Triumphant Start To A Tragic Year

The satellite was finally inserted into an operational slot at 85 degrees West longitude, where it remained until April 1997. It was then moved to 86.5 degrees West and finally 'retired' in July of that same year, to be replaced by GE Americom's GE-2 communications satellite. By the time Satcom retired, so too had many of Columbia's STS-61C crew. Hoot Gibson would leave the astronaut corps in November 1996, after completing five Shuttle missions, including command of the first docking with the Russian Mir space station. He also served a few years as chief of NASA's Astronaut Office.

Bolden left NASA in August 1994 after four space trips, including the Hubble Space Telescope deployment flight and command of the first Shuttle mission to carry a Russian cosmonaut. Hawley would accompany Bolden on the Hubble flight, before entering NASA management, then returning to active status to fly two Shuttle missions in 1997 and 1999. Congressman Nelson and the second Payload Specialist, an RCA engineer named Bob Cenker, returned to their pre-flight jobs and would not fly again. Chang-Diaz would fly six more missions after STS-61C and now jointly holds the record for having been launched into space seven times.

The last member of the crew, Pinky Nelson, would fly once more: but it would be particularly poignant, as it was the first Shuttle mission after the Challenger disaster. On 28 January 1986, a few days after Columbia returned to Earth, Challenger lifted off with a crew of seven - including teacher Christa McAuliffe - for a week-long mission to deploy NASA's second TDRS communications satellite. A minute after launch, a leak of hot gas through rubberised O-ring seals in one of the SRBs acted like a blowtorch, and severed one of the struts that held it to the ET, the SRB broke free, pivoted around its upper strut, and breached the ET, igniting the volatile liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen inside in an enormous fireball.

Fifteen kilometres above Earth, the boosters were sent spiralling away like wild Roman candles until they were blown up by remote control. The Shuttle was torn apart in the most public disaster ever witnessed at that time. The cockpit, still containing the remains of the astronauts, was recovered from the Atlantic Ocean a few months later and as late as the winter of 1996, bits of the wrecked spacecraft continued to wash up periodically on Floridian shores. The greatest impact, however, was to the United States space programme.

In the summer of 1986, a presidential commission presented its final report. It pointed to serious problems not only pertaining to the safety of the O-ring seals inside the two boosters, but also highlighted management failures which ignored or did nothing to prevent flights by a system that was known to be 'unsafe'. Commission members heard that, on the night before Challenger's fatal flight, engineers from SRB manufacturer Morton-Thiokol had begged managers to

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