31 Years After Disaster, Challenger Soccer Ball Finally Gets To Orbit

Astronaut Shane Kimbrough took this photo of the Challenger soccer ball floating in front of the ISS's cupola window to mark NASA's day of remembrance for the Challenger disaster. Image: NASA

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.

Ellison Onizuka, one of the seven who perished in the Challenger accident, carried a soccer ball into space. The ball was given to him by his daughter and other soccer players at a local high school. Image: NASA
Ellison Onizuka, one of the seven who perished in the Challenger accident, carried a soccer ball into space. The ball was given to him by his daughter and other soccer players at a local high school. Image: NASA

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.

NASA astronaut Shane Kimbrough, who took the soccer ball into space. Image: NASA
NASA astronaut Shane Kimbrough, who took the soccer ball into space. Image: NASA

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:

  • Ellison Onizuka
  • Francis R. Scobee
  • Michael J. Smith
  • Ronald McNair
  • Judith Resnik
  • Gregory Jarvis
  • Christa McAuliffe

‘Obviously A Major Malfunction’: Today Is Anniversary of Challenger’s Explosion

It was on this day (Jan. 28) in 1986 that stunned viewers across the world saw the Challenger space shuttle explode on television. The broadcast (you can see CNN’s above) was being carried all over the place because the crew included the first teacher in space, Christa McAuliffe. The planned six-day mission, however, lasted just over a minute before catastrophe occurred.

Flying aboard mission 51-L were commander Francis “Dick” Scobee, pilot Michael Smith, mission specialists Judith Resnik, Ellison Onizuka and Ronald McNair, and payload specialists Gregory Jarvis and McAuliffe. The physical cause of the explosion was traced back to a faulty O-ring on one of the shuttle’s external boosters, which weakened in the cold before launch and then failed, leading to the explosion about 72 seconds after launch.

Other factors were cited as well by journalists and the Rogers Commission, such as NASA’s desire to keep to what outsiders said was an unrealistic, quick-moving launch schedule that saw shuttles leave the ground every few weeks to carry commercial and military payloads. NASA and contractor Morton Thiokol made changes to the boosters, and NASA further changed the flight rules and other procedures in response to the disaster.

There are many memorials to the fallen crew, but one of the most cited in education is the 40 Challenger Learning Centers that are located in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom and South Korea. The network was founded by June Scobee Rogers (the widow of commander Scobee) and includes participation from other Challenger family members. Their goal is to “give students the chance to become astronauts and engineers and solve real-world problems as they share the thrill of discovery on missions through the Solar System,” the website states.

Challenger’s anniversary comes in a week that includes other tragic anniversaries, including the Apollo 1 pad fire that claimed three astronauts’ lives (Jan. 27, 1967) and Columbia shuttle breakup that killed seven (Feb. 1, 2003). Other astronauts have died in training accidents; you can see a list at the Astronaut Memorial Foundation. Additionally, four cosmonauts died in spaceflight: Vladimir Komarov (Soyuz 1 on April 24, 1967) and Georgi Dobrovolskiy, Viktor Patsayev, and Vladislav Volkov (Soyuz 11 on June 30, 1971).

The Challenger space shuttle a few moments after the rupture took place in the external tank. Credit: NASA
The Challenger space shuttle a few moments after the rupture took place in the external tank. Credit: NASA