The Spacecraft Tarot: Challenger

Tippy Ki Yay
5 min readSep 10, 2021
The original watercolor illustration is by me, Tippy Ki Yay. The background image is Hubble imagery and the credit belongs to NASA, ESA, and J. Olmsted (STScI).

The Tower is a warning.

Sometimes true change is only possible in the wake of destruction. Death, pain, and loss are inevitable disruptors that force us to break bad habits and begin anew. Although we may think that we are always safe from tragedy— as safe as someone at the top of a tall tower — the truth is, as mortal beings on this Earth, we are always vulnerable to some form of unexpected change. The higher we go, the harder we can fall.

Do not fall victim to shortsightedness by believing that you are invincible.

NASA’s STS-51L mission aboard the Challenger space shuttle was to be one like none other. Although this flight was to be the 25th in the space shuttle program and the 10th for the Challenger vehicle, the mission was special for a number of reasons: the seven-person crew was to deploy the second Tracking and Data Relay System satellite into orbit as well as an astronomy satellite designed to observe Halley’s Comet. Perhaps most importantly, STS-51L was to mark the first time NASA welcomed a civilian aboard the space shuttle as a part of the Teacher in Space program. A teacher was invited aboard the flight to conduct educational lessons from space and engage students all over the world.

New Hampshire middle school teacher Christa McAuliffe beat more than 10,000 applicants to earn her seat on the shuttle. A few months before flight, McAuliffe joined the other six members of the STS-51L to begin training for her “Ultimate Field Trip”: Commander Francis “Dick” Scobee, Pilot Michael Smith, and Mission Specialists Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, and Ronald McNair.

The space shuttle Challenger rolling out to the Launch Pad 39B at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Image Credit: NASA

The STS-51L crew was eager to take to the skies in late January 1986, but unfavorable weather caused delays for over a week. On January 27, the crew finally had a chance to board the vehicle but a mechanical issue forced managers to scrub the launch.

The next day, January 28, Challenger was finally cleared to launch despite concerns about the unusually cold weather at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The temperature at the time of launch was 36 degrees Fahrenheit, 15 degrees colder than that of any previous launch. Observers noticed that the launch tower was covered in ice.

The vehicle lifted off at 11:38 a.m. ET as the families of the astronauts watched nearby and students all around the world watched on television. 73 seconds after liftoff, the rocket burst into flame. Controllers in the Mission Control Center — as well as onlookers everywhere — slowly realized that a major malfunction had taken place. The crew did not survive.

President Reagan addressed a shocked nation with the words of poet John Gillespie Magee: “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.’”

An investigation commission, called the Rogers Commission, formed to investigate the causes of the tragedy. The unusually cold temperatures affected the integrity of the O-ring seals intended to keep pressurized gas from escaping the solid rocket boosters. What was supposed to be elastic and durable became inflexible and stiff. The seals broke and the hydrogen and oxygen propellants leaked, destroying the external tank and breaking up the vehicle completely.

STS-51L astronauts, front to back, Francis “Dick” Scobee, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Michael Smith, Christa McAuliffe, Ellison Onizuka, and Gregory Jarvis prepare to board the Astrovan for the ride out to Launch Pad 39B for the launch. Image Credit: NASA

In addition to investigating the technical failure that destroyed the shuttle, the commission also investigated the cultural and organizational failures that allowed a tragedy like this to happen. The commission discovered that NASA employees were under enormous pressure from their managers to delay the launch as little as possible. Concerned engineers did not feel empowered to speak up about potential risks — or if they did, they were not listened to. The safety of the crew lost priority to launching on time.

In addition, the teams fell victim to the mentality that the space shuttle had never suffered a catastrophic event before — therefore, the chances of it happening seemed unlikely. Clearly, that was not the case.

Sadly, the Challenger explosion was neither the first nor the last time that NASA’s safety culture needed to be reexamined. Nineteen years earlier, the Apollo 1 fire took the lives of three astronauts on the launchpad during a preflight test on January 27, 1967. Seventeen years later, on February 1, 2003, the Columbia disaster would claim the lives of seven more astronauts. Each time NASA lost lives, the tragedy would spark a new conversation on how to improve safety standards and empower workers to speak up about concerns.

Today, it has been about twenty years since NASA has suffered a fatal accident like Challenger or Columbia — the same exact amount of time between each of the previous accidents. In order to remind the workforce of the inherent danger of spaceflight and the need to stay vigilant, NASA memorializes the fallen every year on the Day of Remembrance. Employees are encouraged to learn about the accidents, in order to prevent anything like them from happening in the future.

We all suffer tragedies in our life. Although we may feel untouchable, change is the one constant we can count on. What is important is how we mourn, recover, and grow.

STS-51L crew members, left to right, Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnik, Francis “Dick” Scobee,
Ronald McNair, Michael Smith, and Ellison Onizuka pose in the White Room of Launch Pad 39B during the
Terminal Countdown Demonstration Test.
Image Credit: NASA

Read the complete Spacecraft Tarot series.