The Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster

US #2544 pictures Challenger above Earth during one of its missions.

On January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger broke apart during the launch of its 10th mission.

America’s second orbiter in the Space Shuttle program (after Columbia), Challenger was named after the British ship HMS Challenger.  The contract for the shuttle’s construction was awarded in 1979 and was completed in 1981. 

Item #M892 – Own a cover carried to space aboard the Challenger in 1983.

The Challenger made its first flight on April 4, 1983.  After that, it flew 85% of all shuttle missions, averaging about three per year between 1983 and 1985.  During this time, Challenger carried the first American woman, African American, Dutchman, and Canadian into space.  It also conducted three Spacelab missions and made the first nighttime launch and landing of a space shuttle. 

US #2544 – Colorano Silk Cachet First Day Cover.

In 1986, Challenger was slated to carry out the 25th mission of the US Space Shuttle program.  The mission was planned as the first Teacher in Space Project and would have observed Halley’s Comet for six days.  The crew consisted of Commander Francis R. Scobee, Pilot Michael J. Smith, Mission Specialists Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, and Judith Resnik, Payload Specialists Gregory Jarvis and Christa McAuliffe, who was also a teacher and would have been the first teacher in space.

Challenger was launched at 11:38 local time on January 28, 1986, in Cape Canaveral, Florida.  Just 73 seconds into the flight, the spacecraft disintegrated due to a structural failure (later discovered to be a failure in the primary and secondary O-rings in the shuttle’s right Solid Rocket Booster).  

US #2544 – Classic First Day Cover.

The disaster killed all seven crew members and destroyed the orbiter.  It was the first of two US orbiters to be destroyed in flight (the other being the Columbia in 2003).  Days after the accident, President Ronald Reagan attended a special ceremony honoring the crew members where he stated, “Sometimes, when we reach for the stars, we fall short. But we must pick ourselves up again and press on despite the pain.”

Immediately after the accident, the shuttle program was put on hiatus for 32 months.  President Ronald Reagan also created a special commission to investigate the accident.  The commission found a number of issues that contributed to the accident.  Among them were that NASA had violated its own safety rules and the failure of some managers to address warnings about the O-rings and launching in cold temperatures. 

Item #SPC1518 – Commemorative cover produced for the 25th anniversary.

Recovery efforts began right after the accident and continued for some time.  Among the items recovered was an American flag, dubbed the Challenger flag, which had been sent by Boy Scout Troop 514 of Monument, Colorado.  Most of the debris from the shuttled was buried in a former missile silo.

Item #4905253 – Fleetwood First Day Proof Card.

The Challenger and its crew have been honored in a variety of ways since then.  The families of the crew created the Challenger Center for Space Science Education.  Seven asteroids, as well as seven craters on the Moon, were named for each of the astronauts.  A painting of the crew was added to the US Capitol Brumidi Corridors.  There are several Challenger schools and a Challenger Air Force Unit. 

Click here to see what else happened on This Day in History.

Did you like this article? Click here to rate:
Share this Article


  1. Something about airborne accidents that gain our attention over surface accidents and Space accidents are even more shocking. Having flown, losing those we knew to air accidents was never easy to absorb but we must go on and so the space program. Let us never forget those who sacrificed so that we could gain.

  2. Thank you for your description of the Challenger disaster. I watched in horror on TV as the failed launch occurred. Although I am not a writer, I penned the following at that time. Please excuse the length, but I wanted to share this with our stamp collecting community as we think about this sad, sad occasion in our American history:
    January 28, 1986
    As men, we build and fly rockets. Much of the time, these rockets blast off, fly into space and return to earth the way they are designed.
    The scientists and engineers put the very highest technology and effort into these rockets. Our astronauts achieve success and reach heights never before experienced by Gods’ creation.
    Mans’ chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. God would also have us, as his highest creation, to strive for the best we can achieve in our lifetime. These seven brave astronauts represented some of the highest achievers America has to offer.
    They sacrificed their lives in a noble venture that few of us ever dream of, much less attempt. We are shocked and hurt that their attempt failed and they were lost. Their families are deeply grieved, but oh, so proud of their loved ones!
    My prayer is that each member of that noble crew, knew Jesus Christ as their personal savior. If so, that sudden explosion we all watched in horror, carried them in an instant to heights far greater than the goal of space. They are now in the presence of God Almighty observing their mourning loved ones and countrymen collect themselves for new and even greater achievements.
    We miss them, but they have reached the real goal we should all be striving for, Heaven!
    Don Ward
    Newbury Park

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *