Just after WWII, in 1946, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) was set up to experiment on rockets planes. It became a forerunner to the later National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA). On October 4, 1957, the thoughts and efforts of American space research became more focused when the Soviet Union launched it Sputnik, the first artificial Earth satellite. American President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed into law, NASA, with a particular civilian orientation on July 29, 1958. NASA opened its doors on October 1, 1958 and began its first project: Mercury, to see if humans could survive in space. Gemini, its second project, was focused on getting two astronauts to the moon. Project Apollo culminated in July 1969 with the landing of Apollo 11 on the moon. There were five more trips to the moon until 1972. After that, the focus of NASA was on the Space Shuttle project – human space flight.
The Space Shuttle Challenger was scheduled for January 28, 1986 at Cape Canaveral, Florida. It carried five astronauts and two payload specialists – the 10th flight of this space orbiter mission. One of the exceptional parts of this mission was the addition of the first teacher in space, Christa McAuliffe, one of the payload specialists. On that day, many young students at school were watching with great and amazed excitement as a teacher prepared to fly into space. AT 1139 a.m. EDT, as the Challenger lifted off, the delight of the nation was turned to dismay, disbelief and distress, as the Challenger exploded above the Atlantic Ocean within 73 seconds of lift-off. 17% of all Americans witnessed the disaster, being especially interested in the first teacher in space; within one hour 85% of Americans were aware of the accident.
The USA and the world was in grief as President Ronald Reagan summoned the Rogers Commission to investigate the accident. It was eventually determined that an O-ring failed causing the disaster. The Space Shuttle program was grounded for three years. The USAF canceled its plan to use the Space Shuttle for launching classified military satellites.
Those lost in the Challenger accident were:
Francis Scobee, Commander
Michael Smith, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnick – Mission Specialists
Gregory Jarvis, Payload Specialist
Christa McAuliffe, Payload Specialist and Teacher
For first accounts of stories related to the Challenger Explosion read on here and here.