STS 51-L was destroyed 73 seconds after lift-off on the morning of January 28th, 1986.
I was in my high school library’s “resource room” (playing chess, I think) when someone said that the space shuttle had exploded. After determining that he wasn’t joking, I asked if he meant “exploded”, as in “a fireball and everything”. He said “yes”, and that he had seen the replay on television. I told my chess opponent and friend that the external tank must have blown up for some reason.
Being a bit of a space program fan, I was more than familiar with all the criticism that the Space Shuttle Main Engines had received, and figured that a space shuttle disaster was most-likely to involve either the SSME’s during lift-off or the heat tiles during re-entry. Since the shuttle had proven that the tiles worked just fine, the glaring weak point was, obviously, the engines. One of them must have malfunctioned in a major way and taken the entire vehicle and crew with it.
Instead, the “some reason” (when you cut through all the politics, bureaucracy, and finger-pointing) is really something pretty simple and pretty stupid.
Just like the majority of the other technological disasters that so often end up costing people their lives. Millions of disaster like this are averted every day. But sometimes, for “some reason”, one slips through. And it usually changes the world when it does.
I’ve come to realize that the destruction of the Challenger is one of my “I remember exactly where I was when I heard” moments.
Besides the interrupted chess game in the school library, another thing that sticks with me about that day is the address that President Reagan gave. It’s worth watching again.
Here is an old (not updated since 1997) but extensive link-filled page on the disaster at FAS.