NASA’s devastating Challenger mission was the unfortunate spark for commercial space flight

Space flight has come a very long way since Yuri Gagarin’s Vostok 1 mission way back in 1961. Many astronauts have paid the ultimate price in the years since, but without their sacrifice the industry wouldn’t be where it is now.

STS 61-A Launch
The Space Shuttle Challenger suffered a tragic accident on its 10th launch. Photo: NASA on The Commons via Flickr

The history of manned space flight has been littered with brave individuals, most of whom have made it back to tell their tales.

Unfortunately, many haven’t. But their deaths have served as motivation to make space flight safer and more reliable.

34 years ago today, the Space Shuttle Challenger took off on its tenth and final mission. Just 1 minute and 13 seconds after launch, Challenger and its booster rockets exploded in a spectacular fireball, killing all seven crew members on board.

But, while the Challenger’s final flight resulted in a tragic loss of life, it served as the catalyst which pushed space flight to the heights it has reached today.

The fate of Challenger

Despite the shocking way the Space Shuttle Challenger met its fate on 28 January 1986, the component which caused the accident was a simple rubber O-ring. What’s more, NASA was aware that there was a potential design flaw with the O-ring, but decided to go ahead with the launch anyway.

Following the disaster, NASA’s Space Shuttles were grounded until the cause of the failure was determined. In August 1986, President Reagan issued a directive which limited the types of missions the Space Shuttles could participate in.

Then, in 1988, Reagan signed another directive which limited the Space Shuttles to NASA-only missions. This meant that other government agencies would have to look towards commercial companies for their space launch services.

The fate of Columbia

While the Challenger disaster rocked faith in the Space Shuttle programme, it wasn’t the final nail in the coffin.

Unfortunately, almost 17 years to the day after the Challenger disaster, the Space Shuttle Columbia also suffered a catastrophic accident which resulted in the deaths of all seven crew members.

Space Shuttle Columbia
The Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated as it re-entered Earth’s atmosphere. Photo: John W. Young via Wikimedia Commons

Unlike Challenger, Columbia disintegrated as it re-entered the atmosphere on 1 February 2003. But, with the deaths of another seven astronauts, the end of the Space Shuttle programme was decided. The Space Shuttles were retired after the International Space Station was completed.

Commercial space launch companies

After NASA’s Space Shuttles were retired, competition in the commercial launch services market gradually heated up. Previously, state-backed launch service providers from countries like France had been available for satellite launches, but they were expensive due to the lack of other options available at the time.

Then, in the late 2010s, private companies like Boeing and Elon Musk’s SpaceX developed their own commercial alternatives which quickly proved a worthy successor to the Space Shuttle programme.

The first launch of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy Rocket on January 6, 2018 from Kennedy Space Center.
SpaceX now offers a variety of space launch services. Photo: Daniel Oberhaus via Wikimedia Commons

SpaceX in particular managed to offer significantly cheaper space launches than the competition, which in turn brought prices down across the board.

The current thriving commercial space launch services industry effectively owes its existence and success to the brave astronauts who lost their lives in the Challenger and Columbia disasters. But there’s still a lot more which needs to be done to get men to Mars.

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