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Remembering the Challenger Astronauts

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NASA

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 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, Major General Richard W. Scobee, is now the 10th Air Force commander of the Naval Air Station Fort Worth Joint Reserve Base.  

2. MICHAEL J. SMITH // PILOT

Captain Michael John Smith 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 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 has held the Astronaut Ellison Onizuka Science Day every year for the past 17 years to promote science education among students in grades four through 12. This year’s Science Day is Saturday, January 28.

5. JUDITH RESNIK // MISSION SPECIALIST

Dr. Judith Arlene Resnika 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 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 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.

All images from NASA // Public Domain

This article originally ran in 2016.

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11 Things You Might Not Know About Neil Armstrong
NASA/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
NASA/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

No matter where private or government space travel may take us in the future, NASA astronaut Neil Armstrong (1930-2012) will forever have a place as the first human to ever set foot on solid ground outside of our atmosphere. Taking “one small step” onto the moon on July 20, 1969, he inspired generations of ambitious people to reach for the stars in their own lives. Take a look at some facts about that famous quote, how a door hinge changed his life, and why he once went after Hallmark over a Christmas ornament.

1. HE KNEW HOW TO FLY BEFORE HE GOT A DRIVER’S LICENSE.

Neil Armstrong poses for a portrait 10 years before the 1969 Apollo mission
NASA/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Born August 5, 1930 in Wapakoneta, Ohio, Armstrong became preoccupied with aviation early on. At around age 6, his father took him on a ride in a Ford Trimotor airplane, one of the most popular airplanes in the world. By age 15, he had accumulated enough flying lessons to command a cockpit, reportedly before he ever earned his driver’s license. During the Korean War, Armstrong flew 78 combat missions before moving on to the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the precursor to NASA.

2. HIS FAMOUS QUOTE GETS MISINTERPRETED.

When Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin touched down on the moon, hundreds of millions of television viewers were riveted. Armstrong could be heard saying, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” But that’s not exactly what he said. According to the astronaut, he was fairly sure he stated, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” The “a” may have broken up on transmission or it may have been obscured as a result of his speaking patterns. (According to First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong, Armstrong said, “I’m not particularly articulate. Perhaps it was a suppressed sound that didn’t get picked up by the voice mike. As I have listened to it, it doesn’t sound like there was time for the word to be there. On the other hand, I think that reasonable people will realize that I didn’t intentionally make an inane statement, and certainly the ‘a’ was intended, because that’s the only way the statement makes any sense. So I would hope that history would grant me leeway for dropping the syllable and understand that it was certainly intended, even if it wasn’t said—although it actually might have been.”) Armstrong claimed the statement was spontaneous, but his brother and others have claimed he had written it down prior to the mission.

3. WE DON’T HAVE A REALLY GOOD PICTURE OF HIM ON THE MOON.

Buzz Aldrin is seen walking on the moon
NASA/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

One of the most celebrated human achievements of the 20th century came at a time when video and still cameras were readily available—yet there are precious few images of Armstrong actually walking on the surface of the moon. (One of the most iconic shots, above, is Aldrin; Armstrong only appears as a reflection in his helmet.) The reason, according to Armstrong, is that he really didn’t care and didn’t think to ask Aldrin to snap some photos. “I don't think Buzz had any reason to take my picture, and it never occurred to me that he should,” Armstrong told his biographer, James R. Hansen. “I have always said that Buzz was the far more photogenic of the crew."

4. A DOOR HINGE MAY HAVE MADE ALL THE DIFFERENCE.

Theories abound as to why it was Armstrong and not Buzz Aldrin who first set foot on the moon. (On the Gemini missions, the co-pilot did the spacewalks, while the commander stayed in the craft. For Apollo 11, Armstrong was the commander.) The answer may have been the simple logistics of getting out of their lunar module. The exit had a right hinge that opened inwardly, with the man sitting on the left (Armstrong) having the most unobstructed path to the outside. Aldrin would have essentially had to climb over Armstrong to get out first.

5. HE WAS MORE CONCERNED ABOUT LANDING ON THE MOON THAN HE WAS WALKING ON IT.

The lunar module that took NASA astronauts to the moon
NASA/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The romantic notion of a human stepping foot on space soil captured imaginations, but for Armstrong, it was getting there in one piece that was the real accomplishment. The lunar module Armstrong controlled had to be brought down on the moon’s surface from 50,000 feet up, avoiding rocks, craters, and other obstacles as it jockeyed into a position for landing. Because there is no air resistance, nothing could slow their descent, and they used thrusters to guide the craft down. That meant there was only enough fuel to attempt it once. The “business” of getting down the ladder was, in Armstrong’s view, less significant.

