Americans of all ages were on the edge of their seats as the space shuttle Challenger finally lifted off Launch Pad 39B at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., in the late morning of Jan. 28, 1986. The mission, the 10th for the Challenger, would carry the first ordinary American — a social studies teacher from New Hampshire named Christa McAuliffe. The seven-day mission of flight 51-L was twofold — to send America’s first private citizen to space and to deploy a satellite to observe Halley’s Comet as its orbit passed closest to the sun.
But the excitement quickly turned to disbelief and horror as the shuttle broke apart in a fiery trail across the clear blue sky 72 seconds later. All seven crew members — spacecraft commander Francis R. “Dick” Scobee; pilot Michael J. Smith; mission specialists Judith A. Resnik, Ronald E. McNair and Ellison S. Onizuka; payload specialist Gregory Jarvis; and McAuliffe — were killed.
Thousands of Arkansas schoolchildren and their teachers were watching the launch on TV. Mary Beth Greenway, an English and humanities teacher at Parkview High School in Little Rock, and William A. Dempsey, a physics teacher at Arkansas High School in Texarkana, had been among 114 finalists for the Teacher in Space Project that selected McAuliffe. The program, announced 18 months earlier by President Ronald Reagan, received more than 11,000 applications. McAuliffe was scheduled to teach two lessons from the shuttle to be broadcast live to students.
Smith was scheduled to pilot another Challenger mission Sept. 27 of that year that would have taken a journalist into space. Guy Reel, Jeff Herzer, Lucy Himstedt, Chuck Dovish and Anne Farris were among the Arkansans who had applied, according to Arkansas Gazette reports.
Flight 51-L, originally scheduled for Jan. 22, had been plagued by weather and technical delays. Cold weather the morning of the launch — temperatures had fallen into the mid-20s overnight and ice coated much of the launch pad — caused o-rings on the shuttle’s right-hand solid rocket booster to fail, allowing extremely hot gas to escape from inside the booster, which compromised the connection with the external fuel tank and led to an explosion of burning hydrogen and liquid oxygen. The solid rocket boosters separating from that exploding tank are seen on this Page 1 of the Jan. 29, 1986, Gazette.
Arkansans paid tribute to Challenger by leaving porch lights on from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. the Thursday after the disaster. Eureka Springs radio station KTCN observed a moment of silence at 11:39 a.m. that day. The Hall High School yearbook staff dedicated the 1986 book to the crew.
The shuttle program paused for 32 months.
Also that year publisher Hugh B. Patterson Jr. announced that the Gazette had been sold to Gannett Co. Inc., the nation’s largest newspaper chain, for $51 million. See arkansasonline.com/200/1986bonus.
— Kelly Brant
You can download a PDF by clicking the image, or by clicking here.