“Obviously, a major malfunction.”

Commander Francis R. Scobee. Pilot Micheal J. Smith. Mission Specialist Ronald McNair. Mission Specialist Ellison Onizuka. Mission Specialist Judith Resnik. Payload Specialist Gregory Jarvis. Payload Specialist and Teacher Christa McAuliffe.

The heroic crew of Mission STS-51-L knew all about the risks. They knew that space flight was not completely safe. They knew that, despite all of NASA’s preparations, once their vehicle left its launch pad — they could encounter any number of dangers. They knew that agreeing to undertake this mission could mean the last time they saw their families. Certainly, the crew was unaware of the circumstances. They never knew the severity of the ice accumulation; they never knew about the infamous “O-rings,” either. But as for the risks…they knew.

Challenger

It was the rest of us who were in for a rude awakening when Challenger exploded shortly after liftoff on January 28, 1986.

In the 30 years since that day, we’ve experienced triumphs, and even more tragedy: Discovery’s return to space. The Mars rover landings. The loss of Columbia on re-entry. But still, Challenger stands alone as a definitive moment in time for anyone who experienced January 28, 1986.

It wasn’t just that the orbiter exploded in flight — it was how the orbiter exploded in flight. Challenger was carrying an American school teacher (McAliffe), and the entire country had become wrapped up in her story — exploring space as a way of advancing children’s interest in the Universe. Many American classrooms took a break from lessons to watch the Challenger launch live on TV. Justifiably, NASA had built up the event as a historic first; and the entire country was eagerly looking on. Though the morning was wickedly cold, the atmosphere at the launch pad and around the country was pure magic. A teacher in space!

With America’s children watching, a faulty O-ring allowed fire to escape the left rocket-booster, which ignited the external fuel tank and destroyed the orbiter. The entire flight lasted just 73 seconds. Just like that, seven American heroes were lost. Just like that, the innocence of a generation was wiped out.

As a child of the 80s, I remember it like it was yesterday. I remember seeing the explosion, yet hoping beyond hope that the astronauts would somehow be saved. I’m still haunted by the thought of another “major malfunction” every time I see the launch of a rocket or space vehicle. Thirty years later, I still wonder about the crew’s final thoughts before their sudden end.

There are thousands of astronauts, but a certain generation will forever be enchanted by a mere seven: the men and women who were aboard Challenger on its 10th and final flight. May their courage and grace live on forever.