6. HE WAS CARRYING A BAG WORTH $1.8 MILLION.

When Armstrong surveyed the surface of the moon, he collected a bag of dust for NASA scientists to examine. Apollo moon samples are illegal to buy or sell, but that apparently wasn't the case with the “lunar collection bag” Armstrong used to hold the samples. In 2015, the bag was purchased by Chicago resident Nancy Lee Carlson from a government auction site for $995. But its sale was, apparently, an accident: When Carlson sent the bag to NASA to confirm its authenticity, NASA said it was their property and refused to send it back—so Carlson took the agency to court. A judge ruled it belonged to Carlson, and in 2017, she sold the bag for a whopping $1.8 million at a Sotheby’s auction.

7. HE HAD TO SPEND THREE WEEKS IN QUARANTINE.

Richard Nixon greets the returning Apollo 11 astronauts
NASA/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When Armstrong, Aldrin, and Michael Collins (who remained behind in the command module while the other two touched down on the moon) returned to Earth and were fetched by the USS Hornet, they got a king’s welcome. The only asterisk: They had to bask in their newfound fame from inside a sealed chamber. All three men were quarantined for three weeks in the event they had picked up any strange space virus. When President Richard Nixon visited, he greeted them through the chamber’s glass window.

8. HIS APOLLO SPACE SUIT WAS MADE BY PLAYTEX.

Yes, the undergarment people. In the early 1960s, NASA doled out contract work for their space suits to government suppliers, but it was Playtex (or more properly the International Latex Corporation) and their understanding of fabrics and seams that led to NASA awarding them responsibility for the Apollo mission suits. Their A7L suit was what Armstrong wore to insulate himself against the harsh void of space when he made his famous touchdown. The astronaut called it “reliable” and even “cuddly.”

9. HE BECAME A UNIVERSITY PROFESSOR.

Newil Armstrong sits behind a desk in 1970
AFP/Getty Images

Following his retirement from NASA in 1971, Armstrong was reticent to remain in the public eye. Demands for his time were everywhere, and he had little ambition to become a walking oral history of his singular achievement. Instead, he accepted a job as a professor of engineering at the University of Cincinnati and remained on the faculty for eight years.

10. HE ONCE SUED HALLMARK.

Hallmark was forced to defend itself when Armstrong took issue with the company using his name and likeness without permission for a 1994 Christmas ornament. The bulb depicted Armstrong and came with a sound chip that said phrases like, “The Eagle has landed.” The two parties came to an undisclosed but “substantial” settlement in 1995, which was, according to First Man, donated to Purdue University (minus legal fees).

11. HE ENDORSED CHRYSLERS.

Armstrong’s preference to lead a private life continued over the decades, but he did make one notable exception. For a 1979 Super Bowl commercial spot, Armstrong agreed to appear on camera endorsing Chrysler automobiles. Armstrong said he did it because he wanted the struggling U.S. car maker to improve their sales and continue contributing to the domestic economy. The ads never mentioned Armstrong was an astronaut.

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New NASA Satellite Called TESS Could Discover Thousands of New Planets

Since NASA’s Kepler spacecraft launched in 2009, the space agency has found and confirmed a whopping 2343 new planets. Of those, 30 are considered to be situated in a “habitable zone,” an area in which a planet’s surface could theoretically contain water.

A new satellite, set to launch today, is expected to find thousands more planets outside of our solar system, known as exoplanets. TESS, short for the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, is NASA’s latest effort to plumb the depths and darkness of outer space in search of other Earth-like planets—including those that could potentially support life.

TESS is slated to complete a two-year survey of the “solar neighborhood,” a general region which comprises more than 200,000 of the brightest nearby stars. To find these outlier planets, NASA scientists will be keeping an eye out for temporary changes in brightness, which indicate that a planet is blocking its host star.

According to Martin Still, the program scientist working on the TESS mission, the launch comes “with certainty” that TESS will find many nearby exoplanets. "We expect to find a whole range of planet sizes, between planets the size of Mercury or even the Moon—our Moon—to planets the same size as Jupiter and everything in between,” Still said in a NASA interview.

While the Kepler mission was considered a major success, NASA noted that most of the planets it recorded are those that orbit faint, faraway stars, making it difficult to conduct follow-up observations. The stars that TESS plans to survey will be 30 to 100 times brighter than those observed by its predecessor. This allows for newly detected planets and their atmospheres to be characterized more easily.

“Before Kepler launched, we didn't know for sure if Earth-sized planets existed,” Elisa V. Quintana, a NASA astrophysicist, told Reddit. “Kepler was a statistical survey that looked at a small patch of sky for four years and taught us that Earths are everywhere. TESS is building on Kepler in the sense that TESS wants to find more small planets but ones that orbit nearby, bright stars. These types of planets that are close to us are much more easy to study, and we can measure their masses from telescopes here on Earth.”

The most common categories of exoplanets are Earth- and Super Earth–sized masses—the latter of which are larger than Earth but smaller than Uranus and Neptune.

TESS is scheduled to launch from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket at 6:32pm EDT today.

For more information about TESS, check out this video from NASA.

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