By Cassandra Yany
On Wednesday, Netflix released “Challenger: The Final Flight,” a four-episode docuseries about the tragic explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger.
The doc was directed by Daniel Junge and Steven Leckart, and executive produced by JJ Abrams and Glenn Zipper. It provides a complete look at the events leading up to the takeoff and includes interviews with family members of the seven astronauts who died in the explosion.
According to CNN, the series uses archival footage and home videos, along with interviews from officials and crew members to shed light on the poor decision-making and systemic failures that led up to the disaster, as well as the aftermath that followed.
Challenger took off from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral on January 28, 1986. Just 73 seconds after it launched, the shuttle began breaking apart, due to malfunctioning O-rings in the rocket boosters, which hardened as the temperature decreased. NASA had reportedly known about this damaged hardware for months prior, according to Vanity Fair.
The purpose of mission STS-51-L was to deploy a satellite to study the approaching Halley’s Comet, but it had been delayed multiple times because of technical difficulties.
The crew was one of NASA’s most diverse to date, as reported by the New York Post. One of the astronauts was a teacher, so school children across the country watched in class as the shuttle went down, engulfed by a huge, ominous cloud of smoke. The explosion devastated the nation, especially all of the young children who had watched it live.
Nearly thirty-five years later, we remember the passengers who lost their lives on that dreadful day:
Christa McAuliffe was a teacher at Concord High School in New Hampshire who learned of the Teacher in Space Project— NASA’s plan to fly an educator into space. NASA had hoped that this would help increase public interest in the space shuttle program.
Along with 11,000 others, McAuliffe applied in 1984 to be the first teacher to communicate with students from space. She was chosen as one of two finalists from New Hampshire, then was selected to be part of the STS-51-L crew by a Review Panel in Washington, D.C.
McAuliffe took a year off from teaching to train for the space shuttle mission. While in orbit, she was planning to conduct experiments in chromatography, hydroponics, magnetism and Newton’s laws. She also would have taught two 15-minute classes— one providing a tour of the spacecraft, the other about the benefits of space travel— which would have been broadcasted to students on closed-circuit TV.
The nationwide excitement of having McAuliffe in space was a significant reason why the explosion had such a lasting impact on the country, and was especially upsetting for young students who watched the takeoff or extensive coverage in class.
Gregory Jarvis was an engineer for Hughes Aircraft who served as Payload Specialist 2 on Challenger. In 1984, he was one of two employees from the company that were selected for the Space Shuttle program.
Jarvis was originally supposed to make his shuttle flight in April 1985, but was rescheduled to early January 1986, then rescheduled again, landing him a spot on the STS-51-L crew. From space, he planned to conduct experiments on the effects of weightlessness on fluids.
Dick Scobee earned his pilot wings in 1966 and served as a combat aviator in the Vietnam War, for which he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal.
After the war, Scobee graduated from the USAF Aerospace Research Pilot School and became an Air Force test pilot. He was the commander on Challenger and died a lieutenant colonel.
After graduating from Carnegie Mellon, Judith Resnik worked as a design engineer in missile and radar projects at RCA (Radio Corporation of America). There, she performed circuit design for the missile and surface radar division. She later developed electronics and software for NASA’s sounding rocket and telemetry systems programs.
Resnik qualified as a professional aircraft pilot in 1977 and was recruited into the NASA Astronaut Corps in 1978. She was one of six women selected for the program out of 8,000 applicants. At NASA, and piloted the Northrop T-38 Talon, trained intensely, conducted research, and developed different systems and software.
Resnik served as a mission specialist on the maiden voyage of Discovery in 1984 for her first space flight from August to September. During this flight, she operated a shuttle’s robotic arm (which she created), and deployed and conducted experiments on a solar array wing to determine if there was a way to generate additional electric power during missions. She was the second American woman in space and the first Jewish woman in space.
Resnik was a mission specialist on Challenger. After the explosion, further examination of the cockpit shows that her Personal Egress Air Pack was activated, indicating that she may have been alive after the cockpit separated from the vehicle to activate it. Her body was the first to be recovered from the crash by Navy divers.
Ellison Onizuka served as a flight test engineer and test pilot for the U.S. Air Force in the early 1970s. After attending the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School from 1974 to 1975, he became a squadron flight test engineer there and worked as a manager for engineering support in the training resources division.
In 1978, Onizuka was selected for the astronaut program and later worked in the experimentation team, orbiter test team, and launch support screw for the STS-1 and STS-2. At NASA he also worked on the Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory test and revision software team.
Onizzuka’s first space mission was one year before the Challenger explosion, on the mission STS-51-C on the shuttle Discovery. This was the first space shuttle mission for the Department of Defense, and he became the first Asian American to reach space.
Onizuka was a mission specialist aboard Challenger. Similar to Resnik, it is speculated that he could have been alive when the cockpit separated from the vehicle because his Personal Egress Air Pack was also activated. When he died, he held the position of lieutenant colonel, but was later promoted to the rank of colonel.
Ronald McNair received his Ph.D. in Physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1976 and became nationally recognized for his work in laser physics. After graduation, he worked as a staff physicist at the Hugh Research Lab in Malibu, CA.
McNair was one of the ten thousand applicants to be selected in 1978 for the NASA astronaut program. He became the second African American astronaut in 1984 when he flew as a mission specialist for STS-41-B on Challenger from Feb. 3-11.
McNair later served as a mission specialist for STS-51-L. During this flight, he had planned to record the saxophone solo for a song he had worked on with composer Jean-Michel Jarre for his upcoming album Rendez-Vous. This would have been the first original piece of music to be recorded in space.
McNair was also supposed to participate in Jarre’s Rendez-Vous Houston concert through a live feed from Challenger. To honor McNair, Jarre dedicated the last song on the album to him and subtitled it “Ron’s Piece.”
Michael J. Smith
Michael J. Smith served in the Vietnam War, then attended U.S. naval Test Pilot School. After graduation, he was assigned to the Strike Aircraft Test Directorate at NAS Patuxent River in Maryland, where he worked on the A-6E TRAM and Cruise missile guidance systems. In 1976, later returned to NTPS for 18 months as an instructor.
Smith was selected for the astronaut program in May 1980, in which he served as a commander in the Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory, the Deputy Chief of Aircraft Operations, the Technical Assistant to the Director, and the Flights Operations Directorate.
Smith was the pilot for Challenger, and was set to pilot another mission the following fall. His voice was the last heard on the flight deck tape recorder with his final words being “Uh oh.”
All seven passengers were awarded with the Congressional Space Medal of Honor in 2004.