A mere 73 seconds after liftoff, the crew of the Challenger shuttle felt an almighty jolt. And from that moment, it’s alleged, the seven ill-fated voyagers were all too aware of their spacecraft’s subsequent downwards trajectory. It’s also possible that those on board only died when they crashed into the ocean – but that NASA tried to circulate a different version of events.
In the aftermath of World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union emerged as the two dominant global powers. However, the countries upheld very different ideologies; while America championed capitalism, the Soviets subscribed to communism. And it was these two differing viewpoints that saw the nations enter into the so-called Cold War.
By the mid-20th century the situation between the United States and the Soviet Union had become precarious. Both of the nations were stockpiling arms – including nuclear weapons – and they were also each involved in a proxy war in Korea. During the conflict there, America backed the capitalist South, while its Soviet counterparts supported the socialist North.
Following an armistice in 1953, the fighting in the Korean War came to an end. However, just two years later, the outbreak of the Vietnam War meant that the U.S. and the USSR had a new arena in which to continue their proxy conflict. This war in fact dragged on for two decades – until North Vietnamese troops finally took hold of the capital of South Vietnam, Saigon, in 1975.
However, supporting the wars in Korea and Vietnam wasn’t the only way in which the United States and the Soviet Union came head to head. You see, during the 1950s and ’60s both powers competed in the Space Race – a rivalry that began with the development of long-range ballistic missiles. And the determination to explore the new frontier of space gave both powers the opportunity to flaunt their technological and scientific might.
In 1957 the Space Race really got underway when the USSR beat the U.S. to launching the world’s first satellite into Earth’s orbit. This turn of events certainly came as a shock and a worry to many Americans. So as a result, the country upped the ante on its own space exploration efforts in a bid to catch up.
A year later, in 1958, America succeeded in sending its own satellite into orbit. And it was also in this year that President Dwight D. Eisenhower created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration – which would become known across the globe as NASA. However, despite the existence of the new space exploration agency, it was once again the Soviets who propelled the Space Race forward.
In 1959 the USSR launched Luna 2 – the first spacecraft to reach the Moon. Then in April 1961 Yuri Gagarin, a Soviet cosmonaut, became the first person to be sent into orbit. However, proving that the U.S. wasn’t too far behind the Soviets, less than a month later the American Alan Shepard became the first of his countrymen to enter space.
It was later that same May that President John F. Kennedy announced America’s ambition to land the first man on the Moon before the close of the 1960s. The subsequent lunar landing program was known as Apollo. And it ended up costing almost $24 billion and involving 375,000 contractors working alongside 34,000 of NASA’s employees.
The Apollo mission was knocked off balance in 1967, though, when three astronauts died after their craft ignited while taking part in a simulation. However, the U.S. continued with its plans – and in July 1969 the Apollo 11 mission successfully landed on the Moon. Famously, of course, the astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on the lunar landscape.
America’s success in landing a man on the Moon was considered by some to be the culmination of the Space Race. But that didn’t stop NASA from launching further missions. And following the lunar landing, the space agency focused its efforts on developing reusable spacecraft in an enterprise known as the Space Shuttle program.
Once in orbit, space shuttles could launch devices such as interplanetary probes and satellites. The spacecraft could also conduct scientific experiments and contribute to the construction and upkeep of the International Space Station. So it was that between 1976 and 1991 the mission built a total of six orbiters: Enterprise, Endeavour, Atlantis, Discovery, Challenger and Columbia.
The Enterprise orbiter became the first to be launched when it blasted off in 1977. An unpowered glider, it was used simply as a test craft for orbiting and landing. Then following Enterprise’s retirement, the first fully operational orbiter, Columbia, made its debut flight in 1981. Columbia’s sister spacecraft, Challenger, was then launched for the first time in 1983.
In the following two years, Challenger was successfully launched and landed on nine separate occasions. However, on its tenth flight, on January 28, 1986, disaster struck. Just 73 seconds into the mission, the spacecraft broke apart and plummeted back to Earth, killing all those on board.
