CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. —For many, no single word evokes as much pain.
A quarter-century later, images of the exploding space shuttle still signify all that can go wrong with technology and the sharpest minds. The accident on Jan. 28, 1986 — a scant 73 seconds into flight, nine miles above the Atlantic for all to see — remains NASA's most visible failure.
It was the world's first high-tech catastrophe to unfold on live TV. Adding to the anguish was the young audience: Schoolchildren everywhere tuned in that morning to watch the launch of the first schoolteacher and ordinary citizen bound for space, Christa McAuliffe.
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McAuliffe and six others on board perished as the cameras rolled, victims of stiff O-ring seals and feeble bureaucratic decisions.
It was, as one grief and trauma expert recalls, "the beginning of the age when the whole world knew what happened as it happened."
"That was kind of our pilot study for all the rest to come, I think. It was so ghastly," said Sally Karioth, a professor in Florida State University's school of nursing.
The crew compartment shot out of the fireball, intact, and continued upward another three miles before plummeting. The free fall lasted more than two minutes. There was no parachute to slow the descent, no escape system whatsoever; NASA had skipped all that in shuttle development. Space travel was considered so ordinary, in fact, that the Challenger seven wore little more than blue coveralls and skimpy motorcycle-type helmets for takeoff.
In a horrific flash, the most diverse space crew ever — including one African-American, one Japanese-American and two women, one of them Jewish — was gone. The name of NASA's second oldest shuttle was forever locked in a where-were-you moment.
"You say 'Challenger' and then we see that figure of smoke in the sky," said Karioth, who teaches death and dying classes.
The death of a young, vivacious schoolteacher, combined with NASA's stubborn refusal to share information about the accident and the realization that America's space program was fallible, added to the nation's collective pain.
President Ronald Reagan's poetic tribute soothed the day's raw emotions.
"The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives," Reagan told a grieving nation after canceling that night's State of the Union address. "We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and 'slipped the surly bonds of Earth' to 'touch the face of God.' "
NASA safely had launched shuttles 24 times before, and a sense of routine and hurry-it-up had crept in. The space agency wanted to pull off 15 missions in 1986. Repeated delays with Columbia on that year's first flight and then with Challenger were spoiling the effort.
The first federal Martin Luther King holiday had just been observed. NASA's Voyager 2 probe, flying farther than any previous spacecraft, had swung past Uranus, discovering 10 new moons. "That's What Friends Are For," the AIDS charity anthem, topped the music charts. And a 37-year-old schoolteacher from Concord, N.H., was about to rocket into orbit.
"Imagine a history teacher making history," McAuliffe observed before the flight. She got an apple from a technician atop the ice-encrusted launch pad, before boarding Challenger one final time.
In the 20s at daybreak, the temperature had risen only into the mid-30s by the time Challenger blasted off at 11:38 a.m. "Go at throttle up," radioed commander Francis "Dick" Scobee.
What happened next was unthinkable, his widow says.
"It was really a shock wave that went across our country and around the world," June Scobee Rodgers said in an interview this week with the Associated Press. "People witnessed the loss of Challenger over and over on their televisions."
Gregory Jarvis. Christa McAuliffe. Ronald McNair. Ellison Onizuka. Judith Resnik. Dick Scobee. Michael Smith. The first of the shuttle astronauts to die on the job.
NASA paused Thursday to remember all 17 astronauts lost in the line of duty over the years, including three from the Apollo launch pad fire in 1967 and seven from the shuttle Columbia in 2003. A wreath was laid at Arlington National Cemetery. And the shuttle fleet is grounded once more. Fuel tank cracking is the latest culprit.