When the Space Shuttle Challenger disintegrated 73 seconds after liftoff on January 28, 1986, there were seven astronauts on board whose lives were tragically cut short.
1. Dick Scobee // Commander
Lt. Col. Francis Richard Scobee [PDF] enlisted in the U.S. Air Force after graduating from high school in 1957. He served as an engine mechanic and took college classes in his spare time, earning a degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Arizona in 1965, as well as an officer’s commission. He became a pilot the next year and served in Vietnam as a combat aviator. Scobee then became a test pilot and logged 6500 hours flying 45 different types of aircraft. After joining NASA’s astronaut program in 1978, he not only flew the space shuttle, but also instructed pilots on flying the Boeing 747 that carried shuttles to Florida.
Scobee piloted the shuttle Challenger into space on its fifth mission in April 1984; his next assignment was as commander of the Challenger mission in January 1986. Scobee told his family that his second shuttle mission might be his last. An aunt remembered, ''He said he had acquired everything he wanted in life.’’
Scobee achieved the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He was survived by his wife and two children. His son, Lieutenant General Richard W. Scobee, is now Chief of Air Force Reserve in Arlington, Virginia, and Commander of the Air Force Reserve Command at Georgia's Robins Air Force Base.
2. Michael J. Smith // Pilot
Captain Michael John Smith [PDF] grew up near an airstrip in Morehead, North Carolina, and never wanted to do anything but fly. (Once, when he was the quarterback of a junior varsity football team, he called a timeout just so he could watch a military airplane pass overhead.) He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1967 and achieved a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering in 1968. Smith became a pilot in 1969 and served as a flight instructor until he was sent to Vietnam. There, Smith earned numerous medals and citations for two years of combat duty. He then became an instructor. Smith logged 4867 hours of flight time in 28 types of aircraft before becoming part of NASA’s astronaut program in 1980. Smith was assigned as pilot for two shuttle missions in 1986, the first scheduled for January aboard the Challenger. Smith was survived by his wife and three children.
3. Ronald McNair // Mission Specialist
Dr. Ronald Ervin McNair [PDF] was a high achiever from an early age. He could read before starting school, and in elementary school was inspired by the Soviet Sputnik launch to pursue an education in science. In 1959, when he was 9 years old, McNair challenged the segregated public library in his hometown of Lake City, South Carolina. His brother Carl told the tale to StoryCorps.
McNair’s educational career was littered with honors, and he achieved a Ph.D. in physics from MIT in 1976. His specialties were lasers and molecular spectroscopy, knowledge he put to use at Hughes Research Laboratories. When NASA began accepting scientists and test pilots into its astronaut program in the ‘70s, McNair applied and made the 1978 class of astronaut candidates. He flew on the Challenger in 1984, spending seven days in orbit and becoming the second African American (after Guy Bluford) to fly in space. The Challenger launch in 1986 was to be his second as a mission specialist.
McNair was an accomplished saxophone player and held a 5th degree black belt in karate. He was survived by his wife and two children. In addition to several schools, streets, and parks named in his honor, the old public library building in Lake City became the Ronald E. McNair Life History Center in 2011.
4. Ellison Onizuka // Mission Specialist
Colonel Ellison Shoji Onizuka grew up in Kealakekua, Kona, Hawaii. He earned a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering in June 1969 from the University of Colorado, and then a master’s degree in December that year. Onizuka immediately joined the Air Force and became an aerospace flight test engineer and then a test pilot. Selected as an astronaut candidate in 1978, Onizuka flew on Discovery—the first Department of Defense shuttle mission—in 1985, becoming the first Asian American astronaut to fly in space. In his career, Onizuka logged 1700 hours of flying time and 74 hours in space. The Challenger mission was to be his second space flight.
Onizuka, a Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force, was posthumously promoted to Colonel. He was survived by his wife and two daughters. Among other honors and memorials, the University of Hawaii holds the Astronaut Ellison Onizuka Science Day every year to promote science education among students in grades four through 12.
5. Judith Resnik // Mission Specialist
Dr. Judith Arlene Resnik, a math whiz who also played classical piano, was valedictorian of the Firestone High School Class of 1966 in Akron, Ohio. After earning a perfect SAT score, Resnik went on to get a degree in electrical engineering from Carnegie-Mellon in 1970 and a Ph.D. from the University of Maryland. She helped to develop radar systems for RCA, worked as a biomedical engineer for the National Institutes of Health, and did product development for Xerox, all before being selected for the astronaut program in 1978. She was recruited by Nichelle Nichols of Star Trek fame, who was working for NASA as a recruiter at the time.
Resnik flew on the space shuttle Discovery in August 1984 and became the second American woman in space (after Sally Ride) as well as the first Jewish American in space. The images from that mission were particularly striking because of Resnik’s long hair floating in microgravity. The Challenger mission was to be her second space flight.
Among other memorials, the lunar crater Borman X on the far side of the moon was renamed Resnik in 1988. Resnik’s family sued the maker of the defective O-rings that caused the Challenger failure, and used the settlement funds to endow scholarships at Firestone High School and three universities.
6. Gregory Jarvis // Payload Specialist
Gregory Bruce Jarvis [PDF] was an engineer who became an Air Force captain and an astronaut specifically because of his engineering talent. He earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1967 and a master’s in 1969. Jarvis worked at Raytheon on the SAM-D missile project while completing his studies. He then joined the Air Force and was assigned to research on communications satellites. After an honorable discharge in 1973, Jarvis designed communications satellites for Hughes Aircraft. As an expert in satellite communications, he was selected over 600 other applicants among Hughes employees to be one of two Hughes payload specialists for NASA’s shuttle program in 1984. Jarvis was scheduled for shuttle missions and was bumped twice to make room for celebrity passengers: Utah Senator Jake Garn in March 1985 and Florida Congressman Bill Nelson on January 12, 1986. Jarvis would finally get his chance on the Challenger on January 28.
Jarvis was survived by his wife. In addition to his engineering career, he was an avid outdoorsman and played classical guitar.
7. Christa McAuliffe // Payload Specialist
In 1984, President Ronald Reagan challenged NASA to make the shuttle’s first “citizen passenger” a teacher. The Teacher in Space Project was born, and more than 11,000 teachers applied for the position. Ultimately, Christa McAuliffe was selected.
Sharon Christa Corrigan McAuliffe [PDF] held a master’s in education and a job as a social studies teacher at Concord High School in New Hampshire. She had also taught American history, English, and various other subjects at the junior high and high school levels over her 15-year teaching career. McAuliffe arranged for a year away from her job and trained with NASA in anticipation of her shuttle mission. She was supposed to deliver two live lessons broadcast to schools across the country, as well as six more lessons that would be distributed around the country after the shuttle landed.
The fact that a teacher was going to space prompted an unprecedented number of schools to watch the Challenger launch on the morning of January 28, 1986.
McAuliffe was survived by her husband and two children. The backup teacher selected for the Teacher in Space project, Barbara Morgan, lobbied NASA to reinstate the Teacher in Space program. In 1998, she was named the first Educator Astronaut under a new program. Morgan finally got to go into space in 2007 on the shuttle Endeavour on a mission to the International Space Station.
This story originally ran in 2017; it has been updated for 2022.