Prior to its fateful final flight, Challenger had taken to the heavens on 85 percent of the Space Shuttle missions. This meant that between 1983 and 1985, the spacecraft completed a trio of missions every year. In its time, Challenger also carried the first American woman, Sally Ride, into space – as well as the first African-American, Canadian and Dutchman.
Yet the shuttle was also to make history for another, tragic reason. Challenger was supposed to take off on its tenth mission on January 22, 1986, but delays pushed it back to January 24. Then bad weather at the Transoceanic Abort Landing (TAL) site in Senegal caused the flight to be set back an extra day. And although NASA eventually changed the TAL site to Casablanca, this location could not be used for night landings. So, officials had to again push back the launch of Challenger, this time to the morning of January 26.
Further delays were then caused by unpredictable weather at the Kennedy Space Center and a malfunctioning access hatch. As a result, the launch was rescheduled again, this time for January 28. And when that day arrived, it was particularly chilly, with temperatures dwindling lower than freezing – between 28.0 and 28.9 °F.
The conditions were much colder than those experienced at prior shuttle launches. And some engineers reportedly expressed their concerns that low temperatures could impede the effectiveness of certain critical components. The engineers’ main concern surrounded the rubber O-rings, which functioned as seals for the joints on the shuttle’s solid rocket boosters.
But despite these worries, it was decided that the launch would go ahead. So it was that in the moments before 11:38 a.m. on January 28, 1986, Challenger’s crew of seven were strapped in place, awaiting liftoff into space. Little did the doomed voyagers know, though, that they would never make it into orbit.
The crew consisted of Mission Commander Francis R. Scobee, Pilot Michael J. Smith, Mission Specialists Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka and Judith Resnik and Payload Specialist Gregory Jarvis. More curiously, however, a civilian teacher named Christa McAuliffe was also on board. McAuliffe had beaten over 11,000 other applicants to become the first educator to participate in NASA’s Teacher in Space program.
McAuliffe’s selection for the Challenger mission was certainly a source of pride for her family. And appropriately, the teacher’s parents, Ed and Grace Corrigan, her husband, Steve, and the couple’s children, Scott and Caroline, were at Cape Canaveral to watch her embark on what looked set to be the adventure of a lifetime. However, the family’s delight soon descended into panic when the shuttle was overwhelmed by a flash of flames.
All the family members – and countless other spectators watching on television screens across the U.S. – could do was look on in horror as Challenger plummeted inexorably towards the Atlantic Ocean. NASA quickly sent rescue crews in the direction of the crash location. But the chances of the seven people on board the shuttle being found alive seemed extremely slim.
Following the Challenger tragedy, it was widely believed that all seven crew members had lost their lives instantly. Meanwhile, President Ronald Reagan quoted Canadian poet and pilot John Gillespie Magee Jr., saying in an address that the crew had “‘slipped the surly bonds of Earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.’” And yet it subsequently came to light that their deaths may not have been so instantaneous.
It was determined that two rubber O-rings had failed during liftoff, which in turn caused hot exhaust gas to leak out of the rocket booster. This leak then resulted in the explosion of Challenger’s external fuel tanks. But while the blast tore the shuttle apart, the cabin that held the crew somehow remained intact.
Consequently, the cabin continued on an upward trajectory for three miles. It then lost momentum, though, and gravity took hold, causing the cabin to fall 12 miles and into the ocean. And certain people fear that at least some members of the crew may have been alive and conscious until the very moment when the shuttle impacted with the water.
This theory of events is quite horrific to bear. And indeed, it has been alleged that NASA attempted to hide the story from the public. A number of years after the disaster, the Miami Herald’s Tropic magazine reported that the Challenger crew may not have died instantaneously. The publication also claimed that the space exploration agency had gone out of its way to cover up the facts.
