On January 28, 1986, six American astronauts and a schoolteacher lost their lives after the explosion of Space Shuttle Challenger (mission STS-51-L) and the subsequent high-impact crash of its orbiter with the Atlantic Ocean. The disaster was both man- and nature-borne, with a sequence of poor engineering and management decisions colliding head-on with abnormally cold temperatures and a high-altitude gust of wind on launch day.

The crew was one of the closest, tightest-knit in the history of the space shuttle program and at the time was regarded highly as a key player in the evolution of space exploration. The Teacher-in-Space program, after all, was poised to usher in an era of accessible space travel.

Mike Ciannilli, the project manager of the Space Shuttle Challenger Office at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, fields the public’s ongoing questions and comments about the Challenger accident. Nearly three decades after the event, fueled by memories burned into the impressionable minds of the hopeful and curious nation, the sadness endures.

“The public really likes to share with me where they were when the accident happened. They really want to express how they felt. To me, that shows how powerful the stamp on history that moment in time had on a generation of folks,” he said.

Through sustained interaction with the family members of the deceased crew, Ciannilli, who was only a college freshman at the time of the accident, has developed a nuanced appreciation of the seven individuals who boarded the shuttle that January day. He knows that in the aftermath of the event, the nation mourned the loss not only of the brave and brilliant crew but kind individuals whose space legacy unintentionally dwarfed their day-to-day personas as educators, artists, parents, and spouses.

As the years progress since the fatal accident, Ciannilli believes the legacy of the STS-51-L crew grows not only in historic value but scientific and humanitarian value, as well, especially with a future geared toward a commercial crew and space launch system.

“I think this is the perfect time to revisit the lessons learned so we don’t ever allow [an accident like that] to happen again,” he said. “The Challenger crew can help us to achieve exactly that. They have a tremendous ability to impact our future success in a positive way.”

The crew of Space Shuttle mission STS-51-L. In the back row from left to right: Ellison S. Onizuka, Sharon Christa McAuliffe, Greg Jarvis, and Judy Resnik. In the front row from left to right: Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee, and Ron McNair. Credits: NASA

The crew of Space Shuttle mission STS-51-L. In the back row from left to right: Ellison S. Onizuka, Sharon Christa McAuliffe, Greg Jarvis, and Judy Resnik. In the front row from left to right: Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee, and Ron McNair. Credits: NASA

Sharon Christa McAuliffe

The death of Sharon Christa McAuliffe was particularly deemed a tragedy by members of the Rogers Commission, the investigative committee formed to provide answers about the cause of the Jan. 28 accident. McAuliffe was not a formally trained astronaut, after all, but rather the first participant in the Teacher-in-Space project, a Reagan-era NASA program to fuel school children’s interest in science, technology, engineering, and math and to prove the relevance and importance of the federally funded space shuttle program. The outspoken Rogers Commission member Dr. Richard Feynman wrote in his renowned appendix to the official investigation report that the most serious consequence of NASA’s poor management was “to encourage ordinary citizens to fly in such a dangerous machine, as if it had attained the safety of an ordinary airliner.”

Shortly after graduating from Massachusetts’ Framingham State College in 1970, McAuliffe, a 37-year-old social studies teacher from Concord, New Hampshire, married her longtime boyfriend Steven and moved to Maryland after his acceptance at Georgetown Law School. That same year she began her first teaching position as an American history teacher. As the years progressed she obtained a master’s degree in education and broadened her focus on history to civics, English, and social studies. She was employed at Concord High School at the time of her death.

McAuliffe was chosen initially as a top candidate by the Council of Chief State School Officers from 11,000 applicants to broadcast two, 15-minute science lessons from the space shuttle to millions of students nationwide via public broadcasting. NASA officials made the final call to select McAuliffe as the primary candidate and Idaho schoolteacher Barbara Morgan as the backup candidate for the program (Morgan went on to become the first educator in space in 2007 when she flew on the STS-118 flight of Endeavor). McAuliffe, upon accepting her selection, said although she would only be one body on Challenger, she would be taking with her the souls of the other nine Teacher-in-Space finalists she befriended.

