Remembering the Challenger Astronauts

NASA
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.

8 Facts About David Bowie's 'Space Oddity'

Express/Express/Getty Images
Express/Express/Getty Images

Fifty years ago, on July 24, 1969, astronauts walked on the Moon for the first time. Just a few weeks earlier, another space-age event had rocked the world: David Bowie’s single “Space Oddity” hit airwaves. The song, whose lyrics tell the story of an astronaut’s doomed journey into space, helped propel the artist to icon status, and five decades later, it’s still one of his most popular works. In honor of its 50th anniversary, here are some facts about the stellar track.

1. "Space Oddity" was inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Many listeners assumed that "Space Oddity" was riffing on the Apollo 11 Moon landing of 1969, but it was actually inspired by a Stanley Kubrick film released a year earlier. Bowie watched 2001: A Space Odyssey multiple times when it premiered in theaters in 1968. “It was the sense of isolation I related to,” Bowie told Classic Rock in 2012. “I found the whole thing amazing. I was out of my gourd, very stoned when I went to see it—several times—and it was really a revelation to me. It got the song flowing.”

2. "Space Oddity" was also inspired by heartbreak.

The track was also partly inspired by the more universal experience of heartbreak. Bowie wrote the song after ending his relationship with actress Hermione Farthingale. The break inspired several songs, including “Letter to Hermione” and “Life on Mars,” and in “Space Oddity,” Bowie’s post-breakup loneliness and melancholy is especially apparent.

3. "Space Oddity" helped him sign a record deal.

In 1969, a few years into David Bowie’s career, the musician recorded a demo tape with plans to use it to land a deal with Mercury Records. That tape featured an early iteration of “Space Oddity,” and based on the demo, Mercury signed him for a one-album deal. But the song failed to win over one producer. Tony Visconti, who produced Bowie’s self-titled 1969 album, thought the song was a cheap attempt to cash in on the Apollo 11 mission, and he tapped someone else to produce that particular single.

4. The BBC played "Space Oddity" during the Moon landing.

"Space Oddity" was released on July 11, 1969—just five days before NASA launched Apollo 11. The song doesn’t exactly sound like promotional material for the mission. It ends on a somber note, with Major Tom "floating in a tin can" through space. But the timing and general subject matter were too perfect for the BBC to resist. The network played the track over footage of the Moon landing. Bowie later remarked upon the situation, saying, "Obviously, some BBC official said, 'Oh, right then, that space song, Major Tom, blah blah blah, that’ll be great. 'Um, but he gets stranded in space, sir.' Nobody had the heart to tell the producer that."

5. David Bowie recorded an Italian version of "Space Oddity."

The same year "Space Oddity" was released, a different version David Bowie recorded with Italian lyrics was played by radio stations in Italy. Instead of directly translating the English words, the Italian songwriter Mogul was hired to write new lyrics practically from scratch. "Ragazzo Solo, Ragazza Sola" ("Lonely Boy, Lonely Girl") is a straightforward love song, and Major Tom is never mentioned.

6. Major Tom appeared in future songs.

Major Tom, the fictional astronaut at the center of "Space Oddity," is one of the most iconic characters invented for a pop song. It took a decade for him to resurface in David Bowie’s discography. In his 1980 single "Ashes to Ashes," the artists presents a different version of the character, singing: "We know Major Tom's a junkie/Strung out in heaven's high/Hitting an all-time low." Bowie also references Major Tom in "Hallo Spaceboy" from the 1995 album Outside.

7. "Space Oddity" is featured in Chris Hadfield's ISS music video.

When choosing a song for the first music filmed in space, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield naturally went with David Bowie’s out-of-this-world anthem. The video above was recorded on the International Space Station in 2013, with Hadfield playing guitar and singing from space and other performers providing musical accompaniment from Earth. Some lyrics were tweaked for the cover. Hadfield mentions the "Soyuz hatch" of the capsule that would eventually shuttle him to Earth.

8. "Space Oddity" played on the Tesla that Elon Musk sent to space.

Dummy in Tesla roadster in space with Earth in background.
SpaceX via Getty Images

In 2018, Elon Musk used SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket to launch his Tesla Roadster into space. The car was decked out with pop culture Easter eggs—according to Musk, "Space Oddity" was playing over the car’s radio system during the historic journey. The dummy’s name, Starman, is the name of another space-themed song on Bowie's 1972 masterpiece The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.

The Washington Monument Is Transforming Into a Full-Scale Saturn V Rocket for the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing

The Saturn V rocket takes off on July 16, 1969.
The Saturn V rocket takes off on July 16, 1969.

Where better to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first Moon landing than in front of a revered national monument that also happens to resemble a giant rocket?

Next week, DCist reports, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum will project an image of the 363-foot-tall Saturn V rocket that launched Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, and Michael Collins into space on July 16, 1969, onto the 555-foot-tall Washington Monument. Underneath the monument, flanked by screens playing a 17-minute program about the Moon landing, will be a 40-foot-wide replica of the iconic Kennedy Space Center countdown clock that NASA has called “one of the most-watched timepieces in the world.”

Illustration of the Saturn V rocket projected onto the Washington Monument
An illustration of what the Saturn V projection will look like on the Washington Monument.
Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

Projecting an image onto an irregular object is a little more complicated than doing so on a run-of-the-mill, rectangular movie screen. The process is called projection mapping, which uses augmented reality to conform the projection to the object, making it seem like the projection is actually just part of the object. 59 Productions, the company behind this program, also created the video design for London’s 2012 Olympic Games opening ceremony and won a 2015 Tony Award for the video design of Christopher Wheeldon’s stage revival of An American in Paris.

So who exactly has to approve transforming one of our nation’s most famous monuments into a really tall, skinny optical illusion? In this case, the House of Representatives, the Senate, the secretary of the interior, and the president himself. Both houses of Congress unanimously passed the bipartisan resolution, H.J. Res. 60 [PDF], in mid-June, and the president signed it on July 5.

According to Ellen Stofan, director of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, the larger-than-life nature of the setting befits the occasion. “The Washington Monument is a symbol of our collective national achievements and what we can and will achieve in the future,” she told DCist. “It took 400,000 people from across the 50 states to make Apollo a reality. This program celebrates them, and we hope it inspires generations too young to have experienced Apollo firsthand to define their own moonshot.”

You can see the Saturn V projection from 9:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. on July 16, 17, and 18. The best view is on the National Mall in front of the Smithsonian Institution Building (also known as the “Castle”) between 9th and 12th streets. The entire program, titled “Apollo 50: Go for the Moon,” will run at 9:30 p.m., 10:30 p.m., and 11:30 p.m. on Friday, July 19, and Saturday, July 20.

[h/t DCist]

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