Disaster struck America’s space program on January 28, 1986, shortly after the space shuttle Challenger lifted off from its launchpad at Cape Canaveral, Florida. Seventy-three seconds into its flight, Challenger suddenly disintegrated into a ball of fire. Millions of Americans watched their televisions in horror as the shuttle fell to the ocean, killing the seven crew members. Among the astronauts was Christa McAuliffe, who had spent months training to become the nation’s first teacher in space. An investigation concluded that the explosion was caused by a faulty O-ring seal in one of the shuttle’s solid-fuel rockets.
It was not the first or last tragedy for the space program. On January 27, 1967, astronauts Gus Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chaffee were in their command module at Cape Canaveral, conducting a preflight test for the first Apollo manned mission, when one of them reported, “Fire – I smell fire.” Seconds later, flames swept through the capsule. Technicians rushed to get the hatch open, but the heat and smoke drove them back. The three crew members perished.
On February 1, 2003, the shuttle Columbia disintegrated in flames over Texas as it headed for a landing at Cape Canaveral. All seven astronauts aboard died. Debris rained down over hundreds of square miles in Texas and Louisiana.
Scores of American astronauts have risked their lives to lead the world into space. Those who perished were pulling us into the future, and we’ll continue to follow them. As President Reagan noted after the Challenger disaster, “We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them . . . as they prepared for the journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.’ ”