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At 11:39 Eastern Standard Time on January 28, 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger was destroyed just off the coast of Florida, 73 seconds after launch. The disaster was one of the most public in the history of the American space program, and it halted the further launching of any other shuttles by NASA for a period of 32 months. 7 astronauts were killed in the disaster.

How did it happen?

The launch of the Challenger shuttle had been delayed several times over the 6 days following its scheduled January 22 departure date. Poor weather conditions and problems with other shuttle missions, combined with access hatch failures and crosswinds all conspired to keep Challenger stuck to the launch pad until the 28 of January. That morning, temperatures were recorded at 31 degrees C, which was at the lower end of acceptable launch conditions. The cold weather contributed to the inability of O-rings on the solid rocket boosters to form a proper seal. One of these O-rings failed as soon as the shuttle lifted off the pad, leading to a catastrophic deflagration caused by escaping pressurized gasses and hydrogen fuel. The shuttle then broke up at an altitude of 14.6 kilometers due to extreme buffeting from wind and speed which stressed the vehicle at 20g, four times its rated capability.

Aftermath

Pieces of the shuttle rained down into the Atlantic ocean, along with rocket components and fuel tanks. Challenger contain no escape mechanism, so while there were indications that some of the astronauts had survived the initial explosion, they were trapped inside the crew compartment. All 7 occupants were killed in the disaster, but no ground fatalities were recorded. Over the months that followed the accident, 15 tons of debris were salvaged from the ocean floor, allowing a partial reconstruction of the shuttle and its associated rockets and cargo.

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