If you are over 40 years old you might remember terrifying live broadcast on January 28, 1986. More than thirty years ago, millions of television viewers were horrified to witness the live broadcast of the space shuttle Challenger exploding 73 seconds into flight, ending the lives of all seven crew members including five NASA astronauts and two payload specialists. And they were equally horrified to learn in the aftermath of the disaster that the faulty design had been chosen by NASA to satisfy powerful politicians who had demanded the mission be launched, even under unsafe conditions.
This story is often retold in oral tradition and broadcast news, in public speeches and in private conversations and all around the Internet. Some spaceflight historians however believe that each element of the opening paragraph is factually untrue or at best extremely dubious.
NBC News space analyst James Oberg suggests that only few people actually saw what happened live on television, the Challenger shuttler didn’t explode, the crew didn’t die instantly and it wasn’t inevitable.
1. A nation watched as tragedy unfolded
According to official statement millions of Americans (17% of the total population) watched the launch live on TV because of Payload Specialist Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher in space. Media coverage of the explosion was extensive: one study reported that 85% of Americans surveyed had heard the news within an hour of the accident.
Few people actually saw what happened live on television. The flight occurred during the early years of cable news, and although CNN was indeed carrying the launch when the shuttle was destroyed, all major broadcast stations had cut away — only to quickly return with taped relays. With Christa McAuliffe set to be the first teacher in space, NASA had arranged a satellite broadcast of the full mission into television sets in many schools, but the general public did not have access to this unless they were one of the then-few people with satellite dishes. What most people recall as a “live broadcast” was actually the taped replay broadcast soon after the event.
2. Space shuttle exploded
The shuttle did not explode in the common definition of that word. There was no shock wave, no detonation, no “bang” — viewers on the ground just heard the roar of the engines stop as the shuttle’s fuel tank tore apart, spilling liquid oxygen and hydrogen which formed a huge fireball at an altitude of 46,000 ft. (Some television documentaries later added the sound of an explosion to these images.) But both solid-fuel strap-on boosters climbed up out of the cloud, still firing and unharmed by any explosion. Challenger itself was torn apart as it was flung free of the other rocket components and turned broadside into the Mach 2 airstream. Individual propellant tanks were seen exploding — but by then, the spacecraft was already in pieces.
3. All crew members died instantly
The exact timing of the death of the crew is unknown; several crew members are known to have survived the initial breakup of the spacecraft. But the shuttle had no escape system, and the impact of the crew compartment with the ocean surface was too violent to be survivable.
The cabin hit the water at a speed greater than 200 mph, resulting in a force of about 200 G’s — crushing the structure and destroying everything inside. If the crew did lose consciousness (and the cabin may have been sufficiently intact to hold enough air long enough to prevent this), it’s unknown if they would have regained it as the air thickened during the last seconds of the fall. Official NASA commemorations of “Challenger’s 73-second flight” subtly deflect attention from what was happened in the almost three minutes of flight (and life) remaining after the breakup.
Some conspiracy theorists like contributors on the chat forum, CluesForum.infoclaim 6 of the 7 Challenger crew members are still alive and are mingling in society today despite the fact that the shuttle blew up in the atmosphere back in 1986.
Francis Richard Scobee, Commander (date of birth May 19, 1939)
Strangely, there’s a man also named Richard Scobee, the CEO of a Chicago marketing-advertising company called Cows in Trees, who bears a striking resemblance (factoring in the 30-year timelapse) to Commander Richard Scobee — same high forehead, same eyebrows, same wide-set eyes that are slightly tilted down in their outer corners. (The source of the pic on the right of CEO Richard Scobee is his LinkedIn page.)
Michael John Smith, Challenger pilot (date of birth April 30, 1945)
There’s a man also named Michael J. Smith, who bears a striking resemblance to astronaut Michael J. Smith — same horizontal eyebrows, same grey-blue eyes, same vertical indentation in the tip of the nose. This Michael J. Smith is a Professor Emeritus (retired) of Industrial and Systems Engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Ronald McNair, Challenger’s mission specialist (date of birth Oct. 21, 1950)
The second African-American astronaut, with a Ph.D. in physics, would be 64 years old if he had not perished in the space shuttle explosion. If Ronald (l) were still alive today, he would look just like this pic of his brother, Carl (r).
Carl McNair is an author, education consultant and inspirational speaker. He is the founder and president emeritus of the Ronald E. McNair Foundation in honor of his brother. Here’s Carl’s LinkedIn page.
Ellison Onizuka, Challenger mission specialist ( date of birth June 24, 1946)
the first Japanese-American astronaut, also has a lookalike brother named Claude. Born on June 24, 1946 in Hawaii, Ellison would be 68 years old today if he had not died in the Challenger explosion. If Ellison were still alive, he would look just like this pic of his younger brother Claude — same eyebrows, same eyes, same crow’s feet wrinkles, same nose, even the same hair-parting. Claude Onizuka is a Liquor Adjudication Board Member of the Department of Liquor Control, County of Hawaii, Hilo, Hawaii.
Judith Resnik, Challenger mission specialist (date of birth April 5, 1949)
If she were alive today, it is not difficult to imagine that after 29 years, astronaut Judith Resnik would look like Arthur Liman Professor of Law Judith Resnik at Yale Law School — dark curly hair, dark eyes, same eyebrow shape, same lines on both sides of the face extending up from the jaw.
Simonshack draws our attention to how both Judith Resnicks’ upper lips form a slight peak (on their left) when they speak:
Sharon Christa McAuliffe, NASA Teacher in Space Project (date of birth Sept. 2, 1948)
If Challenger had not exploded, she would be the first teacher in space. There’s a Sharon A. McAuliffe, an adjunct professor at Syracuse University College of Law, who kinda looks like an older astronaut McAuliffe, factoring in the 30 years timelapse. Look at the cowlick of hair, sweeping from the center of their hairlines to the left side of their foreheads.
4. An unavoidable price for progress
Claims that the disaster was the unavoidable price to be paid for pioneering a new frontier were self-serving rationalizations on the part of those responsible for incompetent engineering management — the disaster should have been avoidable.
NASA managers made a bad call for the launch decision, and engineers who had qualms about the O-rings were bullied or bamboozled into acquiescence. The skeptics’ argument that launching with record cold temperatures is valid, but it probably was not argued as persuasively as it might have been, in hindsight. If launched on a warmer day, with gentler high-altitude winds, there’s every reason to suppose the flight would have been successful and the troublesome seal design (which already had the attention of designers) would have been modified at a pace that turned out to have been far too leisurely. The disaster need never have happened if managers and workers had clung to known principles of safely operating on the edge of extreme hazards — nothing was learned by the disaster that hadn’t already been learned , and then forgotten.