Of all the space shuttles in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) shuttle fleet that began service in the early 1980s, the space shuttle Challenger is perhaps the most notorious because it disintegrated at launch, killing all the astronauts on board. Before the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, however, the space shuttle made several trips to space to accomplish several important tasks for NASA, including a mission that completed the first shuttle space walk, and a mission that hosted the first female in space, as well as another that hosted the first African-American in space.
Space Shuttle Challenger was the most commonly used shuttle in the early years of the shuttle program. Because of modifications made to the shuttle after its initial testing phase, it was able to carry more weight than the space shuttle Columbia, which lent versatility to many of the space missions. The Space Shuttle Challenger was used on the vast majority of missions in the early 1980s and would have continued to be heavily used had it not been destroyed.
On 28 January 28 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger was ready to launch into orbit after days of delays due to bad weather and other technical delays. By the time the shuttle was ready to launch, the outside temperature that day was unusually cold, and ice had built up on the launch platform. Despite concerns from engineers, the Space Shuttle Challenger was cleared for launch. When the shuttle began to lift off, gas began to leak from one of the shuttle's solid rocket boosters (SRB), but the leak was sealed by an o-ring designed to seal such leaks. Because of the cold weather, however, the o-ring had hardened and was slow to do its job.
As the Space Shuttle Challenger climbed higher, it was hit by a series of wind shear gusts — or, different wind speeds and directions — that were extremely strong. Engineers and analysts of the disaster believe that these wind shear gusts broke the o-ring's seal yet again because the o-ring had not been as effective as it should have been initially due to the cold weather. The SRB began to detach from the shuttle, causing sudden acceleration and destabilization. The forces caused by this and subsequent events caused the shuttle to break up in mid-air.
The crew cabin broke away from the rest of the disintegrating shuttle and plummeted into the ocean. It was impossible to determine exactly how the astronauts on board died, as evidence indicated at least some of the crew survived the initial disintegration of the shuttle. The impact of the cabin plummeting into the ocean, however, made survival impossible.