Plans to make 1986 a uniquely productive year for U.S. space science activities ended in one horrible moment with the January 28, 1986, explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. The joyless scene at Cape Canaveral, Fla., stood in sharp contrast to the overwhelming success of Voyager 2 in its encounter with Uranus 4 days earlier. (Scientific details of that encounter will follow in upcoming issues of Eos.)
Of the 15 space shuttle flights planned for fiscal year 1986, beginning October 1, 1985, a total of seven were to have carried scientific payloads for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The remaining eight flights were evenly divided between missions for the U.S. Department of Defense and commercial missions for NASA's paying customers. The explosion caused NASA to put its entire space shuttle program on hold to allow time for engineers to find the cause of the accident and for NASA to implement corrective measures. As Eos went to press, NASA acting administrator William R. Graham had not yet released the names of those who would serve on the formal investigative panel. “I think everybody's agreed that it will take weeks to months to unravel,” said Alexander Dessler, director of the space science laboratory at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center near Huntsville, Ala. Dessler speculated that investigators would begin with a list of hundreds of possible causes for the explosion.