Remembering Challenger

Three perspectives on one of NASA’s darkest days.

The sky over Cape Canaveral on the morning of January 28, 1986. (NASA)
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Those of us old enough to remember it may be surprised (shocked?) to hear that the Challenger accident, 30 years ago today, marks—roughly—the midway point of the Space Age.  In fact, Sputnik and Challenger are slightly closer in time than the accident is to us today.

They say perspective comes with time, so what have we learned? The U.S. space program’s first fatal in-flight accident turns out, thankfully, to have been a rarity. NASA has lost only one astronaut crew since, in the Columbia accident 17 years later. The space shuttle was retired with a 99 percent safety record over 135 flights, and there’s good reason to think spaceflight will be safer in the future. Not only will fewer people be flying (at least on NASA missions), the commercial vehicles now in development will have launch escape systems, something Challenger lacked.

But “safe” is a relative term, and cultural acceptance of risk is changing. Thirty years from now, will a flight to orbit be considered as routine as air travel? Will it ever? We’d like to think that the Challenger era will someday be viewed like the early days of aviation, a dangerous period now past.

On this anniversary we present three astronaut reminiscences—two from our archive and one new—covering the day of Challenger and the flights just before and after.

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