On the 28th January 1986, the NASA Space Shuttle orbiter Challenger broke apart 73 seconds after it lifted off from the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida. All seven members of crew were killed, which led to NASA suspending all space shuttle missions for over two and a half years.
The Challenger mission had three key objectives. Firstly, it was to deploy a satellite that was part of a system that enables NASA and other US government agencies to communicate. Secondly, they were to deploy the SPARTAN-203 satellite to observe Haley’s Comet. Finally, on board Challenger was the first teacher from the Teacher in Space Project – a program implemented by President Ronald Regan which would see teachers delivering lessons from orbit.
The night before the launch had seen temperatures drop below freezing. Ice had formed on the launch tower and on the shuttle itself that led to Rockwell, the contractor that built the shuttle, to express concerns. Furthermore, the company that provided the O-rings that sealed joints on the Solid Rocket Boosters used at launch only had enough test data to guarantee them working properly down to temperatures of 53 °F (12 °C). On the morning of the launch temperatures were 29 °F (−1.7 °C), which was way below the tested safe temperature for the component.
At 11.39am the Challenger lifted off, and 73 seconds later the shuttle began to disintegrate following a huge fireball. The crew compartment was finally found on the ocean floor six weeks later. An investigation determined that the disaster happened due to two of the O-rings failing due to the low temperatures during the launch.