Seventy-three seconds. In that short amount of time after the Challenger space shuttle lifted from the ground at Cape Canaveral, Florida on the morning of Jan. 28, 1986, the shuttle broke apart in an explosion that killed all seven crew members on board, including a high school teacher.
Thirty-five years ago, all were stunned by the disaster. In Evansville, the reactions were similar to the rest of the country —vigils and memorials were held to honor those lost. We did what we could to make sense of what many of us had witnessed on our television screens.
University of Evansville graduates and members of NASA spoke to the Courier and Press in the days following the event, expressing their sorrow and shock of the tragedy, and also NASA’s determination to find the cause of the incident.
“We’re going to go over everything,” UE grad and NASA engineer Bob Petersen told the Courier at the time. “We’re going to relive what happened to that orbiter from when it landed at Edwards (Air Force Base) on Nov. 6 to when it launched.”
While NASA worked through its investigation, friends of Christa McAuliffe — the high school teacher who perished in the tragedy — were working on starting a nonprofit foundation in her honor. The nine finalists for the Teacher in Space Project (of which McAuliffe was selected for the Challenger flight) made up the board members of the foundation. Included was Harrison High School graduate Robert Foerster. The hope was to continue the Teacher in Space Project while also providing additional awards to teachers who design creative lessons in science. NASA ended the Teacher in Space Project in 1990.
In the days, months, and years since the Challenger disaster, many pieces have come together to explain how the explosion happened. Cold weather on the day, a failure of “O-ring” seals, and gaps in quality control measures were all cited as contributing factors. A 2020 Netflix documentary, “Challenger: The Final Flight,” addressed the cited mechanical failures and decisions that led to the disaster. June Scobee Rodgers — the widow of Mission Commander Dick Scobee — was quoted by Today as saying the series was “the most thorough” retelling of the event.
In 1987, just over a year after the tragedy, Rodgers had made a stop in Evansville — she was on her way to Owensboro, Kentucky, where she was set to be the keynote speaker at an annual State Conference on Gifted Children.
“We feel the Challenger family was not only our family, but also a national family,” she said at the time. “People all over the world wrote and asked us to continue the mission (of space science education), and we feel people across the country will want to support that.”
Rodgers, along with the other families of the Challenger crew, built the nation’s first hands-on space science education center to honor their loved ones — The Challenger Center today continues that mission by providing a global network of learning centers which use space-themed simulated learning and role-playing to help students cultivate skills such as problem solving, critical thinking, communication, and teamwork.
In his address to the nation later that night on Jan. 28, 1986, President Ronald Reagan said, “The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. 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.’”
Today, we remember those who lost their lives in the Challenger explosion:
Teacher Christa McAuliffe
Astronaut Gregory Jarvis
Astronaut Judith Resnik
Mission Commander Dick Scobee
Astronaut Ronald McNair
Pilot Mike Smith
Astronaut Ellison Onizuka