By 1986, Americans had grown used to the miraculous idea that men and women could soar into space. The NASA space program was a point of national pride, the rare government agency that provided good news and exhibited America's technological prowess.
But such blind confidence came to a tragic end on Jan. 28, 1986.
The Challenger crew: (left to right) Teacher-in-Space payload specialist Sharon Christa McAuliffe; payload specialist Gregory Jarvis; and astronauts Judith A. Resnik, mission specialist; Francis R. (Dick) Scobee, mission commander; Ronald E. McNair, mission specialist; Mike J. Smith, pilot; and Ellison S. Onizuka, mission specialist. | (NASA)
That day thousands of spectators, dressed for a cold morning, awaited the launch of Space Shuttle Challenger in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Across the country, students were being treated to a similar view thanks to NASA, which had arranged for the mission to be broadcast into hundreds of classrooms in honor of the program's first citizen astronaut, New Hampshire teacher Christa McAuliffe.
For those witnesses, looks of delight and wonder turned to horror just 73 seconds after liftoff when the shuttle tore apart in midair, killing all seven astronauts on board.
Those who missed the live event would be haunted by the eerie sight — two plumes of smoke erupting from a fireball 10 miles above ground — that would be played over and over on network television as the investigation into the disaster played out and a nation mourned.
"This was a trauma to the nation's psyche," Astronaut and former Senator Bill Nelson said of the event. Ronald Reagan canceled his State of the Union address, set for that evening, and instead tried to console a shocked public over their shared loss.
Below, a look back at the fateful day that grounded a nation's space aspirations.
The crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger walks out of the operations building at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on its way to launch pad-39B. | (CORBIS)
Spectators in the VIP area at the Kennedy Space Center watch the Space Shuttle Challenger liftoff at 11:38 a.m. | (AP Photo/Bruce Weaver)
Classmates of Scott McAuliffe, the son of America's first school teacher astronaut, Christa McAuliffe, cheer as the space shuttle Challenger lifts skyward. Scott, his father, and their family watched the launch from a different location. | (AP Photo/Jim Cole)
The Space Shuttle Challenger "explodes" shortly after liftoff, about 10 miles above the ground. Though it appears to be an explosion, there was no actual "bang," just the roar of the engines stopping as the shuttle's fuel tank tore apart. | (AP Photo/Bruce Weaver)
Faces of spectators register horror, shock, and sadness. | (Bettmann/CORBIS)
Spectators in Cape Canaveral, Florida. | (Bettmann/CORBIS)
The family of Christa McAuliffe, including her sister (front) and parents, Grace and Ed Corrigan. | (AP Photo/Jim Cole)
Scott McAuliffe's third-grade teacher (left) comforts one of her students. | (AP Photo)
Senior class President Carina Dolcino and her fellow classmates watch the launch from television sets that were scattered throughout Concord High School, where McAuliffe taught. A gala celebration had been planned for a successful launch. | (AP Photo/Ken Williams/Concord Monitor)
President Ronald Reagan finishes his televised address to the nation about the Challenger explosion. | (AP Photo/Dennis Cook)
Seven miniature American flags stick out of the ground on a road near the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. | (AP Photo/Phil Sandlin)