The Space Shuttle Challenger Accident Primary Source eText

Primary Source

Members of the President's Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident, Cape Canaveral, Florida, February 14, 1986. They inspect the joint of a solid rocket booster. It is believed that a failure in one such joint was responsible for the Challenge Members of the President's Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident, Cape Canaveral, Florida, February 14, 1986. They inspect the joint of a solid rocket booster. It is believed that a failure in one such joint was responsible for the Challenger's explosion. © BETTMANN/CORBIS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION. Published by Gale Cengage © BETTMANN/CORBIS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION.
The Space Shuttle Challenger, moments before exploding over the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, January 28, 1986. © BETTMANN/CORBIS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION. The Space Shuttle Challenger, moments before exploding over the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, January 28, 1986. © BETTMANN/CORBIS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION. Published by Gale Cengage © BETTMANN/CORBIS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION.

"Transcript of the Challenger Crew Comments from the Operational Recorder"



Date: January 28, 1986

Source: "Transcript of the Challenger Crew Comments from the Operational Recorder." January 28, 1986. NASA Headquarters. Available online at; website home page: (accessed June 9, 2003).

About the Organization: The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) began operation on October 1, 1958, in the aftermath of the Soviet Union launching Sputnik, the world's first artificial satellite. Fearing that the Soviets would next launch ballistic nuclear missiles at the United States, Congress passed the National Aeronautics and Space Act in July 1958. This act combined the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics and other government agencies to form NASA. The creation of NASA marked the start of the U.S.-Soviet space race.

"A President's Eulogy"


By: Ronald Reagan

Date: January 31, 1986

Source: Reagan, Ronald. "A President's Eulogy." January 31, 1986. Available online at (accessed May 23, 2003).

About the Author: Ronald Reagan (1911–) in 1932 became a sportscaster at radio station WOC in Davenport, Iowa. In 1937, he turned to acting in television and movies. Initially a Democrat, Reagan switched to the Republican Party in 1962 and served as California's governor from 1966 to 1974. Between 1981 and 1989, he was president of the United States. Since leaving office, he has suffered from Alzheimer's disease.


In September 1969, two months after Apollo XI landed on the moon, NASA began to explore a more economical, reusable launch system. It was proposed that NASA commit itself to an Earth-orbiting space station and a space shuttle linking it to Earth. Due to budgetary constraints, however, President Richard M. Nixon (served 1969–1974) deferred the space station pending the development of a space shuttle. The first shuttle test was carried out in 1977 at the Dryden Flight Research Facility in California. The Enterprise, containing no engines or other systems needed for orbital flight, was piggybacked atop a modified Boeing 747. To test its aerodynamics and flight control characteristics, the Enterprise was carried to a high altitude and released for a gliding approach and landing in the Mojave Desert. From 1982—when the space shuttle launched its first operational mission—to January 1986, the program launched twenty-five successful missions.

The shape of the space shuttle is similar to a mid-size airline transport. Its cargo bay is fifteen feet wide and sixty feet long, and it is designed to deliver payloads of 65,000 pounds. Unlike airplanes, the space shuttle was designed to enter orbit on a repeated basis. The key to developing the shuttle was protecting it from the withering heat caused by friction with the atmosphere when the craft returns to Earth—along the edge of the wing, temperatures during entry may reach 2,750 degrees Fahrenheit and 600 degrees along the fuselage, the "coldest" area. The space shuttle is equipped with three rocket engines, generating 375,000 pounds of thrust. The external tank carries 143,000 gallons of oxygen propellant and 383,000 gallons of hydrogen propellant for a combined weight of 790 tons. The shuttle reenters orbit at speeds of 17,500 miles per hour and lands at 225 miles per hour.


At 11:38 A. M. , January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger, named after the 1870s British naval research vessel, H.M.S. Challenger, lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The shuttle's payloads included a satellite that would have been deployed into orbit to observe Halley's comet. From liftoff to when the signal from the shuttle was lost, there was no indication of a problem. All crew voice communications were normal, and no alarms sounded in the cockpit. The first evidence of a problem came from live video just. 678 seconds into flight. A wisp of gray smoke was detected streaming from a joint on the right rocket booster. At 59.788 seconds, a small flame was detected. At 73 seconds, the Challenger reached an altitude of 46,000 feet and exploded in the reddish brown colors of an intense burn.

