It was a unique mission that was yet to score a routine era: one in which civilians take the shuttle as they fly. But January 28, 1986, 25 years ago today, the dream of extraterrestrial stroll was interrupted. For the first time, Americans have lost astronauts into space.
In the (short) transcript of conversations recorded aboard the shuttle Challenger, 28 January 1986, the cry of Michael J. Driver Smith, 73 seconds after launch, is the last comment of the list. A moment later, the shuttle Challenger, flanked by his two thrusters ignited before disintegrating in a huge white ball of debris streaking the blue sky before falling into the sea
Aboard the shuttle, seven astronauts, five men and two women. Among these women, Christa McAuliffe, an astronaut like no other (below).
On the ground, the premises of the mission control center in Houston, among the spectators in the stands or in schools riveted to their television screens, is unbelief. It will take several seconds before realizing what was happening. Never before have Americans had lost an astronaut in flight, the only other fatal accident, the death of three astronauts of Apollo 1, had occurred during a training ground.
After long seconds of silence, the spokesman for NASA had a terse comment become infamous: "Obviously, this is a major malfunction." After a pause, he confirmed in a neutral tone that the shuttle "exploded."
A shuttle like an airplane
The story of the conquest of space is marked first. In 1981, the spacecraft had replaced the rockets of the Apollo program. For the first time, astronauts had a real spacecraft able to fly and land like an airplane, before resuming for another mission.
"I remember reading, in the late 70s or early 80s, we planned to launch by several months or even a week," recalls Robert Lamontagne, a professor at the University of Montreal .
The shuttles were particularly used to launch commercial satellites as to scientific research and less to do with exploration as Apollo, who traveled to the moon. But in 30 years, the shuttles have been 135 missions, an average of ... 4.5 per year.
Going into space will never be a walk. The investigation showed that the cold he had in Florida the night before the Challenger launch had damaged the joint of one of the engines. The fire spread quickly to the hydrogen tank of the shuttle, causing decay in a cloud of steam and gas that resembled an explosion. The survey also highlighted shortcomings in the chain of command at NASA and its subcontractors, engineers had tried to draw attention to the effects of cold on the components of the spacecraft.
After the explosion of propellants and the disintegration of the shuttle cockpit, slightly damaged but depressurized, fell into the sea boats recovered the body. Of emergency oxygen bottles had been activated manually, suggesting that astronauts had survived at least, without necessarily being aware at the initial explosion of the shuttle.
In the sky, today, seven asteroids are now their names.