The Challenger disaster is one of those things that’s etched into people’s memories. The launch and resulting explosion were broadcast live. Professional astronauts may have been prepared to accept their fate, but that doesn’t make it any less tragic.
There’ve been fitting tributes over the years, with people paying homage to the crew members who lost their lives. But a new tribute is remarkable for its simplicity. And this new tribute is all centred around a soccer ball.
Ellison Onizuka was one of the Challenger seven who perished on January 28, 1986, when the shuttle exploded 73 seconds into its flight. His daughter and other soccer players from Clear Lake High School, near NASA’s Johnson Space Center, gave Ellison a soccer ball to take into space with him. Almost unbelievably, the soccer ball was recovered among the wreckage after the crash.
The soccer ball was returned to the high school, where it was on display for the past three decades, with its meaning fading into obscurity with each passing year. Eventually, the Principal of the high school, Karen Engle, learned about the significance of the soccer ball’s history.
Because of Clear Lake High School’s close proximity to the Johnson Space Center, another astronaut now has a son attending the same school. His name is Shane Kimbrough, and he offered to carry a memento from the high school into space. That’s when Principal Engle had the idea to send the soccer ball with Kimbrough on his mission to the International Space Station.
The causes of the Challenger accident are well-known. An O-ring failed in the cold temperature, and pressurized burning gas escaped and eventually caused the failure of the external fuel tank. The resulting fiery explosion left no doubt about the fate of the people onboard the shuttle.
It’s poignant that the soccer ball got a second chance to make it into space, when the Challenger seven never will. This tribute is touching for its simplicity, and is somehow more powerful than other tributes made with fanfare and speeches.
It must be difficult for family members of the Challenger seven to see the photos and videos of the explosion. Maybe this simple image of a soccer ball floating in zero gravity will take the place of those other images.
The Challenger seven deserve to be remembered for their spirit and dedication, rather than for the explosion they died in.
These are the seven people who perished in the Challenger accident:
An iconic section of the fuselage recovered from space shuttle Challenger with the American flag (left) and the flight deck windows recovered from space shuttle Columbia (right) are part of a new, permanent memorial, “Forever Remembered,” that opened on June 27, 2015 in the Space Shuttle Atlantis exhibit at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida – featuring shuttle hardware and personal crew items never before on display for viewing by the public. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
The “Forever Remembered” memorial tribute was officially opened by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana, both veteran shuttle astronauts, at a very special and moving small private NASA ceremony attended by families of the 14 fallen crew members and invited members of the media including Universe Today on June 27, 2015.
“I believe that it’s important to share this story with everyone, and not just push it aside, or try to hide it,” Cabana said at the ceremony, as tears welled up in everyone present.
The shuttle tribute is located on the ground floor of the Space Shuttle Atlantis pavilion at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex and features shuttle orbiter hardware recovered from both the Challenger STS-51L and Columbia STS-107 accidents, as well as personal crew items from all 14 courageous astronauts who lost their lives – items never before on display for viewing by the public.
The 2000 square foot exhibit features an iconic section of the fuselage recovered from space shuttle Challenger emblazoned with the American flag and the flight deck windows recovered from space shuttle Columbia, that are part of the permanent “Forever Remembered” memorial that opened on June 27, 2015 – see photo above.
It also holds the largest collection of personal items of both flight crews in individual displays about the 14 crew members in a hallway that leads to a plaque with a quote from U.S. President Ronald Reagan.
“The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted, it belongs to the brave,” said President Ronald Reagan in remarks to the nation in mourning shortly after the explosion of Space Shuttle Challenger on Jan. 28, 1986.
The “Forever Remembered” display was conceived in private by a very small circle spearheaded by Cabana and unknown by outsiders until the day it was formally opened. It completes the display inside the Atlantis pavilion, which commemorates NASA’s three decade long Space Shuttle Program that flew 135 missions from 1981 to 2011 with the reusable delta-winged vehicles that “captivated a generation.”
It is intended to be an emotional experience and “designed to honor the crews, pay tribute to the spacecraft and emphasize the importance of learning from the past” and the tragic consequences. This will enable safer flights in the future and fortify the spirit of never giving up on the exploration of space.
“The tragedies galvanized the agency to learn from these painful events, not only to safely return the shuttle fleet to flight, but to help assure the safety of future explorers,” NASA said in a statement.