In twenty-five years of space exploration, seven Americans had died. With the Challenger's short flight,

however, this number doubled in just over one minute. That evening, President Ronald Reagan (served 1981–1989) went on national television to address a grieving nation. He said, "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." Reagan called for an immediate investigation into the disaster, but vowed that the space program would continue in honor of the dead astronauts. In June 1986, "The President's Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident" concluded that a fuel leak through faulty rubber O-rings that sealed joint sections of the rocket booster caused the accident. There were no further manned flights until September 1988. There were no further accidents until February 1, 2003, when the space shuttle Columbia dis-integrated upon re-entry after a sixteen-day mission.

Primary Source: "Transcript of the Challenger Crew Comments from the Operational Recorder"

SYNOPSIS: Forty-three days after the Challenger accident, the vessel's tape recorder was retrieved from the ocean floor. NASA released the tape transcript

that revealed the crew's comments from T-2.05 to T+73 seconds (meaning 2:05 minutes prior to take-off until 73 seconds into the flight). The New York Times, believing that the crew may have been aware of the impending danger, sued to force NASA to release the audio recording. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected the suit because it would have violated the Challengerfamilies' privacy. In the transcript, "CDR" refers to the flight commander, Francis R. Scobee; "PLT" refers to the pilot, Michael J. Smith; "MS 1" refers to the aeronautical engineer Ellison S. Onizuka; and "MS 2" refers to the electrical engineer, Judith A. Resnik, all of whom perished, along with three other colleagues, when the Challengerexploded. NASA's explanatory comments to the Presidential Commission that investigated the tragedy are also noted.

T-2:05. MS 2: Would you give that back to me?

T-2:03. MS 2: Security blanket.

T-2:02. MS 2: Hmm.

T-1:58. CDR: Two minutes downstairs; you gotta watch running down there?

(NASA: Two minutes till launch.)

T-1:47. PLT: OK there goes the lox arm.

(NASA: Liquid oxygen supply arm to ET.)

T-1:46. CDR: Goes the beanie cap.

(NASA: Liquid oxygen vent cap.)

T-1:44. MS 1: Doesn't it go the other way?

T-1:42. (Laughter.)

T-1:39. MS 1: Now I see it; I see it.

T-1:39. PLT: God I hope not Ellison.

T-1:38. MS 1: I couldn't see it moving; it was behind the center screen.

(NASA: Obstructed view of liquid oxygen supply arm.)

T-1:33. MS 2: Got your harnesses locked?

(NASA: Seat restraints.)

T-1:29. PLT: What for?

T-1:28. CDR: I won't lock mine; I might have to reach something.

T-1:24. PLT: Ooh kaaaay.

T-1:04. MS 1: Dick's thinking of somebody there.

T-1:03. CDR: Unhuh.

T-59. CDR: One minute downstairs.

(NASA: One minute till launch.)

T-52. MS 2: Cabin Pressure is probably going to give us an alarm.

(NASA: Caution and warning alarm. Routine occurrence during prelaunch).

T-50. CDR: OK.

T-47. CDR: OK there.

T-43. PLT: Alarm looks good.

(NASA: Cabin pressure is acceptable.)

T-42. CDR: OK.

T-40. PLT: Ullage pressures are up.

(NASA: External tank ullage pressure.)

T-34. PLT: Right engine helium tank is just a little bit low.

(NASA: SSME supply helium pressure.)

T-32. CDR: It was yesterday, too.

T-31. PLT: OK.

T-30. CDR: Thirty seconds down there.

(NASA: 30 seconds till launch.)

T-25. PLT: Remember the red button when you make a roll call.

(NASA: Precautionary reminder for communications configuration.)

T-23. CDR: I won't do that; thanks a lot.

T-15. CDR: Fifteen.

(NASA: 15 seconds till launch.)

T-6. CDR: There they go guys.

(NASA: SSME Ignition.)

MS 2: All right.

CDR: Three at a hundred.

(NASA: SSME thrust level at 100% for all 3 engines.)

T+O. MS 2: Aaall riiight.

T+1. PLT: Here we go.

(NASA: Vehicle motion.)

T+7. CDR: Houston, Challenger roll program.

(NASA: Initiation of vehicle roll program.)

T+11. PLT: Go you Mother.

T+14. MS 1: LVLH.

(NASA: Reminder for cockpit switch configuration change. Local vertical/local horizontal).

T+15. MS 2: (Expletive) hot.

