Subtitles section Play video Print subtitles On January 28, 1986, only 73 seconds after it lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded. As the world watched on live television, the ensuing fireball plummeted out of the sky and disappeared into the ocean below. The loss of the Challenger and its crew, Francis Dick Scobee, Mike Smith, Judy Resnik, Ellison Onizuka, Ron McNair, Greg Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe stunned the nation and became a defining moment for a generation of Americans. Today we're going to take a look at some shocking facts about the Challenger shuttle disaster. But before we get started, be sure to subscribe to the Weird History Channel. After that, please leave a comment, and let us know what other space exploration-related topics you would like to hear about. Now, let's go back to January of 1986. Originally built in 1975 as a test vehicle for the Space Shuttle program, the Challenger wouldn't be transformed into an actual spacecraft until 1979. It was first launched in 1983 for the mission that would entail the program's first spacewalk. That wasn't the last first the Challenger would participate in. It was also the shuttle that carried the first female American astronaut, Sally Ride, as well as the first African-American astronaut, Guion Bluford. The flight of the Challenger was supposed to be historic because of one of its crew members, 37-year-old Christa McAuliffe. Though she was normally just a social studies teacher from Concord High School in New Hampshire, McAuliffe had been selected by NASA's Teacher in Space program to be the first educator in space. Designed to inspire children and generate publicity for NASA, the plan called for McAuliffe to accompany the Challenger astronauts into orbit and teach a few lessons while they were there. Because of McAuliffe's presence, the launch was heavily covered by the media. And NASA itself provided numerous schools with a raw satellite feed. This meant thousands of schoolchildren, including those from McAuliffe's own class, were watching live when the tragedy occurred. Christa McAuliffe wasn't meant to be the only passenger on the Challenger who would capture the attention of children. NASA also made efforts to get Sesame Street star, Big Bird, on the shuttle. They even contacted Caroll Spinney, the beloved actor who played the giant, yellow muppet about participating in the mission. The plan was never approved by mission control. But in 2015, NASA did confirm that the conversation with Spinney and the producers of Sesame Street took place. [MUSIC PLAYING] The pilot for the mission, which was called STS-52-L by NASA, was Mike Smith. It was to be the first and last spaceflight of his career. Smith also holds the distinction of speaking the last words recorded by any member of the Challenger crew. Just before the explosion, the shuttle's voice recorder captured Smith saying, uh-oh, indicating that at least one crew member knew something was going wrong. Pilot Mike Smith wasn't the only person who knew something wasn't right prior to the explosion. In fact, on the evening before the launch, a group of engineers from a NASA contractor called Morton Thiokol tried to convince their superiors to delay the mission. A meeting was held where the engineers pointed out the launch was scheduled to take place in colder weather than any previous shuttle launch. This was important because the rubber O-rings, which sealed various parts of the shuttle, had frequently failed to perform under chilly conditions. Sadly, the engineers were overruled by their managers. One of those engineers, Bob Eberling, returned from the meeting and told his wife, it's going to blow up. Decades later, Eberling would recall that NASA had their minds set on going up and proving to the world they were right. And they knew what they were doing. But they didn't. For his part, Eberling would retire after the disaster. Decades later, he told the media that his decision to go along with the plans after being overruled haunted him for the rest of his life. [MUSIC PLAYING] The engineers from Morton Thiokol were exactly right in their predictions. The launch proceeded in below freezing temperatures. And when the shuttle lifted off, the O-ring seal on the right rocket booster failed. Heated gas escaped from the rocket and essentially vaporized the material connecting the booster to the shuttle's tank. This created a deadly mixture of liquid oxygen and hydrogen gas. And at 46,000 feet, the combination ignited turning the challenger's fuel tank into a massive fireball. Despite this, the solid fuel strap-on boosters were unaffected and continued to carry the shuttle upwards. [MUSIC PLAYING] In the immediate wake of the disaster, it was widely believed that the crew of the shuttle had died instantly. However, the evidence would later suggest a far more disturbing scenario, one which NASA had attempted to obscure. The Miami Harold's Tropic magazine undertook an independent investigation of the accident which revealed that contrary to early reports, the shuttle cabin had not depressurized in the explosion. This means that the crew was likely alive and awake for the entire three mile descent from the sky to the Atlantic Ocean below. This conclusion is backed up by the fact that several of the astronauts had time to manually activate their personal emergency air packs. [MUSIC PLAYING] While space travel is incredibly dangerous, prior to the Challenger disaster, NASA