NASA PHOTO ABOVE: Close-up view of the liftoff of the Challenger on mission STS-51L taken from camera site 39B-2/T3. From this camera position, a cloud of grey-brown smoke can be seen on the right side of the Solid Rocket Booster (highlighted). This was the first visible sign that an SRB joint breach may have occurred. On January 28, 1986 frigid overnight temperatures caused normally pliable rubber O-ring seals and putty that are designed to seal and establish joint integrity between the Solid Rocket Booster joint segments, to become hard and non- flexible. At the instant of SRB ignition, tremendous stresses and pressures occur within the SRB casing and especially at the joint attachment points. The failure of the O-rings and putty to "seat" properly at motor ignition, caused hot exhaust gases to blow by the seals and putty. During Challenger's ascent, this hot gas "blow by" ultimately cut a swath completely through the steel booster casing; and like a welder's torch, began cutting into the External Tank (ET). It is believed that the ET was compromised in several locations starting in the aft at the initial point where SRB joint failure occurred. The ET hydrogen tank is believed to have been breached first, with continuous rapid incremental failure of both the ET and SRB. A chain reaction of events occurring in milliseconds culminated in a massive explosion. The orbiter Challenger was instantly ejected by the blast and went askew into the supersonic air flow. These aerodynamic forces caused structural shattering and complete destruction of the orbiter. Though it was concluded that the G-forces experienced during orbiter ejection and break-up were survivable, impact with the ocean surface was not. Tragically, all seven crew members perished.
NASA PHOTO: On January 28, 1986, the Challenger and her seven-member crew were lost when a ruptured O-ring in the right Solid Rocket Booster caused an explosion soon after launch. Using submarines and sonar, among other equipment, to scan the ocean floor for debris, search and recovery teams located many pieces of the Shuttle. Shown here is the forward skirt of the right Solid Rocket Booster (SRB), which transfers thrust loads from the SRB to the External Tank and contains much of the SRB's electrical and instrumentation subsystem.
NASA PHOTO: STS-51L Challenger wreckage remains and boxes of debris being lowered into abandoned Minuteman Missile Silos at Complex 31 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.