T+16. CDR: Ooohh-kaaay.

T+19. PLT: Looks like we've got a lotta wind here today.

T+20. CDR: Yeah.

T+22. CDR: It's a little hard to see out my window here.

T+28. PLT: There's ten thousand feet and Mach point five.

(NASA: Altitude and velocity report.)

T+30. (Garble.)

T+35. CDR: Point nine.

(NASA: Velocity report, 0.9 Mach).

T+40. PLT: There's Mach one.

The Challenger crew leave their quarters at Kennedy Space Center to board the space shuttle. AP/WIDE WORLD PHOTOS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION. The Challenger crew leave their quarters at Kennedy Space Center to board the space shuttle. AP/WIDE WORLD PHOTOS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION. Published by Gale Cengage AP/WIDE WORLD PHOTOS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION.
(NASA: Velocity report, 1.0 Mach).

T+41. CDR: Going through nineteen thousand.

(NASA: Altitude report, 19,000 ft.)

T+43. CDR: OK we're throttling down.

(NASA: Normal SSME thrust reduction during maximum dynamic pressure region.)

T+57. CDR: Throttling up.

(NASA: Throttle up to 104% after maximum dynamic pressure.)

T+58. PLT: Throttle up.

T+59. CDR: Roger.

T+60. PLT: Feel that mother go.

T+60. Woooohoooo.

T+1:02. PLT: Thirty-five thousand going through one point five.

(NASA: Altitude and velocity report, 35,000 ft., 1.5 Mach).

T+1:05. CDR: Reading four eighty six on mine.

(NASA: Routine airspeed indicator check.)

T+1:07. PLT: Yep, that's what I've got, too.

T+1:10. CDR: Roger, go at throttle up.

(NASA: SSME at 104 percent.)

T+1:13. PLT: Uhoh.


Primary Source: "A President's Eulogy"

SYNOPSIS: In the following eulogy, President Reagan praises the Challenger's crew for their selfless pursuit of scientific knowledge. He reminds the nation that the quest to expand the boundaries of knowledge can end in tragedy, though he vows not to let the Challenger's explosion derail the space shuttle program.

We come together today to mourn the loss of seven brave Americans, to share the grief we all feel and, perhaps in that sharing, to find the strength to bear our sorrow and the courage to look for the seeds of hope.

Our nation's loss is first a profound personal loss to the family and the friends and loved ones of our shuttle astronauts. To those they have left behind—the mothers, the fathers, the husbands and wives, brothers, sisters, and yes, especially the children—all of America stands beside you in your time of sorrow.

What we say today is only an inadequate expression of what we carry in our hearts. Words pale in the shadow of grief; they seem insufficient even to measure the brave sacrifice of those you loved and we so admired. Their truest testimony will not be in the words we speak, but in the way they led their lives and in the way they lost those lives—with dedication, honor and an unquenchable desire to explore this mysterious and beautiful universe.

The best we can do is remember our seven astronauts—our ChallengerSeven—remember them as they lived, bringing life and love and joy to those who knew them and pride to a nation.

They came from all parts of this great country—from South Carolina to Washington State; Ohio to Mohawk, New York; Hawaii to North Carolina to Concord, New Hampshire. They were so different, yet in their mission, their quest, they held so much in common.

We remember Dick Scobee, the commander who spoke the last words we heard from the space shuttle Challenger. He served as a fighter pilot in Vietnam, earning many medals for bravery, and later as a test pilot of advanced aircraft before joining the space program. Danger was a familiar companion to Commander Scobee.

We remember Michael Smith, who earned enough medals as a combat pilot to cover his chest, including the Navy Distinguished Flying Cross, three Air Medals—and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry with Silver Star, in gratitude from a nation that he fought to keep free.

We remember Judith Resnik, known as J.R. to her friends, always smiling, always eager to make a contribution, finding beauty in the music she played on her piano in her off-hours.

We remember Ellison Onizuka, who, as a child running barefoot through the coffee fields and macadamia groves of Hawaii, dreamed of someday traveling to the Moon. Being an Eagle Scout, he said, had helped him soar to the impressive achievement of his career.

We remember Ronald McNair, who said that he learned perseverance in the cotton fields of South Carolina. His dream was to live aboard the space station, performing experiments and playing his saxophone in the weightlessness of space; Ron, we will miss your saxophone and we will build your space station.

