Today marks the 28th anniversary of the accidental destruction of NASA’s Space Shuttle Challenger, with the loss of all its crew, including Sharon Christa MacAuliffe, who was to have been the first teacher in space.

The Space Shuttle Challenger disaster occurred on January 28, 1986, when Space Shuttle Challenger (mission STS-51-L) broke apart 73 seconds into its flight, at the instant of main engine throttle up, leading to the deaths of its seven crew members. The spacecraft disintegrated over the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of central Florida at 11:38 EST (16:38 UTC). Disintegration of the entire vehicle began after an O-ring seal in its right solid rocket booster (SRB) failed at liftoff. The O-ring failure caused a breach in the SRB joint it sealed, allowing pressurized hot gas from within the solid rocket motor to reach the outside and impinge upon the adjacent SRB attachment hardware and external fuel tank. This led to the separation of the right-hand SRBs aft attachment and the structural failure of the external tank. Aerodynamic forces promptly broke up the orbiter.

The crew compartment and many other vehicle fragments were eventually recovered from the ocean floor after a lengthy search and recovery operation. Although the exact timing of the death of the crew is unknown, several crew members are known to have survived the initial breakup of the spacecraft. However, the shuttle had no escape system and the impact of the crew compartment with the ocean surface was too violent to be survivable.

Space Shuttle Challenger crew members gather for an official portrait November 11, 1985. (Back, L-R) Mission Specialist Ellison S. Onizuka, Teacher-in-Space participant Sharon Christa McAuliffe, Payload Specialist Greg Jarvis and mission specialist Judy Resnick. (Front, L-R) Pilot Mike Smith, commander Dick Scobee and mission specialist Ron McNair.  Ms. McAuliffe was to have been the first teacher in space. She never made it there.

Space Shuttle Challenger crew members gather for an official portrait November 11, 1985. (Back, L-R) Mission Specialist Ellison S. Onizuka, Teacher-in-Space participant Sharon Christa McAuliffe, Payload Specialist Greg Jarvis and mission specialist Judy Resnick. (Front, L-R) Pilot Mike Smith, commander Dick Scobee and mission specialist Ron McNair. Ms. McAuliffe was to have been the first teacher in space. She never made it there.

The disaster of the Challenger reminds us, 28 years later, that the men and women who carry the beacon of Humanity beyond the safety of our homeworld do so at tremendous risk to themselves, and the possibility that they may not return is always on their minds and is always a clear and present risk.

Every advance, every opportunity and every new frontier in space comes because of the bravery of these men and women who risk their lives every time the main booster ignites.  That courage defines us as a species.

Whatever the future of space exploration holds for Mankind, we will owe a debt of gratitude that we can never repay.

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