The report claimed that the crew compartment hadn’t immediately lost pressure following the explosion. Instead, the argument went, the crew had suffered an “uncomfortable jolt” that wasn’t severe enough to injure them. The magazine also reported that the last words recorded by the flight deck tape that was allegedly later salvaged from the Atlantic were “uh oh.”
The report in addition theorized about what had happened following the jolt. It claimed that the members of the flight crew would have witnessed a flash and a plume of steam. After that, the article said, the intercom would have given out, and the lights would have failed. And then, went the argument, the supply of oxygen to the astronauts’ helmets would have stopped.
The Tropic report actually also went further to claim that there was no evidence to suggest that the cabin had lost pressure at all – and no event that would have rendered the crew unconscious. Even if the cabin had depressurized slowly, the article speculated, the crew would likely have been aware of their falling into the ocean.
The article was compiled by journalist Dennis E. Powell. And in his conversations with inside sources, Powell claimed to have found evidence of NASA’s attempts to interfere with the investigation and recovery of the Challenger wreckage. Included in his report was an alleged encounter between James Simpson, a Coast Guard Lieutenant Commander, and a NASA public affairs officer.
Simpson had apparently been due to speak on television about the Coast Guard’s search and recovery efforts. However, on the evening before his appearance, it seems that he learned about the discovery of a number of items from the crew compartment. It’s claimed that Simpson therefore discussed the findings with a NASA public affairs officer, who supposedly told him that he had been unaware of the retrieval of the debris.
Then, when asked if he was going to talk about the discovery on television, Simpson apparently vowed to tell the truth. “I said, ‘The Coast Guard has no interest in going on national television to tell lies to protect you,’” it’s claimed that he told Tropic. However, that’s when NASA’s Astronaut Office supposedly got in touch.
Simpson then reportedly alleged, “I was told the families hadn’t been told yet, even though the debris had been found the night before.” And, reflecting on what had happened next, he apparently added, “I didn’t want them to hear about it on television. So I lied on television. I still feel bad about that.”
Understandably, Powell’s Tropic article gained some traction subsequent to its publication. And as a result, The New York Times did a follow-up story. In that article, Robert B. Hotz, who served on the presidential commission that had looked into the Challenger disaster, reiterated his belief that NASA had tried to hide what it knew.
“Of course there was a cover-up,” Hotz claimed, speaking in the New York Times article from 1988. “I believe they couldn’t face the fact that they had to put these guys in a situation where they did not have adequate equipment to survive.” He added that he reckoned some of the crew had been alive at the time of impact – but that they probably weren’t conscious.
It’s thought that Hotz was referring to speculation that NASA had not prepared for a calamitous, though potentially survivable, incident. No equipment aboard the craft would have been capable of slowing the shuttle’s fall or allowing the astronauts to escape. Instead, the crew supposedly had no option but to sit and await their fate.
In response to Hotz’s allegations, then-spokeswoman for NASA Shirley Green said, “I don’t know on what he could possibly base such a conclusion. I think the evidence is very clear that the agency tried through a number of methods to get as honest an investigation as it could. We were straightforward with the public.”
And despite stories to the contrary, NASA’s allegedly preferred story of instant death maintained prominence. It was a safer version of events – the thinking goes – that could be told to the many schoolchildren who’d watched the disaster unfold live from their classrooms. And it would have been particularly comforting to the 1,200 students from teacher McAuliffe’s own school in New Hampshire.
Nevertheless, the Challenger disaster had a major effect on the people who witnessed it happen. Michelle Soto, for instance, was just ten years old at the time of the tragedy, and she saw it unfold from her fourth-grade classroom. “I felt it so hard,” she told the Miami Herald in 2016.
Summing up the feelings of many Americans who saw the Challenger disaster as the Space Age’s end of innocence, Soto added, “It has stayed with me all these years. I cried in 1986, and I cried last year. And I might cry now from talking to you. That was a terrible day.”