ON THIS DAY: January 28, 1986, CMU graduate Judith Resnik dies when Challenger disintegrates

FILE: Shuttle Challenger Launch

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fl. — The complete destruction of the Space Shuttle Challenger (STS-51-L) during its launch from Cape Canaveral on Jan. 28, 1986, was a national tragedy that killed all seven crew members and shut down the Space Shuttle program for nearly three years. Among the astronauts killed that day was Judith Resnik, an alumnus of Carnegie-Mellon University.

Born on April 5, 1949, in Akron, Ohio, Resnik excelled in school and graduated as valedictorian. She went on to achieve a perfect score on her SAT exam, the only woman to do so that year.

At the age of 17, Resnik started at CMU and developed a passion for electrical engineering. She graduated with her B.S. in 1970. After graduation, she married Michael Oldak, a fellow engineer from CMU (they would divorce in 1976), and the couple moved to New Jersey.

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Resnik started her career working for RCA, where she helped design radar control systems that were used by the Navy and NASA, while working on her doctorate. She also worked stints at Xerox and was a biomedical engineer in the Laboratory of Neurophysiology at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.

In 1977, Resnik earned her doctorate in electrical engineering from the University of Maryland. Shortly afterward, she was selected as a NASA astronaut candidate into the first cadre accepting women, from a pool of 8,000 applicants.

In 1984, Resnik became the second American woman to travel in space, after Sally Ride’s mission the prior year. She served as a mission specialist on Space Shuttle Discovery’s first launch (STS-41-D).

Following her return, Resnik began intensive training for her mission on Challenger, where she would serve as one of three mission specialists. Originally scheduled for a July 1985 launch, Challenger was delayed until January 1986 and brought with it the publicity of launching teacher Christa McAuliffe.

Students gathered in classrooms and it was later estimated that nearly half of 9- to 13-year-olds watched the launch live on television while at school.

Clear skies finally graced the Kennedy Space Center on Jan. 28, 1986, after five delays for bad weather. The assembled Challenger, boosters and external tank had been sitting on the pad for 38 days, during which there had been seven inches of rain and temperatures were often below freezing.

It was the coldest day that NASA had ever attempted a shuttle launch and a coating of ice caused an additional two-hour postponement that morning to allow it to melt. This mistake was yet unrealized, as eager astronauts waved to cameras on their way to the shuttle. Resnik took her seat in the middle of the flight deck, just behind the pilot and commander.

The 11:38 a.m. launch seemed at first to be picture perfect, but later viewings of the video clearly revealed ominous black puffs of smoke from the right booster as the rockets ignited on the pad. The smoke was later attributed to the combustion of grease, joint insulation and the rubber O-rings of the booster.

Seventy-three seconds after liftoff, the shuttle disappeared into a giant cloud of fuel and debris. Both boosters emerged and meandered across the blue sky for a few moments, but Challenger was no more.

At a memorial service for Resnik, Sen. John Glenn said, “Judy and the other six members of the Challenger crew went aloft, as does every mission, with our hopes, our dreams and our aspirations as a nation riding with them. Their mission was not to be, but tragedy does not lessen the importance, the value, and the need for triumphs in the future. Judy would be the first to say ‘Fix it and get on with it.’”

Analysis of the recovered wreckage during the investigation suggested it is possible that Resnik and other members of the crew survived the initial breakup, contained in the more structurally robust crew cabin of the orbiter, and died on impact with the ocean.

The accident was later attributed to the O-ring seal in the right solid rocket booster, which became brittle and leaked due to cold temperatures before launch (15°F colder than any prior launches at 36°F), and to the possibility of water infiltration and freezing in the seals. Morton-Thiokol, the contractor who supplied the O-rings and boosters, had advised against launching at temperatures below 53°F.

The decision to launch would become a focus of the Rogers Commission, appointed by President Ronald Reagan, and result in a restructuring of NASA’s decision-making processes, including how the trouble-prone booster design was approved in the first place.

When the O-ring between the main external tank and the booster rocket failed completely in flight, it allowed pressurized burning gas to escape from the booster, causing it to misdirect the shuttle. Challenger’s control systems tried futilely to correct pitch and yaw forces for the next nine seconds until the right booster’s lower mounting hardware failed. The booster tipped into the external tank and caused a catastrophic breakup (not an explosion), with the shuttle hurtled into a headwind of aerodynamic forces, which broke it apart.

After a 32-month hiatus, NASA returned the shuttle program to flight with the launch of Discovery on Sept. 29, 1988. Teacher Barbara Morgan, who was McAuliffe’s backup, would eventually launch aboard Endeavour in 2007.