This Day in History (28-Jan-1986) – Challenger explodes

The space shuttle Challenger was one of NASA’s greatest triumphs. It was the second shuttle to reach space, in April 1983. It successfully completed nine milestone missions. Challenger was the vehicle by which several cultural firsts happened in the space shuttle program. The first American female astronautrode up on Challenger on STS-7 in June 1983.  The first African-American reached space on STS-8. On STS-41G in 1984, two women, flew on one mission for the first time, as well as the first Canadian, Marc Garneau. Other milestones Challenger marked included the first night launch and landing (STS-8) and the first operational Spacelab flight (STS-51B).

Christa McAuliffe, a 37-year-old high school social studies teacher from New Hampshire, won a competition that earned her a place among the seven-member crew of the Challenger’s tenth mission. She underwent months of shuttle training but then, beginning January 23, was forced to wait six long days as the Challenger’s launch countdown was repeatedly delayed because of weather and technical problems. Finally, on January 28, Challenger was launched at 11:38 a.m. Eastern time in front of more media attention than usual, as it was carrying the first teacher to go in space. Seventy-three seconds later, hundreds on the ground, including Christa’s family, stared in disbelief as the shuttle exploded in a forking plume of smoke and fire. Millions more watched the wrenching tragedy unfold on live television. There were no survivors.  President Ronald Reagan appointed a special commission headed by former secretary of state William Rogers and former astronaut Neil Armstrong. The investigation determined that the explosion was caused by the failure of an “O-ring” seal in one of the two solid-fuel rockets. The elastic O-ring did not respond as expected because of the cold temperature at launch time, which began a chain of events that resulted in the massive explosion.

Challenger’s explosion changed the space shuttle program in several ways. Plans to fly other civilians in space (such as journalists) were shelved for 22 years. Satellite launches were shifted from the shuttle to reusable rockets. On February 1, 2003, a second space-shuttle disaster rocked when Columbia disintegrated upon reentry of the Earth’s atmosphere. All aboard were killed including the first Indian-American astronaut and first Indian woman in space, Kalpana Chawla.


This Day in History (30-Mar-1981) – Attempted assassination of US President Ronald Reagan

John W. Hinckley Jr., the son of a wealthy business executive from Texas, John Hinckley was no match for his overachieving brother and sister: after college, he had trouble holding down jobs and grew increasingly disturbed. While living in Hollywood in the late 1970s, he saw the film Taxi Driver at least 15 times, apparently identifying strongly with Travis Bickle, the lead character portrayed by Robert De Niro.  The arc of the story involves Bickle’s attempts to protect a 12-year-old child prostitute, played by Jodie Foster. Towards the end of the film, Bickle attempts to assassinate a United States Senator who is running for president. Hinckley fell in love with Jodie Foster and wrote numerous letters and notes to Foster in late 1980. In March 1981, he embarked on a cross-country odyssey driven by his obsession with the Jodie Foster due to erotomania. He called her twice and refused to give up when she indicated that she was not interested in him. Convinced that by becoming a national figure he would be Foster’s equal, Hinckley decided to emulate Bickle by assassinating Ronald Reagan, the president of the United States and began to stalk President.

On March 30, 1981, President Ronald Reagan was just seventy days into his first term of office.  While leaving a speaking engagement at the Washington Hilton Hotel in Washington, D.C., Reagan waved to those gathered outside. Almost immediately thereafter, Hinckley fired. One bullet entered Reagan’s chest, puncturing a lung and lodging one inch from his heart. Reagan, shoved into the presidential limousine by Secret Service agent Jerry Parr, was quickly rushed to George Washington University Hospital for emergency surgery. Despite serious bleeding, Reagan walked into the hospital. Always one for timing, Reagan joked with doctors as he was being wheeled into the operating room: “I hope you’re all Republicans.” To try to comfort his wife, Nancy, Reagan also told her “Honey, I forgot to duck.” Three others were also shot and wounded.

Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity on June 21, 1982. After his trial, he wrote that the shooting was “the greatest love offering in the history of the world”, and did not indicate any regrets. Reagan was the first serving U.S. President to survive being shot in an assassination attempt.