The New York Times reports that McAuliffe was well liked by students for her “down to earth” teaching style and enthusiastic delivery. In an interview with Barbara Morgan -who trained beside McAuliffe before the Jan. 28 launch – Space.com reports McAuliffe’s motto was “I touch the future, I teach.” In [cleveryoutubepopup video=”sHPpWrM0OO4″ width=”425″ quality=”medium” linktext=”an interview for the Teacher in Space program”] , she said, “I would like to humanize the space age by giving a perspective from a non-astronaut because I think the students will look at that and say this is an ordinary person, this ordinary person is contributing to history, and if they can make that connection, then they’re going to get excited about history, they’re going to get excited about the future, they’re going to get excited about space.” She was survived by her husband, daughter, and son.

Christa McAulliffe training in the Vomit Comet

Christa McAulliffe, pictured here while training on the “Vomit Comet.” Her death following the Challenger disaster shocked the American public, who had fallen in love with her manners and composure. – Credits: NASA.

Gregory Jarvis

Gregory Jarvis, 41, served as a payload specialist on board Challenger. He received his master’s degree in electrical engineering from Northeastern University in 1969 and was honorably discharged with the rank of Captain from the Air Force in 1973. In the years that followed he worked in a variety of space- and aircraft-related engineering and managerial positions before being selected in July 1984 as a candidate for the Challenger flight. The New York Times reports Jarvis was a personable, hard-working individual with a drive for outdoor endurance sports, a thrill-seeker who spent his free time with his wife Maria Jarvis-Tinsley pursuing long-distance cycling, cross-country skiing, and backpacking, among other sports. He and Marcia lived at Hermosa Beach in California within walking distance to the ocean, its salty surges often an accompaniment to Jarvis’ melodies on classical guitar. Marcia told the Daily Breeze newspaper in 2006 that Gregory had a “twinkle in his eye” and “the best smile.” In 2011, Jarvis posthumously received West Coast University’s first-ever Distinguished Alumnus Award. Marcia accepted the award in his honor.


Ronald E. McNair

Ronald E. McNair, 36, served as mission specialist for Challenger. He received his doctorate in physics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1976 in addition to several honorary doctorates in law and science from other universities and became staff physicist with Hughes Research Laboratories in California. An all-around all-star, McNair excelled not only in science but also in education and sports (Karate). He was a hero in the eyes of many, a beacon of the cliché American success story of a hard-working individual from humble beginnings rising to the top (The University at Buffalo reports McNair was born in a house that had neither running water or electricity). He is also an African-American idol, a man who has reminded millions that discrimination of any kind can be met with bold-faced confidence, perseverance, and success. In October 1999, Kent State University established the McNair Program in his honor to help prepare first-generation, low-income undergraduates for doctoral study. McNair’s brother, meanwhile, founded the Dr. Ronald E. McNair Foundation Educational Science Literacy Foundation to help motivate children for science. Although lesser-known as a saxophonist, McNair was planning on recording a saxophone solo on board Challenger for a track on French instrumental electronic music composer Jean Michel Jarre’s album Rendez-Vous. The last track on the album—which reached #9 in the UK charts after its release in 1986—was dedicated to McNair and the other perished astronauts. McNair was survived by his wife and two kids.


Judith A. Resnik

Judith A. Resnik, 36, graduated from the University of Maryland in 1977 with a doctoral degree in electrical engineering. She was employed by RCA, the Laboratory of Neurophysiology at the National Institutes of Health, and Xerox before being selected by NASA as an astronaut candidate in 1978. She became mission specialist for the maiden flight of Discovery and spent seven days as the second woman to go to space before returning safely on Sept. 5, 1984. She remained physically active in her free time and, like many other crewmembers, played music. She excelled in classical piano and was remembered by her undergraduate faculty adviser at Carnegie Mellon as an “amazing person.” In an interview with Carnegie Mellon University, Resnik’s cousin recalled her as a “a diligent student and wonderful human being.”


