At 73 seconds after the launch of the #Space shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1986, the O-rings that separated the solid rocket booster segments failed due to the cold weather, sending a shot of flame that ignited the external fuel tank, destroying the spacecraft and the seven astronauts inside. The Challenger disaster was searing because it took place before the eyes of the world, on live television. The moment, when the Challenger became a flying funeral pyre for seven human beings, including Christa McAuliffe, was when everything changed.
The space shuttle was conceived in the early 1970's as the basis of a national space line. Everything that went into orbit, NASA, military, and commercial would go on the shuttle. Since the shuttles orbiters would be reusable, the cost of space travel would become cheaper.
The shuttle did not achieve the dream of cheap access to low Earth orbit. Design compromises brought on by lean budgets and the state of aerospace technology of the time created a spacecraft that took months, using a standing army of technicians, to turn around from landing to the next launch. The cost of launching something on shuttle orbiter did not cost any less than launching the same thing on an expendable rocket.
Even before the Challenger disaster convinced NASA that the shuttle would never be a launch vehicle servicing the commercial sector, the United States Congress passed and President Ronald Reagan signed into law the Commercial Space Launch Act of 1984 to encourage the creation of a commercial space launch industry. After the death of the Challenger, President Reagan signed Reagan issued NSDD 254, “United States Space Launch Strategy.” The directive restricted commercial payloads on the shuttle to those that required its unique capabilities. Reagan followed up with the “Presidential Directive on National Space Policy” that required federal government agencies to buy launch services from commercial companies. Thus, Reagan had created a market for commercial launch companies, something that had profound effects later on.
The flight of the Challenger, with its teacher in space, was to be the beginning of a number of missions that would take ordinary Americans into low Earth orbit. NASA was already taking applications for the first journalist in space. An artist in space had also been envisioned, but those plans went by the wayside in the wake of the Challenger disaster.
The shuttles did many remarkable things during the 30-year life of the program. A shuttle launched the Hubble Space Telescope and then a number of crews that repaired and enhanced the orbiting observatory. Space shuttles were instrumental in the building of the International Space Station, but the shuttle fleet never achieved cheap access to space.
A direct line exists between the death of the Challenger and her crew and the advent of a commercial space launch sector, including old-line aerospace companies such as the United Launch Alliance, and the new space swashbucklers such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX. A bitter irony exists that had the Challenger not been destroyed in flight, the growth of a commercial space launch industry might have been delayed for years. The competition between companies like SpaceX, ULA, and Blue Origin is driving down the cost of space travel in ways the space shuttle never could manage.
Ordinary people never flew on the space shuttle again; Barbara Morgan, McAuliffe’s backup, eventually flew as a NASA astronaut, but the well-heeled and adventurous have already flown into space thanks to a partnership between Space Adventures and the Russian Space Agency. A number of vehicles, including the SpaceX Dragon, the Boeing CST-100 Starliner, the suborbital Blue Origin New Shepard, and the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo promise to take anyone healthy enough to travel into space provided they can afford the ticket.
When the Challenger died, the commercial space launch industry was born, like a Phoenix rising from the flames.