had never lost an astronaut in spaceflight. In fact, the only previous fatalities the program had experienced were the deaths of Apollo 1 astronauts Roger Chaffee, Virgil "Gus" Grissom, and Edward White who all perished in a fire during a ground test on January 27, 1967. January 28th wasn't just the day that the Challenger was supposed to lift off. It was also the date scheduled for President Ronald Reagan's State of the Union Address. However, with the disaster only six hours old, the president opted to delay the annual speech and instead personally update the American people on the tragedy. The crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger honored us with the manner in which they live their lives. This speech would be hailed as one of Reagan's greatest, quite a testament for a man whose nickname was "The Great Communicator." Thank you. The explosion of the Challenger scattered wreckage over a vast swath of the Atlantic Ocean. And salvage crews would spend weeks recovering all of the pieces. In fact, it would take six weeks until Naval divers finally located the resting place of the crew cabin 100 feet beneath the water, approximately 15 miles east of Cape Canaveral. The remains of the astronauts were recovered. And those that could be identified were returned to their families. Those that couldn't were buried under a monument at Arlington National Cemetery. Following the disaster, investigators determined that NASA had deliberately violated launch rules. Engineers had warned their superiors that it was too cold for the mission to proceed. And launching in such low temperatures was against NASA's own procedures. A former chief scientist at NASA, named Ken Iliff, later claimed that this failure to observe the rules was the primary cause of the accident. So why did NASA ignore the warnings and press ahead? There were many factors that influenced the launch decision. But the Rogers Commission noted that in an effort to speed launch times to meet NASA's goal of 24 missions a year, the agency had pushed its people and systems beyond their capabilities. This drive to achieve more launches was tied directly to the survival of the Space Shuttle program as it tried to fulfill its designed intent as a single-launch vehicle that could serve the nation's growing commercial, scientific, and military launch requirements. The explosion of the Challenger made headlines throughout the world. And almost immediately there were calls for the entire Space Shuttle program to be halted. This suspension would last three years, during which time NASA worked to implement the safety recommendations of a presidential panel called the Rogers Commission. The commission, which included high profile astronauts like Neil Armstrong and Sally Ride, was formed to help prevent similar disasters from happening again. And it mostly worked. It wouldn't be until 2003 that NASA would experience another tragic incident. That time it was the Space Shuttle Columbia that burned up during reentry. [MUSIC PLAYING] Debris from the Challenger would continue to wash up on the coast of Florida long after the disaster. For example, in December of 1996, almost 11 years after the explosion, beach-goers at Cocoa Beach, over 20 miles away from Kennedy Space Center, found two large pieces of the shuttle washed up in the surf. The pieces were so big, NASA had to use a front end loader to pick them up and move them from the beach. The death of a civilian, Christa McAuliffe, was especially damaging to the space program. And the fallout would last for decades. In fact, it would be 22 years before NASA would send up another civilian. Incidentally, that civilian would be Barbara Morgan, who was Christa McAuliffe's backup for the original Challenger mission. Morgan, who like McAuliffe was a teacher of social studies and English, joined the crew of Space Shuttle Endeavor for a successful mission in 2007. [MUSIC PLAYING] The explosion of the Challenger changed America and its space program forever. It would also prove to be an inspiration to artists who would memorialize the tragedy in sculptures, songs, and television shows. One memorable example of this took place at the Rendez-vous Houston concert in 1986, where musician, John Michel Jarre, a friend of Challenger astronaut Ronald McNair, played a saxophone solo McNair himself intended to play during the doomed mission. The track would go on to be sampled in the music of Frank Turner, Adam Young, John Denver, and even Beyoncé. The brave, wonderful people who were aboard the Challenger Space Shuttle. It's called Flying For Me. The disaster was also acknowledged in the scripts of then popular television shows like Punky Brewster and Star Trek The Next Generation. We were watching the Space Shuttle take off. It exploded. [MUSIC PLAYING] At the time of its destruction, the Challenger was carrying more than astronauts and scientific equipment. It was also carrying a soccer ball. Crew member Ellison Onizuka had brought with him a soccer ball that had once been used by his daughter, Janelle's, high school soccer team. The soccer ball miraculously was recovered intact from the wreckage of the shuttle. It was returned to Onizuka's daughter who allowed it to be put on display as a memorial at Clear Lake High School. Fast forward 30 years to when Shane Kimbrough, another astronaut with a daughter who attended Clear Lake, asked the school if he could take the ball with him on a mission to the International Space Station.