Several dozen family members attended the tearful, heartfelt opening ceremony of “Forever Remembered” with very emotional remarks from Cabana and Bolden.
“These crews and these vehicles are part of who we are as an agency, and a nation. They tell the story of our never ending quest to explore, and our undying spirit to never give up,” Cabana stated at the ceremony.
Columbia and Challenger were the nation’s first two orbiters to be built. Columbia launched on the maiden space shuttle flight on April 12, 1981 on what is revered by many as the “boldest test flight in history” with NASA astronauts John Young and Bob Crippen.
“When I look into those windows, I see John Young and Bob Crippen preparing to launch on the boldest test flight in history, the first flight of America’s space shuttle, Columbia,” Cabana added.
“I see a much younger Bob Cabana launching to space on his first command, and I see Rick and Willie and the rest of the 107 crew smiling and experiencing the wonders of space on the final flight of Columbia.”
The idea to create a permanent memorial originated with a team led by Bob Cabana, and approved by Charlie Bolden only after every one of the astronauts families were in complete and unqualified agreement that this tribute display was the right thing to do in memory of their loved ones, tragically lost during the in flight accidents in 1986 and 2003.
“The crews of Challenger and Columbia are forever a part of a story that is ongoing,” Bolden said at the ceremony.
“It is the story of humankind’s evolving journey into space, the unknown, and the outer-reaches of knowledge, discovery and possibility. It is a story of hope.”
The wives of the two shuttle commanders, shared their thoughts on the new exhibit:
“It’s a beautiful remembrance of all the shuttles, with the marvelous display of Atlantis. Nothing compares to it in the world,” said June Scobee Rodgers, whose husband, Dick Scobee, commanded Challenger on STS-51L, in a statement.
“But Challenger and Columbia are not forgotten, and they’re well represented.”
“I knew it would be very emotional to see, but honestly, I didn’t expect to be so impacted by it. I just can’t stop thinking about it. As you walk in, you know you’re in a special place,” Evelyn Husband Thompson said of the memorial. Her husband, Rick, commanded Columbia on STS-107.
Here is a NASA description of both the Columbia and Challenger accidents and crews:
“Temperatures at Kennedy Space Center were just a few degrees above freezing on the morning of Jan. 28, 1986, as Challenger lifted off on its 10th mission, STS-51L. One minute and 13 seconds into the flight, a booster failure caused an explosion that destroyed the vehicle, resulting in the loss of the crew of seven astronauts: Commander Francis Scobee, Pilot Michael J. Smith, Mission Specialists Judith Resnik, Ellison Onizuka and Ronald McNair, and Payload Specialists Gregory Jarvis and Christa McAuliffe, a New Hampshire schoolteacher.”
“Seventeen years later, on Jan. 16, 2003, NASA’s flagship orbiter Columbia thundered into orbit on STS-107, a 16-day science mission. On board were Commander Rick Husband, Pilot Willie McCool, Payload Commander Michael Anderson, Mission Specialists Kalpana Chawla, David Brown and Laurel Clark, and Payload Specialist Ilan Ramon, Israel’s first astronaut. On Feb. 1, 2003, the orbiter broke apart in the skies above east Texas as it re-entered Earth’s atmosphere on the way to a planned landing at Kennedy. Seven more lives were lost.”
Today the fallen astronauts legacy of human spaceflight lives on at NASA with the International Space Station, the development of Commercial Crew manned capsules for low Earth orbit, and the development of the Orion deep space crew exploration vehicle and SLS rocket for NASA’s ambitious plans to send ‘Human to Mars’ in the 2030s.
Read more about both fallen shuttle crews and the Apollo 1 crew who perished in a launch pad accident in January 1967 in my tribute story posted here during NASA’s solemn week of remembrance in January.
I urge everyone to visit this hallowed “Forever Remembered” memorial at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex and remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice to benefit all of us in the quest for new knowledge of the boundless expanse of space leading to new discoveries we cannot fathom today.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.
In remembrance of the Challenger accident 25 years ago today, several notable people have issued statements in memory of the Challenger crew, as well as the crews of Apollo 1 and Columbia. Below are a few; add your own, if you like, in the comments section.
Additionally, a high-quality documentary about the accident has been produced by SnagFilms, an online library of more than 2000 documentary films available to view for free. The film, which you can access below, is called “Catastrophic Failure.”
