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Remembering Challenger, a disaster that shook up the space program

Thirty years ago, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded just after takeoff, a tragedy that was broadcast on live television. Nationwide excitement for the mission turned to horror over the crew of seven who died on board. Science correspondent Miles O'Brien joins Jeffrey Brown to discuss how the disaster changed space travel and the perception of NASA.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Now to the anniversary of the Challenger shuttle tragedy, and how it changed the U.S. space program for years to come.

    It was 30 years ago today when we watched the Challenger explode on live television just a little more than a minute after it lifted off. All seven people aboard, including a high school teacher who became the first ordinary citizen to go into space, were killed.

    President Ronald Reagan was supposed to deliver the State of the Union speech that night. Instead, he spoke to the country from the Oval Office.

    Here is some of what he said in a video we produced.

  • MAN:

    Three, two, one, and liftoff, liftoff of the 25th space shuttle mission, and it has cleared the tower.

  • MAN:

    Challenger, go with throttle-up.

  • PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN:

    Today is a day for mourning and remembering. Nancy and I are pained to the core by the tragedy of the shuttle Challenger. We know we share this pain with all the people of our country. This is truly a national loss.

  • WOMAN:

    Here comes the flight crew now.

  • PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN:

    We have never lost an astronaut, not in flight. We have never had a tragedy like this.

    And perhaps we've forgotten the courage it took for the crew of the shuttle, but they, the Challenger seven, were aware of the dangers, but overcame them and did their jobs brilliantly. We mourn seven heroes, Michael Smith, Dick Scobee, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe. We mourn their loss as a nation together.

    The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. 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.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    That was 1986.

    Jeffrey Brown has more about that moment, that day, and the years since.

    He spoke earlier today with our science correspondent, Miles O'Brien, who has extensively covered the space program.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Miles, welcome to you.

    You know, one of the reasons why this is so remembered is because it really is so personal, so many people seeing it as it happened on live television or right afterwards. Do you have a personal memory to share?

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    I do. Don't we all?

    Thirty years ago, if you were alive and old enough, you remember where you were. I sent a tweet out today and heard all kinds of vivid stories that people had.

    For me, I was a local reporter in Tampa, Florida. I had been up all night in citrus groves covering the freeze, that historic freeze, which ultimately led to the loss of Challenger, was a big deal for the citrus industry.

    So, I was asleep when Challenger exploded. I got a call from my office, said, you better wake up and get to work. And I walked outside in Tampa, Florida, 150 miles away, and looked up in the blue sky, and saw that horrible, forked rocket plume. You could see it that far away. And I looked at it and was just stunned.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And, of course, the presence of Christa McAuliffe, as a private citizen, captured the imagination of the whole country at that time, right? Remind us what her role was. Why was she there?

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    She was there as the teacher in space, and she had lesson plans, and she was going to go into space and teach children, you know, from space about the wonders of physics and science.

    And she was an enthusiastic teacher who won a competition to be on the space shuttle. And classrooms all over the country were tuned in and watching this launch live, so excited to think that a teacher would be up there and speaking to them in a matter of days and teaching them about space, and that turning in an instant to just horror.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And then, of course, when you look back through time and you look at the impact of what happened on the shuttle program, on NASA, first came, of course, a long investigation into exactly what had caused it.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    Yes.

    And it really led to a big loss of innocence, I think, for all of us in how we viewed NASA. You know, sure, in the Apollo program, we lost three astronauts, 19 years almost to the day prior to Challenger on the launchpad for Apollo 1, but they were test pilots, and they knew the score, and we were in the midst of a space race.

    In the case of Challenger, it was different. NASA was telling us that space access would be routine. The shuttle was going to be a lot like an airliner, so safe that we can put civilians on board, including, on the previous flight, then-Congressman Bill Nelson, and, of course, Christa McAuliffe on this flight.

    So the idea that NASA was telling us it was safe, and the investigation laid bare the fact that they knew it wasn't as safe, and that they were ignoring serious signs of trouble really changed the way we all viewed NASA.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The Columbia shuttle disaster happened in 2003. You have been on the program a number of times. We have talked about sort of where things are at now, the program coming to an end in 2011. What — how do you think about the legacy of Challenger and since?

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    It's a great case study in the limits of technology and some of the decisions that are made in the development of technology.

    One of the key things to remember here is, space shuttles didn't have a crew escape system. If it had a crew escape system, those seven crew members would have very likely survived that day. All of the previous space flights involving human beings from the U.S. did in fact have that crew abort capability.

    Spacecraft today that are being developed as follow-ons to the space shuttle will all have that capability. The shuttle was really a dangerous craft. It was — technologically, it was pushing a lot of boundaries. And there were compromises made in the development to save money that made it ultimately not very safe.

    That's a hard lesson, a lesson that I think has been learned.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    All right, the Challenger disaster 30 years ago today.

    Miles O'Brien, thanks so much.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    You're welcome, Jeff.

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