One of the most tragic space disasters in history helped spawn 2 innovative companies — and without them, we’d be nowhere

The morning of January 28, 1986 was cold. So cold that icicles formed a freezing ring around the space shuttle Challenger’s launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

After some delays, Challenger launched at 11:38 a.m. But 73 seconds into the flight, as family members and onlookers watched from below, the unimaginable happened: The space shuttle exploded, killing all seven astronauts aboard.

The people aboard included Christa McAuliffe, a schoolteacher from New Hampshire who was the first civilian in space.

While tragic, the Challenger disaster ultimately changed the way humans interacted with the final frontier in some strikingly positive ways. Buried within former President Ronald Reagan’s immediate response to the disaster was this inspiring quote:

I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It’s all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It’s all part of taking a chance and expanding man’s horizons. The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave.

We’ll continue our quest in space. There will be more shuttle flights and more shuttle crews and, yes, more volunteers, more civilians, more teachers in space. Nothing ends here; our hopes and our journeys continue.

Just like that, hours after one of the largest disasters in American space-faring history, Reagan called for “more civilians in space.” And this was a long time coming.

Back in 1983, George Keyworth, Reagan’s top science advisor, penned an essay elaborating on the administration’s plans to open up space travel to private citizens, as well as companies.

“Like an evolving company, the US space program has options for both horizontal and vertical expansion,” Keyworth writes, per the Huffington Post. “I would characterise the evolution of commercial launch services as a kind of vertical expansion.”

And it was the dramatic end of the Challenger that sowed the seeds of the private space race.

Blue origin launch
Blue Origin rocket launch. Blue Origin

The space shuttle’s shortcomings

A multi-agency investigation into the disaster ultimately concluded that faulty O-rings (and NASA technicians not accounting for the cold) — which, when frozen, allowed ignition gases to spark the fuel tanks — caused the explosion, reports Motherboard.

The investigation also found more systemic problems with NASA’s management of the space shuttle program. NASA had originally billed the shuttle as a space workhorse, capable of delivering high-payloads and satellites into upper orbit. Before the Challenger disaster, all of the country’s orbital payloads would fly on the shuttle.

But the space shuttle was not nearly as safe, or reliable as it was cracked up to be. Richard Feynman, the famous physicist who served on the post-disaster investigation, estimated that the odds of losing a shuttle were one-in-a-hundred, far lower than NASA’s more tolerable one-in-a-hundred thousand official estimate, reports Popular Mechanics.

Earth from space
In the near future, most operations in Earth orbit will be run by private companies. blueforce4116/Flickr

“When the shuttle turned out to be not what we thought it was, all those downstream visions began to crumble,” Howard McCurdy, a specialist in space policy at American University told USA Today. “The business model collapsed, and it wasn’t just the business model for shuttle, it was the business model for shuttle, station, Mars, the moon. … It was like a corporation going down.”

Over concerns about the shuttle’s reliability, Reagan banned space shuttles from carrying commercial satellites. With that policy, the private space industry was established, reports CBC.

The final nail in the space shuttle’s coffin came in 2003, when the Columbia disintegrated over Texas while landing, sadly killing another seven astronauts.

The space shuttle was officially retired in 2011, and private space companies, including SpaceX, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, and the Sierra Nevada Corporation, will begin supplying the International Space Station in 2017, reports Business Insider’s Jess Orwig.

When asked about the future of private spaceflight, Bezos himself waxed philosophical to, “Our biggest opponent in this endeavour is gravity.”

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