On January 28, the space shuttle Challenger took off safely with six astronauts
and a high school teacher, Christa McAuliffe, aboard. But tragedy soon
struck. O-rings that sealed gaps between segments of the solid-rocket boosters
were designed to flex, compensating for the sudden increase of pressure created
by the boosters' ignition. But due to the unusual cold that day, the O-rings
momentarily failed, allowing hot gases to leak.
Fifty-nine seconds into the flight, a small flame emerged on the side of the
rocket and quickly spread to the propellant tank and the strut that secured the
booster. The liquid hydrogen ignited, and the propellant tank ruptured. The
solid booster then broke free of the strut and crashed into the booster,
causing the unit to explode and killing all seven astronauts. It was the worst
space disaster in history.