The Space Shuttle Challenger was hurtling through the air at twice the speed of sound when pilot Michael Smith noticed something alarming.
Sitting on the right side of the flight deck, Smith looked out his window and likely saw a flash of vapor or a fire.
“Uh oh,” he said.
Down on the ground at Mission Control, a computer screen indicated falling pressure in the right booster rocket. It was leaking fuel.
As was later learned, the cold of the Florida morning had stiffened the rubber O-rings that held the booster sections together, containing the explosive fuel inside. The rings failed to expand fully in the cold, leaving a gap of less than a millimeter between booster sections.
It was enough.
The breach allowed a few grams of superheated fuel to burn through.
At one minute and 12 seconds after liftoff, the small flame grew, taking only three seconds to penetrate the fuel tank’s aluminum skin.
The tank quickly ruptured, igniting the hydrogen fuel and causing a massive, Hindenburg-like explosion.
The booster rockets separated, and kept blasting upward on diverging paths. A little-known Air Force official whose title was range safety officer quickly hit a self-destruct button, causing the boosters to explode and fall into the sea rather than on any populated areas.
She attended Framingham State College, and in 1970, she married her former high school boyfriend Steve McAuliffe.
In 1983, she landed her “dream job,” teaching social studies at Concord High School. She was an engaging and well-liked teacher. She would bring her guitar to class and strum ’60s protest songs. She occasionally had students dress in period costumes.
Then, in August 1984, McAuliffe saw a headline in the local paper reading, “Reagan Wants Teacher in Space.”
“Today,” President Ronald Reagan said, “I’m directing NASA to begin a search to choose as the first citizen passenger in the history of our space program one of America’s finest — a teacher.”
The announcement sounded pure, but the program was really a gambit to bolster the president’s reelection chances. The administration had previously cut funding to the National Education Association, leaving the group to denounce Reagan as “America’s Scrooge on education.”
“With the election three months away,” the author writes, “the president and his advisors saw a chance to promote the space program and win teachers’ votes in one stroke.”
That fall, while attending a Washington, DC, teachers conference, McAuliffe stumbled upon a booth promoting the Teacher in Space program. She picked up an application, thinking it might be “a great way to influence students — not because it would make her famous, but because it was something unusual, something fun,” a friend of McAuliffe’s says in the book.
It was the sixth postponement for the high-profile mission, and the powers that be were determined it would be the last.
On the eve of January 28, temperatures at the Florida launch pad fell to 22 degrees. The launch tower’s railings and cameras were covered with ice. During a teleconference a few hours before the launch, the makers of the O-rings expressed concern that cold might compromise the shuttle, but one NASA manager infamously fired back, “When do you want me to launch — next April?”
The Challenger went ahead with its blastoff, despite temperatures much colder than any previous launch. Disaster followed 72 seconds later.
As they streaked through the air, the seven crew members were jammed into the crew cabin, with Scobee, Smith, Onizuka and Resnick on the flight deck above and McAuliffe, Jarvis and McNair on the windowless middeck below. After the booster explosion, the interior of the crew cabin, which was protected by heat-resistant silicon tiles made to withstand reentry, was not burned up.
The unexpected ignition of the rocket fuel instead gave it 2 million pounds of sudden thrust, sending it blasting into the sky and crushing the passengers inside with twenty G’s of force — multiple times the three G’s their training had accustomed the astronauts to.
An investigation later concluded the jump in G-force was “survivable, and the probability of injury is low.”