Statement by Steven J. McAuliffe on the 25th Anniversary of the Challenger Accident
“That people across the country steadfastly remember the crew members of Challenger is both comforting and inspirational to our family. Scott, Caroline and I very much appreciate the kind thoughts and continuous support we have received over the years.
Christa confidently and joyfully embraced life, no less than her friends and colleagues on Challenger, and no less than the crews of Columbia , Apollo 1, and all of those people who courageously follow their own paths every day. I know Christa would say that that is the most precious lesson – ordinary people can make extraordinary contributions when they remain true to themselves and enthusiastically pursue their own dreams wherever they may lead. Our family knows that generations of students and teachers will continue to share her love of learning and love of life, and will do great things for our world. We believe Christa would be especially pleased by, and proud of the Challenger Center for Space Science Education and its mission. The Challenger Center honors each crew member’s devotion to learning and exploration, touching the lives of over 400,000 students and 40,000 teachers each year. In that way, Challenger Center continues the teaching mission of all the crew members of STS-51-L.”
(About Steven J. McAuliffe: Originally from Massachusetts , Steven McAuliffe now lives in Concord , New Hampshire , where he serves as a Federal judge. He is the widower of Christa McAuliffe, NASA’s Teacher in Space candidate. Steve continues to serve as a Founding Director for Challenger Center for Space Science Education. He has two children, Scott and Caroline, and has remarried.)
US President Barack Obama on NASA’s Day of Remembrance (January 27, 2011)
“Fifty years ago, a young President facing mounting pressure at home propelled a fledgling space agency on a bold, new course that would push the frontiers of exploration to new heights. Today, on this Day of Remembrance when NASA reflects on the mighty sacrifices made to push those frontiers, America’s space agency is working to achieve even greater goals. NASA’s new 21st Century course will foster new industries that create jobs, pioneer technology innovation, and inspire a new generation of explorers through education – all while continuing its fundamental missions of exploring our home planet and the cosmos.
Throughout history, however, we have seen that achieving great things sometimes comes at great cost and we mourn the brave astronauts who made the ultimate sacrifice in support of NASA missions throughout the agency’s storied history. We pause to reflect on the tragic loss of the Apollo 1 crew, those who boarded the space shuttle Challenger in search of a brighter future, and the brave souls who perished on the space shuttle Columbia.
Though triumph and tragedy, each of us has benefited from their courage and devotion, and we honor their memory by dedicating ourselves to a better tomorrow. Despite the challenges before us today, let us commit ourselves and continue their valiant journey toward a more vibrant and secure future.”
Message from NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden: Day of Remembrance
“The last week of January every year brings us the opportunity to reflect on the sobering realities of our space exploration enterprise. Each time men and women board a spacecraft, their actions carry great risk along with the opportunity for great discoveries and the chance to push the envelope of our human achievement. Today, we honor the Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia crews, as well as other members of the NASA family who lost their lives supporting NASA’s mission of exploration. We thank them and their families for their extraordinary sacrifices in the service of our nation.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the loss of Challenger — a tragedy that caused us to completely re-think our systems and processes as we worked to make the shuttle safer. The nation will never forget Jan. 28, 1986, nor its indelible images. The astronauts in that crew were personal friends of mine, as were the astronauts aboard Columbia when it was lost. The Apollo I crew perished while I was studying at the Naval Academy, and I mourned their loss in the line of duty with the nation. These brave men and women will always be a part of us, and we are still building on their legacies.
NASA has learned hard lessons from each of our tragedies, and they are lessons that we will continue to keep at the forefront of our work as we continuously strive for a culture of safety that will help us avoid our past mistakes and heed warnings while corrective measures are possible. In memory of our colleagues, I ask the NASA Family once again to always make its opinions known and to be unafraid to speak up to those in authority, so that safety can always be our guiding principle and the sacrifices of our friends and colleagues will not be in vain.
On this Day of Remembrance, as we honor our fallen heroes with tributes and public ceremonies, I will take part in a wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery. Across the country, flags at NASA Headquarters and the NASA centers will be flown at half-mast in memory of our colleagues lost in the cause of exploration.
The legacy of those who have perished is present every day in our work and inspires generations of new space explorers. Every day, with each new challenge we overcome and every discovery we make, we honor these remarkable men and women. Please join me in working to fulfill their dreams for the future.”
