Whether crossing an uncharted ocean for Queen and Country, or scouring the frigid seas in search of the Northwest Passage, history proves regardless of era that the risk of venturing where none have gone before occasionally intersects with catastrophe. The frontier of outer space is no different. On January 28, 1986, during its 10th flight on NASA Shuttle Orbiter Mission STS 51-L, the Space Shuttle Challenger (OV-99) disintegrated 73 seconds after launch, killing all seven crew members aboard.

Launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida at 11:39am on an unusually cold day, problems began immediately after liftoff when a joint failed in the shuttle’s right solid rocket booster (SRB). O-ring seals, not designed to handle well in cold weather, caused the joint to fail, creating a breach in the SRB joint, allowing pressurized burning gas within the solid rocket motor to escape and strike the left SRB joint and its external fuel tank, causing the right SRB joint attachment to separate, resulting in structural failure of the external tank, leaving the craft exposed to the forces of aerodynamics resulting in disintegration over the Atlantic Ocean.

The exact time of death for the crew remains unknown. Four activated Personal Egress Air Packs were recovered from the wreckage, indicating that several crew members survived the craft’s initial breakup, though they most likely lost conciousness seconds after while the impact with the ocean surface at terminal velocity was unsurvivable (207mph/ 333km/h, <200g deceleration impact).

The Shuttle program suffered a 32 month hiatus following the disaster and subsequent investigations. President Ronald Reagan appointed the Rogers Commission to provide a formal investigation into the accident, revealing that NASA’s culture and decision making process which violated its own safety rules greatly contributed to the catastrophe.

Aware of the potential flaws of the O-rings since 1977, NASA managers disregarded engineers’ warnings of the abnormally low temperature that morning (-2.2 C/ 28F, the below the -1C minimum temperature allowed for launch, and the coldest launch to date), and failed to properly report the faulty technical specifics to administrators.

Extensive media coverage during and after the shuttle’s launch documented the event, which made international headlines. An estimated 17% of Americans witnessed the launch on live TV and radio programming, partly due to Christa McAuliffe, one of two Payload Specialists who would have been the first teacher in space. 85% of Americans are reported to have heard the news within an hour of the accident.

NASA grounded the Space Shuttle Fleet three years after the disaster, while conducting the investigation and redesigning the SRBs and other technical issues with the space program. On September 29, 1988, the mission STS-26 resumed America’s Space Program, launching Space Shuttle Discovery from Kennedy Space Center carrying a five man crew, and testing several redesigned boosters and new, conservative safety procedures. The mission sought to restore the nation’s pride in the American Space Program, and was a deemed a success. STS flights continued uninterrupted until 2003.

The Challenger Crew was memorialized by their families who organized the Challenger Center for Space Science Education, a nonprofit which went on to establish 42 learning centers. Several artists, musicians, and Television Shows like Star Trek dedicated episodes to the crew, honoring their memory and their sacrifice for humanity’s ambition to grasp the stars. Among many awards and recognitions, the crew received posthumous Congressional Space Medals of Honor from President George W. Bush, cementing their legacy into the annuls of history. Their names are Francis R. Scobee, Michael J. Smith, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Gregory Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe. They remain heroes for as long as humanity endures.