A little over one minute after launch, while traveling at Mach 1.92 and at an altitude of 46,000 feet the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded in the cold bright blue Florida sky at 11:39am, on January 28, 1986. Most people at that time remember where they were and what they were doing when they heard of the worst disaster in NASA history.

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Photo of Space Shuttle Challenger Launch by NASA

Initially NASA mission control and most observers did not realize the orbiter had literally exploded. NASA public affairs officer, Steve Nesbitt who was announcing the launch live spoke these immortal words in the confusion, “Flight control is here looking very carefully at the situation, obviously a major malfunction.”

39 seconds later Nesbitt continued with, “We have a report from the flight dynamics officer that the vehicle has exploded.”

A total of seven crew members were killed. Air Force Lt. Col. Ellison S. Onizuka, Shuttle Pilot Navy Cmdr. Michael J. Smith, Christa McAuliffe, a high school teacher (was going to be the first ordinary civilian in space), Mission Commander Francis R. Scobee, Gregory B. Jarvis, Ronald E. McNair and Judith A. Resnik all died in the accident.

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What Went Wrong

A seal failed on a rocket booster, and the stream of hot gas released by it ignited an external fuel tank. There was evidence that erosion on the O ring seals had been an issue before, and the unusually cold temperatures may have worsened the problem.

"Obviously a Major Malfunction" - January 28, 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger Explodes

Read Next: "Obviously a Major Malfunction" - January 28, 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger Explodes

Engineers from the company that manufactured the rockets gave a warning about the cold-weather risk the night before the Challenger took off. “The recommendation was that we wait until it’s 54 degrees before we launch,” Larry Mulloy, who was then a NASA project manager, said in a 2014 Retro Report video.

The Times reported that temperatures before liftoff that morning “hovered in the low 20s.” The physicist Richard Feynman famously demonstrated how the O rings lost resilience by dropping a piece of the seal in a cup of ice water. – New York Times

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The leaking booster seal can be seen in this NASA photo burning a hole in the external fuel tank
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NASA image shows the Challenger crew cabin intact seconds after the explosion. The crew cabin continued going up approximately 20,000 more feet before it fell to the ocean.

Watch Former Astronaut Dr. Story Musgrave State His Opinion on What Happened to the Astronauts. He believes there were still alive after the blast.

Featured image of Space Shuttle Challenger Launch by NASA