Twenty-five years ago, the world watched in horror as the space shuttle Challenger blew up before our eyes on that cold January 28,1986. Touched by the tragedy, a musician named Stephen Kay wrote a song within two days of the accident in tribute to the seven crewmembers who died. But he couldn’t find any way to get the song out to the public. “You have to remember that this was 25 years ago,” Kay wrote on his website. “There was no Internet to speak of (not like it is now); no YouTube, personal websites were in their infancy, no FaceBook or MySpace, no blogs etc. – none of those various avenues to release it yourself and promote it yourself.” So, the song was put on the shelf for nearly a quarter century. But recently, when Kay realized the 25th anniversary of the accident was approaching, he used every bit of modern technology he could to bring the song back to life, and created a video to go with it. This heartfelt, moving video has been a labor of love for Kay, to honor the brave men and women of Challenger Mission STS-51L.
Christa McAuliffe’s life tragically ended on January 28th, 1986 when Space Shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after launch, killing all seven crewmembers. She was about to make history, becoming the first teacher in space, giving unique lessons from orbit to students back on Earth. McAuliffe never had the chance to fulfill her dream of teaching from space and in the aftermath of the accident, her lesson plans were filed away by NASA with sadness and grief. The lessons were incomplete, unfinished, and most regrettably, they were never were taught. But now, 22 years later, the lessons are alive again, brought back to life by NASA engineer Jerry Woodfill who says he came across McAuliffe’s lessons by accident.
Woodfill has worked for NASA for 43 years as an electrical engineer. Most notably, he helped design the alarm system for the Apollo program. So, on Apollo 13 when Jim Lovell said, “Houston, we’ve had a problem,” Woodfill was monitoring the spacecraft.
But in 1989 Woodfill joined the New Initiatives Office, where NASA employees were asked to come up with new concepts on how to make NASA information public and easily accessible. This was about the time that PC’s and Macs were becoming popular. Woodfill had the idea of taking NASA resources that were public domain, scanning them and putting them on diskettes. He was especially interested in the educational materials NASA had. “In fact, if I hadn’t been an engineer I probably would have enjoyed being a teacher,” he said. “I like to communicate to children and adults as well, especially about science and the space program.”
Woodfill worked on compiling the NASA educational materials, and created the Space Educator’s Handbook. It was on diskettes and free for teachers. Woodfill put the word out and distributed hundreds of them. This wasn’t his day job, however. At that time he was designing concepts for going to Mars or returning to the moon. But he was able to devote some of his working hours to the New Initiatives program and the Space Educator’s Handbook, although he worked on it on his own time as well. He tried to be innovative. “I tried to create a space education encyclopedia with an attitude,” he said. “There are space comic books and coloring books, all kinds of things you wouldn’t find on an erudite space or astronomy site.”
When the internet came into vogue, Woodfill created a website and put the Space Educator’s Handbook online. He tried to keep things up to date, adding new astronaut biographies and educational materials from the various NASA missions. “All this stuff is owned by the American people who pay their taxes to support NASA,” said Woodfill.
But there were a lot of materials for one man to manage it all. “I had file cabinets full of old materials; astronaut biographies, old Toys in Space information and other things on aviation, etc.,” he said. “So last September (2007) I was thinking after working here 43 years, I should try to straighten things up a bit.”
As Woodfill was going through folder after folder of papers he came across an article about 30 pages long that included a study by an education specialist named Bob Mayfield about the Challenger mission. It proposed how Christa McAuliffe’s eight lessons would be performed on orbit.
Woodfill was intrigued. These papers probably hadn’t seen the light of day for over 20 years.
“This article by Bob Mayfield was descriptions only, no sketches or anything,” said Woodfill. “But it was an excellent narrative. He did a wonderful job of writing this, but I’ve never been able to locate him. He went into great detail to consider how these things would work in Zero G, and how the experiments might affect the environment in the crew cabin – if it would be safe. I was so impressed with it. I thought, I’ve always wanted to do something about the fact that Christa and the crew never got to perform those lessons. Challenger was lost and the lessons were lost, too in that tragedy. I thought it would be wonderful if I could resurrect them in some fashion.”