Francis R. (Dick) Scobee

Francis R. (Dick) Scobee, 46, served as mission commander for the fateful Challenger flight. He received his bachelor’s degree in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Arizona in 1965, years after first enlisting in the U.S. Air Force. His Air Force career, which included a stint in Vietnam, earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal. Upon his return from Vietnam, he attended and graduated from the U.S. Air Force Aerospace Research Pilot School at Edwards base in California and logged more than 6,500 hours of flight time in 45 types of aircraft. The New York Times reports Scobee’s aspiration to be a pilot developed as a young child, his bedroom ceiling littered with model airplanes. His motto of perseverance carried him through school, football, and even the Air Force where he started out as a repairman for propeller engines. Scobee was first selected as an astronaut candidate in 1978 and piloted the STS-41-C mission, the fifth launch of Challenger in 1984.

His friends and family recall him as a man with modest talents who had to work hard for his many achievements. His calm, quiet, and grounded nature attracted numerous friends and acquaintances as well as his wife June, who spent weekends with Scobee in their open-cockpit Starduster biplane. June, who wrote Silver Linings: Triumph of the Challenger 7, told Space Safety Magazine if it weren’t for his space fame, Dick would have been remembered for being a “truly honest and humble man” as well as a great father and, above all, husband.

“He was a really good guy who cared a great deal about others and their safety, but he loved me the most,” June said in an email. “We were truly soul mates, having married as teenagers, helping each other through college and into our dream jobs.”

When Dick found out he was selected for the flight, June was the first to feel his elation. “He reached me, lifted me high, and swung me around deliriously,” she recalled.

The pair had two children. After his death, June became founding chair of the Challenger Center for Space Science Education, an organization dedicated to sparking youth interest in science and engineering.


Mike J. Smith

Mike J. Smith, 40, was Challenger’s pilot. He graduated from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in 1968 with a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering. He received numerous accolades during and after his stint in the Navy including the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, the Navy Distinguished Flying Cross, three Air Medals, 13 Strike Flight Air Medals, the Navy Commendation Medal with “V”, the Navy Unit Citation, and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry with Silver Star. Smith was selected as an astronaut candidate in May 1980. In an interview with NBC News, he said he was most looking forward to “the experience of doing the ascent and seeing all the things that everyone comes back and talks about.” He also added the crew had spent plenty of time preparing for the mission, and he hoped everything would happen “close to the way we’ve planned it.” He was the last crewmember to make contact with Earth, his words “uh oh” transmitted to mission control just before the breakup of the craft. He was survived by his wife Jane and three children and was buried three days after what would have been his 41st birthday.


Ellison S. Onizuka

Ellison S. Onizuka, 39, mission specialist for Challenger, was a Hawaii native who received his master’s in aerospace engineering from the University of Colorado as well as training for the United States Air Force through ROTC. At the McClellan Air Force Base in California, he served as an aerospace flight test engineer and participated in flight test programs for numerous aircraft. Then, in 1974, he trained at the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School before being assigned to the staff there. He was selected as an astronaut candidate by NASA in 1978 and served as mission specialist on board Discovery in 1985 becoming the first Asian-American to fly in space. In an interview with the University of Colorado, Onizuka’s academic advisor recalled Onizuka as an excellent student and natural leader. In an interview with CNN, Onizuka’s wife Lorna described her late husband as an individual committed to pushing the boundaries of exploration. He was survived by Lorna and his two daughters.


About the author

Michelle La Vone


Michelle graduated from the Science Communication Program at the University of Tennessee in 2012. She is now a part-time freelance reporter based in Nashville, Tenn. and can be contacted via www.michellelavone.com. She loves being in nature, traveling, and writing about all the awesome things people do, think, create and know.

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