NASA's Shuttle program was begun in the 1970s, to create reusable craft for transporting cargo into space. Previous space craft could only be used once, then were discarded. The first shuttle, Columbia was launched in 1981. One year later, the Challenger rolled off the assembly line as the second shuttle of the US fleet. They were followed by Discovery in 1983 and Atlantis in 1985.
The Challenger flew nine successful missions before that fateful day of the disaster in 1986.
Shuttle mission 51L was much like most other missions. The Challenger was scheduled to carry some cargo, the Tracking Data Relay Satellite-2 (TDRS-2), as well as fly the Shuttle-Pointed Tool for Astronomy (SPARTAN-203)/Halley's Comet Experiment Deployable, a free-flying module designed to observe tail and coma of Halleys comet with two ultraviolet spectrometers and two cameras.
One thing made this mission unique. It was scheduled to be the first flight of a new program called TISP, the Teacher In Space Program. The Challenger was scheduled to carry Sharon Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher to fly in space.
The Crew on the Challenger:
Selected from among more than 11,000 applicants from the education profession for entrance into the astronaut ranks, McAuliffe was very excited about the opportunity to participate in the space program. "I watched the Space Age being born and I would like to participate."
Besides McAuliffe, the Challenger crew consisted of mission commander Francis R. Scobee; pilot Michael J. Smith; mission specialists Ronald E. McNair, Ellison S. Onizuka, and Judith A. Resnik; and payload specialists Gregory B. Jarvis. Christa was also listed as a payload specialist.
From the beginning, though, Shuttle Mission STS-51L was plagued by problems. Liftoff was initally scheduled from at 3:43 p.m. EST on January 22, 1986. It slipped to Jan. 23, then Jan. 24, due to delays in mission 61-C and finally reset for Jan. 25 because of bad weather at transoceanic abort landing (TAL) site in Dakar, Senegal. The launch was again postponed for one day when launch processing was unable to meet new morning liftoff time. Predicted bad weather at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) caused the launch to be rescheduled for 9:37 a.m. EST, Jan. 27, but it was delayed another 24 hours when ground servicing equipment hatch closing fixture could not be removed from orbiter hatch.
The fixture was sawed off and an attaching bolt drilled out before closeout completed. During this delay, the cross winds exceeded limits at KSC's Shuttle Landing Facility. There as a final delay of two hours when a hardware interface module in the launch processing system, which monitors fire detection system, failed during liquid hydrogen tanking procedures. The Challenger finally lifted off at 11:38:00 a.m. EST.
Seventy three seconds into the mission, the Challenger exploded, killing the entire crew.