Today In 1912 The Worlds

Space exploration Timeline Worksheet

Space Exploration / May 5, 2020

Space Shuttle Disaster

Classroom Activity

Activity Summary
Students research the progression of U.S. manned space exploration and learn the causes of the Challenger and Columbia shuttle accidents.

Learning Objectives
Students will be able to:

  • describe how the U.S. space program missions have changed over time.
  • explain what allowed the Challenger and Columbia space shuttle accidents to occur.
  • cite specific causes for each accident.

Suggested Time
Three class periods

Multimedia Resources

Additional Materials

The space program has a long history of advancing science and technology since NASA's inception in 1958. Probes have been sent to the outer reaches of the solar system; men have landed on the moon. Since it started in 1981, the space shuttle program alone has launched more than 100 missions. In its early years, the shuttle program's focus was on launching both military and communications satellites; the program's middle years were devoted to completing scientific missions and the launch and repair of space satellites. In recent years, shuttle astronauts have concentrated on assembling and maintaining the International Space Station.

But the program has not been without its problems. Faced with pressures to develop a reusable space transportation system, NASA in the 1980s took on military and commercial payloads in order to survive. The need to accommodate different kinds of payloads resulted in conflicting design requirements that would jeopardize the shuttle's safety—the 1986 Challenger disaster struck a huge blow to the program. When shuttle flights resumed in 1988, the program returned to its original mission of science exploration. But the shuttle's safety issues were not over—NASA's decision to ignore engineers' concerns about foam shedding from external fuel tanks cost the agency its second shuttle and crew when Columbia disintegrated over Texas in 2003.

The report issued by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board set into motion NASA's next transformation—a vision put forth in 2004 by President George W. Bush to replace the shuttle with new spacecraft that can take astronauts to the moon, Mars, and beyond.

Known as Constellation, the program will be based on existing, proven technologies and will be designed to dramatically improve safety by launching crew and cargo separately and incorporating a crew escape system.