So Woodfill set to work. As good as Mayfield’s narrative was, it was incomplete without McAuliffe’s input of actually doing the lessons in space. Woodfill was trying to piece everything together into cohesive lesson plans that teachers today could use, but it was difficult. At the end of Mayfield’s article was a list of videos that had been shot of McAuliffe, her backup Barbara Morgan, and Mayfield practicing and choreographing how the lessons would be done.
Woodfill thought the videos might be helpful. He started hunting for them, but had a little trouble. These videos would have been recorded in 1985, and 22 years later Woodfill wasn’t even sure they would still be in NASA’s archives. But after a few days of searching, with the help from various people in several different NASA offices, the videos were found.
They showed McAuliffe, Morgan and Mayfield, as well as some of the crew including pilot Mike Smith, and mission specialist Judy Resnick practicing the experiments. They were just short snippets, shot 20-30 seconds at a time in a shuttle simulator or in a KC-135 spacecraft (the Vomit Comet) that provided short periods of zero G to test out the procedures. Woodfill converted the videos to DVD and went through 2-3 hours of videos frame by frame to sort everything out.
Using the videos, Bob Mayfield’s paper and his own background in education in creating the Space Educator’s Handbook, Woodfill began re-creating the lessons for classroom use. Woodfill worked on the project for three months, 2-4 hours a day, some of it after hours on his own time. “I had a desire to see Christa’s work brought back to life,” he said. “There was pride, but there’s sadness and a real loss comes through because you see the crew and you remember that they didn’t survive. That motivated and drove me. It was kind of heart wrenching to work on it.”
Woodfill said Mayfield’s paper covered about 15-20 per cent of all the information needed. The other 80 per cent Woodfill had to re-create. “Bob had a goal for each lesson, but I had to find the theory behind each lesson and create the materials lists, step by step processes, what the results might be and follow-up questions.
For example in the hydroponics lesson, Mayfield described it, but Woodfill had to go to the video and enlarge the frames and examine it very closely to correlate everything. Woodfill added sketches, and since there weren’t any high resolution photos of McAuliffe practicing her lessons, Woodfill captured a few good screen shots from the videos.
Finally, when Woodfill finished putting everything together, he decided the best place for these lessons would be with the Challenger Learning Center, the educational centers created in memory of the Challenger crew. He sent out the completed lessons to a few of the 50 Challenger Centers, including to Rita Karl, the Director of Educational Programs at the Challenger Learning Center headquarters in Virginia.
“As you can imagine, I’ve been looking for these lessons my entire career,” said Karl, who was familiar with Woodfill from his Space Educator’s Handbook. “For Jerry to actually work with the material that was available and put these lessons together in a way that teachers could use it was really wonderful. As soon as we saw them, we immediately asked if we could host the lessons on our website.”
The lessons are now complete and available on the Challenger Center website for teachers and students around the world to use and experience what McAuliffe undoubtedly wanted to share from space.
“These lessons are really perfect for teachers who are trying to recognize the Teacher in Space mission, both Christa’s and Barbara’s and also for getting kids interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics,” said Karl. “That’s what the Challenger families intended when they started the Challenger Center. Personally, this is a great moment, as if everything has come full circle to get these lessons available online.”
The Challenger Center recently put out a press release to let teachers know the “Challenger Lost Lessons,” as they are called, are now available. “It’s exciting to see teachers starting to use the lessons, and hopefully by the end of the year we’ll have some really good feedback. My feeling is that Christa’s lessons will be really popular,” said Karl.
Included with the lessons are clips taken from the videos of McAuliffe practicing her lessons from space.
“If you watch the videos, Christa’s personality and her excitement really come through,” said Woodfill. “I got to know her from working with this. You really see what a bright person she was and how innovative she was. You can see all the things she contributed to the performance of the lessons.”
Woodfill says he has received calls and emails from many people, including Barbara Morgan, thanking him for his efforts in bringing back the Lost Lessons. “It’s remarkable that I came across them,” said Woodfill. “I think after the accident, nothing was done with them because Christa never got to teach the lessons from space. But it’s appropriate to do it now, because of the technology available. There’s no way you could have given this kind of treatment of these materials even 15 years ago. But now you can watch the videos and watch Christa perform her lessons. So it does resurrect them, it really does. It’s Christa’s work and it gives honor to her.”
Thanks to Woodfill, McAuliffe’s often-used quote of “I touch the future, I teach” was never more true.
Below is the Challenger Center’s video about the Lost Lessons: