The ill-fated Challenger, the second space shuttle to be built was the first to conduct a spacewalk. Unfortunately 3 years later in January of 1986, disaster struck when a seal on a rocket booster failed, leading to the shuttle’s destruction 72 seconds into its mission. It was a disaster on many levels for NASA, because not only did it lose seven astronauts and a very expensive shuttle that day but the event showed the world that this was a dangerous business to be in. On this particular launch, media attention was at an all time high, because of the presence of crew member Christa McAulliffe, who was to be the first teacher in space.
The tragedy led to a 32-months hiatus in the shuttle program, and President Ronald Reagan setting up the Rogers Commission, which was to investigate the accident. Not only that, but the Air Force decided to launch its classified military satellites using the Titan IV rockets instead.
The program bounced back however, and saw several highlights in a row in between the launch of a range of science probes and telescopes… in May of 1989, Magellan was the first planetary mission to be launched by an orbiter, despatched to Venus to make a radar map of its surface. Even more important as it would turn out was the launch of the Hubble space telescope (HST) in April of 1990 – the two would have an ongoing affair for quite some time as it turned out because the HST would need quite some maintenance.
However, looking at the results of what Hubble gave us, no one could argue with its importance in NASA’s history. The most important of those re-visits was made by Endeavour, the shuttle which was built to replace Challenger using structural spare parts originally intended for the other orbiters. In December 1993, the shuttle carried up the equipment that would correct Hubble’s flawed vision. The telescope became one of the best showcases for the shuttle as it transformed our knowledge of the cosmos by showing us the most dazzling places in the universe like we had never seen them before.
Stay tuned for part 3 where we take it away starting from the Mir missions!