     1              >

© 1986 The Washington Post Company