We remember Gregory Jarvis. On that ill-fated flight he was carrying with him a flag of his university in Buffalo, New York—a small token he said, to the people who unlocked his future.

We remember Christa McAuliffe, who captured the imagination of the entire nation, inspiring us with her pluck, her restless spirit of discovery; a teacher, not just to her students, but to an entire people, instilling us all with the excitement of this journey we ride into the future.

We will always remember them, these skilled professionals, scientists and adventurers, these artists and teachers and family men and women, and we will cherish each of their stories—stories of triumph and bravery, stories of true American heroes.

On the day of the disaster, our nation held a vigil by our television sets. In one cruel moment, our exhilaration turned to horror; we waited and watched and tried to make sense of what we had seen. That night, I listened to a call-in program on the radio: people of every age spoke of their sadness and the pride they felt in "our astronauts." Across America, we are reaching out, holding hands, finding comfort in one another.

The sacrifice of your loved ones has stirred the soul of our nation and, through the pain, our hearts have been opened to a profound truth—the future is not free, the story of all human progress is one of a struggle against all odds. We learned again that this America, which Abraham Lincoln called the last best hope of man on Earth, was built on heroism and noble sacrifice. It was built by men and women like our seven star voyagers, who answered a call beyond duty, who gave more than was expected or required, and who gave it with little thought to worldly reward.

We think back to the pioneers of an earlier century, and the sturdy souls who took their families and their belongings and set out into the frontier of the American West. Often, they met with terrible hardship. Along the Oregon Trail you can still see the grave markers of those who fell on the way. But grief only steeled them to the journey ahead.

Today, the frontier is space and the boundaries of human knowledge. Sometimes, when we reach for the stars, we fall short. But we must pick ourselves up again and press on despite the pain. Our nation is indeed fortunate that we can still draw on immense reservoirs of courage, character and fortitude—that we are still blessed with heroes like those of the space shuttle Challenger.

Dick Scobee knew that every launching of a space shuttle is a technological miracle. And he said, if something ever does go wrong, I hope that doesn't mean the end to the space shuttle program. Every family member I talked to asked specifically that we continue the program, that that is what their departed loved one would want above all else. We will not disappoint them.

Today, we promise Dick Scobee and his crew that their dream lives on; that the future they worked so hard to build will become reality. The dedicated men and women of NASA have lost seven members of their family. Still, they too, must forge ahead, with a space program that is effective, safe and efficient, but bold and committed.

Man will continue his conquest of space. To reach out for new goals and ever greater achievements—that is the way we shall commemorate our seven Challenger heroes.

Dick, Mike, Judy, El, Ron, Greg and Christa—your families and your country mourn your passing. We bid you goodbye. We will never forget you. For those who knew you well and loved you, the pain will be deep and enduring. A nation, too, will long feel the loss of her seven sons and daughters, her seven good friends. We can find consolation only in faith, for we know in our hearts that you who flew so high and so proud now make your home beyond the stars, safe in God's promise of eternal life.

May God bless you all and give you comfort in this difficult time.

Further Resources


Burgess, Colin, and Grace George Corrigan. Teacher in Space: Christa McAuliffe and the Challenger Legacy. Lincoln, Neb.: Bison Books, 2000.

Lieurance, Suzanne. The Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster in American History. Berkley Heights, N.J.: Enslow Publishers, 2001.

Vaughan, Diane. The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture and Defiance at NASA. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.


Brown, Stuart F. "Twenty Years After Apollo: Is the U.S. Lost in Space?" Popular Science, vol. 235, July 1989, 63–75.

Kluger, Jerry. "NASA's Orbiting Dream House." Discover, vol. 10, May 1989, 68–72.


" Challenger Space Shuttle." Hawaii State Public Library System Guide to Resources and Services. Available online at; website home page: (accessed May 23, 2003).

"51-L: The Challenger Accident." Space Policy Project, Federation of American Scientists. Available online at; website home page: (accessed May 23, 2003).

"Report of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident." NASA Space Shuttle Missions, Kennedy Space Center. Available online at ; website home page: (accessed May 23, 2003).


The "Challenger" Explosion. MPI Home Video, 1989, VHS.

Disaster: Point of No Return. Films for the Humanities and Sciences, 1997, VHS.

It Was No Accident: An Insider's View of the Unethical Decision-Making Process that Doomed the Space Shuttle "Challenger." State University of New York, Binghamton, 1988, VHS.