On 28th January 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart 73 seconds into its flight. The seven crew members (5 NASA astronauts and 2 Payload Specialists) all died. An O-ring seal on the right solid rocket booster failed and led to the disintegration of Challenger.

The Crew Members

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Left to right: Teacher-in-Space payload specialist Sharon Christa McAuliffe; payload specialist Gregory Jarvis; astronaut Judith A. Resnik, mission specialist; Francis R. (Dick) Scobee, mission commander; Ronald E. McNair, mission specialist; Mike J. Smith, pilot; and Ellison S. Onizuka, mission specialist. Photo credit: NASA.

Recovery, Funerals and Time of Death

The time of death for some of the crew members is unknown. The crew compartment had no escape system, and after along search and recovery operation, it was eventually recovered from the ocean floor. Some of the crew members survived the initial disintegration of the shuttle, however the impact of the crew compartment with the surface of the ocean was too violent for those that were still alive in the crew compartment to survive.

Payload Specialist, Christa McAuliffe was due to be the first teacher in space and though only 17% of Americans watched the launch live, 85% of Americans knew about the disaster only an hour after it had happened due to extensive media coverage.

When the bodies of the crew were recovered, they had become semi-liquified. It took several hours for the bodies and fragments of the bodies to be removed due to the it being unsafe for Navy divers to recover the bodies. During the recovery, George Jarvis’ body floated out of the crew compartment and the diving team was unable to recover it. Astronaut, Robert Crippen, rented a fishing boat out of his own pocket and went in search of Jarvis’missing body. On 15th April, Navy divers found Jarvis’ body and recovered it. It was taken to be processed with the other crew members before it was released to his family.

Due to the condition of the bodies after they had been recovered, it was impossible for Navy pathologists to determine a cause of death. However, some of the life support equipment in the crew compartment, that was recovered, had been activated and after investigation it was shown that it had been used between the disintegration and the impact with the ocean.

Three months and a day after the crew transfer took place, on 29th April 1986. The Challenger crew were escorted by astronauts, Dan Brandenstein, Jim Buckley, Norm Thagard, Charles Bolden, Tammy Jernigan, Dick Richards and Lorn Shriver. They were flown from Cape Canaveral to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware where they were released to their relatives.

Judith Resnik, Dick Scobee, and Captain Michael J. Smith, were buried by their families at Arlington National Cemetery at individual grave sites. Mission Specialist Lieutenant Colonel, Ellison Onizuka, was buried at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, Hawaii. Christa McAuliffe’s remains are buried at Calvary Cemetery in Concord, New Hampshire, her home town. The unidentified crew remains were buried at the Space Shuttle Challenger Memorial in Arlington on May 20, 1986.

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