Space Decisions after Challenger

February 7, 1986

Report Outline
Coping with Disaster
New Economic Frontier
Space Station and Beyond
Special Focus

Coping with Disaster

Uncertainty Over Space Problem's Future

Dick Scobee, commander of the ill-fated shuttle Challenger, knew it would happen. “One day one of these things is going to blow up,” he once told a reporter in a private moment. It was a gut feeling widely shared by America's elite astronaut corps, and even by those who worked behind the scenes. “Anyone who has had any connection with the shuttle program has felt someday this would come,” said Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio, one of America's astronaut heroes.

No one was prepared, however, for the grim eventuality when it struck Jan. 28 at 11:39 on a cloudless south Florida morning. One moment Challenger, the most technologically advanced machine every built, arched toward the heavens as flawlessly as the 24 shuttles that had gone before it. The next moment, it disintegrated in a powerful explosion, killing the crew of six astronauts and a guest passenger, high school teacher Christa McAuliffe. The craft flew for only 73 seconds. After 56 previous manned missions over the past 25 years, these were America's first deaths in flight, although others occurred on the ground. Scobee had said he hoped such a disaster would not end the shuttle program.

President Reagan told the nation in a televised address that evening that the shuttle loss, while painful for all Americans, did nothing to diminish his faith in the U.S. space program. A week later in his State of the Union message to Congress, Reagan said: “We're going forward with our shuttle flights. We're going forward to build our space station.” From Capitol Hill to Main Street, Americans seemed to share the president's commitment to push ahead into the “last frontier.”

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