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Discover the legacies of the Challenger astronauts

by Linnea Crowther

On January 28, 1986, Americans turned on their TVs to watch the launch of Space Shuttle Challenger. The shuttle’s flight would turn out to be heartbreakingly brief before tragedy struck. Seventy-three seconds into the Challenger’s flight, the shuttle exploded. All seven astronauts on board were killed.

Challenger’s crew was a diverse one, and each astronaut aboard the shuttle leaves a unique legacy. Thirty-five years after the Challenger explosion, we remember its astronauts.

Judith “Judy” Resnik (1949–1986), Mission Specialist, was only the second U.S. woman in space, after Sally Ride (1951–2012). She was the fourth woman in space worldwide, as well as the first Jewish woman and second Jewish person in space. She continues to inspire young women who dream of space, and in her honor, the Society of Women Engineers awards the annual Resnik Challenger Medal to a woman who has made a difference in the space industry — just as Resnik did.

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Ellison Onizuka (1946–1986), Mission Specialist, was the first Asian American and the first person of Japanese ancestry in space. Among the many tributes to Onizuka are the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy and Ellison Onizuka Kone International Airport, both in his home state of Hawaii.

Ronald “Ron” McNair (1950–1986), Mission Specialist, was the second African-American in space. He had intended to be the first to record an original piece of music in space — a saxophonist, he had planned to record a brand new song by composer Jean Michel Jarre while on the Challenger mission. A crater on the Moon is named in McNair’s honor.

Francis R. “Dick” Scobee (1939–1986), Commander, was the last of the astronauts aboard the Challenger to respond to mission control, saying, “Roger, go at throttle up.” Scobee’s son, Richard, enlisted in the U.S. Air Force like his father, and today he is a Lieutenant General and the commander of the Air Force Reserve Command at Robins Air Force Base.

Michael J. Smith (1945–1986), Pilot, worked furiously to correct the disaster and save his fellow astronauts, according to evidence found in the Challenger’s wreckage. A Chair is named in his honor at the Naval Postgraduate School, from which he graduated with a Master’s in Aeronautical Engineering.

Gregory Jarvis (1944–1986), Payload Specialist, had planned to conduct experiments aboard the Challenger on the effects of weightlessness on fluids. An engineering building at the University of Buffalo and a dam on Hinckley Lake, New York are named for him.

Christa McAuliffe (1948–1986), Payload Specialist, was chosen from more than 11,000 applicants to become the first teacher in space. Unlike other astronauts, she didn’t spend her life aspiring toward space – instead, her calling was to educate young minds. She combined the two pursuits when she agreed to put her life on the line in order to teach American children about spaceflight from on board the Challenger. Risking one’s life as a teacher was less common 35 years ago, and McAuliffe can be seen as a predecessor to today’s teachers, who agree to defend their students from gunfire while they teach through a pandemic.

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