Space Shuttle Challenger and its seven-member crew were lost Jan. 28, 1986, when the orbiter came apart 73 seconds after its launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
It is a loss that remains fresh in the minds of the families and friends of the crew and to a number of people in the Antelope Valley, a cluster of communities an hour north of Los Angeles. The fleet of orbiters were assembled and returned for major maintenance and modifications for decades in Palmdale and most of the landings in the early days of the program were at Edwards Air Force Base.
Challenger and its crew were honored in 1987 with the renaming of 10th Street East north of Avenue M In Lancaster, California, as Challenger Way. Earlier this summer Astral Challenger, a memorial, was erected at Avenue L and Challenger Way to remind Antelope Valley residents of the sacrifice and bravery it takes to forge new frontiers.
“Astral Challenger is a great tribute to Challenger and the STS-51L crew,” said George Grimshaw, who was a former shuttle manager at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in California, about 45 minutes from Lancaster. “As NASA makes plans to go to Mars and uses commercial services to deliver supplies and crews to the ISS, it is very important to remember those who gave their lives in pursuit of the many benefits space affords us. We honor them when we learn from the problems of the past and apply what we have learned to further our work in space.”
California artist Shana Mabari was commissioned to design the piece that she considers to be a part of the continuum of the Light and Space movement that originated in California in the 1960s.
“Astral Challenger is conceived as a monumental landmark to both honor the legacy and ongoing achievements of the aerospace industry in Lancaster and the high desert around it, and to commemorate the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger flight,” she said. “The rocket-shaped sculpture has eight vibrant blue acrylic panels for the seven lives lost in the disaster, plus one more to collectively represent the family members and friends who still grieve.”
Astral Challenger is 20-feet tall and is illuminated from dusk until dawn with LED lights. The permanent public art is the first that the City of Lancaster commissioned for its new Art in Public Places initiative.
“I consulted extensively with legendary Southern California-based fabricator Jack Brogan on initial design concepts and fabrication specifics,” Mabari said. “The fabrication process and material selection was a poetic layering of engineering specifics to create the seamless curved silhouette of the sculpture from top to bottom. Incorporating light into the work allows the piece to have both a daytime and nighttime personality. It is as if I created two sculptures at once, and every decision along the way took each into consideration.”
The airframe that would become Challenger was originally built for structural tests and was known as STA-99 (Structural Test Article) and was not intended for flight, Grimshaw explained. However, it was decided that the vehicle would be redesignated OV-099 and named Challenger.
Challenger was the second orbiter, but was responsible for a lot of firsts in the shuttle program, such as first use of lightweight external tanks and solid rocket boosters (STS-6), first spacewalk from a Shuttle (STS-6), first deployment of a tracking data relay satellite and Sally Ride became the first woman in space (STS-7).
The orbiter also had the first five (STS-7) and seven (STS-41G) member crews, first night launch and landing of a shuttle (STS-8), Guion Bluford became the first African-American in Space (STS-8), the first untethered spacewalk (STS-41B), first in-flight capture, repair and release of a satellite (STS-41C) and Kathryn Sullivan was the first woman to walk in space (STS-41G).
The center’s shuttle landing and recovery team supported all 10 of Challenger’s missions, including five lakebed and two runway landings.
For Grimshaw, the most memorable of those landings was STS-61A, Challenger’s last landing at NASA Armstrong, then called NASA Dryden. A decision was made to tow the orbiter back to the center via the lakebed. Tests had validated the area of the lakebed was hard enough to tow over.
“Challenger’s nose wheels, and then main tires, began to sink to the point that the tow bar over extension alarm went off and we had to stop towing,” Grimshaw recalled. “The tow bar was reset and the tug driver tried to resume the tow, but Challenger wouldn’t budge and the alarm went off again.”
Innovation was required.
“In order to get Challenger on to the shuttle ramp, Charlie Baker, who was the shuttle area manager at the time, brought out several sheets of 1-inch plywood,” he explained. “Challenger was jacked up and a sheet of plywood was slid under the nose wheels and the left and right main wheels, and then Challenger was lowered. Then, another sheet of plywood was placed in front of each of those sheets of plywood. We resumed towing ops very slowly.”
It was a complex operation.
“As Challenger’s wheels rolled off one series of plywood and onto another, we moved the plywood left behind and placed it front of the sheet of plywood the wheels were on,” Grimshaw said. “We continued this rotation until all of Challenger’s wheels were on the concrete of the Shuttle Area ramp. That was the last time we used this route to get the orbiter to Dryden.”
For those people who drive by the monument, they will have an opportunity to remember the sacrifices of the seven brave souls who challenged the unknown and think about the next generation of astronauts waiting for their chance to discover new frontiers in space.