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Marshall Space Flight Center, former employees honor the seven lives lost during the Challenger disaster

Thursday marked the 35th anniversary of the Challenger Space Shuttle explosion in 1986.

Posted: Jan 28, 2021 11:32 PM
Updated: Jan 28, 2021 11:35 PM

After nine successful launches of the Challenger Space Shuttle, the tenth launch started off in a similar fashion. 

Scott Phillips, a retired employee of Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC), said his boss even remarked to him that day that perhaps Challenger wouldn't fly that fateful Tuesday morning because it was so cold.

Members of the Challenger crew:

  • Commander Francis R. "Dick" Scobee
  • Pilot Michael J. Smith
  • Ellison S. Onizuka (first Asian-American astronaut
  • Judith A. Resnick (second femal NASA astronaut in space)
  • Ronald E. McNair (second African-American in space)
  • Gregory B. Jarvis (Hughes Aircraft payload specialist)
  • Christa McAuliffe (first teacher in space)
The seven crew members of the Challenger Space Shuttle are honored each year by NASA during its Day of Remembrance. The seven crew members of the Challenger Space Shuttle are honored each year by NASA during its Day of Remembrance.

"He said, you know, it's not going to fly today. You might as well go pick those items up. Cause I've seen every flight, from STS-1 all the way to that flight. And I agreed with him," Phillips said. 

That cold contributed to the ultimately fatal flight that went forward that day. 73 seconds into the launch, an explosion turned the space shuttle into a fireball and killed all seven crew members.

Phillips was on his way to the machine crafting center when he heard the news over his radio.

"It said they lost down link with Challenger... I knew that was bad news," Phillips said. 

That tragedy shut down space flights for the next three years as President Ronald Regan appointed what became known as the Rogers Commission to study what went wrong. 

The final report determined that the O-ring seals that were used in the joint of the right solid rocket booster failed at liftoff because they were not made to handle the type of cold conditions that were present at liftoff.

Those seals were "designed to prevent the escape, through the joint, of the hot gasses generated during solid rocket booster firing," according to NASA.

Phillips, who spent 30 years of his career at Marshall working in the flight program on the external tank, said he wasn't surprised when those working on the external tank were cleared of any responsibility in the Challenger disaster.

"Once the films came back of the flight, we kind of nailed it down then. So, we knew we were proven, pretty much the tank didn't do it, but we were there in the productivity and enhancement facility at Marshall," Phillips said.

"We did ultimately assist the vendor, the booster people and help redesign that." 

But while he said he looks over some of the materials from STS-51L each year around this time, he tries not to dwell in the tragedy of that day. Instead, Phillips spends much of his time in retirement in his wood working shop.

Some of his most notable creations are wooden models of space shuttles. 

"It's a connection back to the generation that's after me because it's not the story as much as it is the beauty of what the shuttle program represented: really freeing ourselves of this planet," Phillips said.

MSFC also takes time each year to honor the lives lost in the Challenger disaster during its Day of Remembrance. It is one of three fatal incidents during the space program's history that also include the fire aboard Apollo 1 and the Columbia tragedy.

"Today we honor the legacy of the members of the NASA family who lost their lives while furthering the cause of human exploration and discovery, including the crews of Apollo 1 and space shuttles Challenger and Columbia. As we remember them today, their bravery and dedication continue to inspire us. We carry the lessons they taught us forward as we pursue our mission to the Moon and beyond," said MSFC Director Jody Singer in a statement.

Phillips hopes that future generations can look back on the Challenger disaster at an important teaching moment.

"Failure is a teaching tool. It's not forever and this next generation needs to learn that. We need to make mistakes and unfortunately, we lost seven lives, but I'm reminded that we continued on in their honor and of course learned from that."

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