10 Firsts on Board the Space Shuttle Challenger

Updated on February 29, 2020
skydancer profile image

My father worked on the space shuttle fuel tank during the early stages of the shuttle program, and I, myself, am a NASA space enthusiast.

The time frame between the 27th of January through the first of February is always reserved for mourning as far as the American space program is concerned. The three space tragedies of the Apollo 1 fire, explosion of Challenger after liftoff, and Columbia breaking apart during re-entry all occurred within a span of five days of one another.

Out of the three, the loss of Challenger is probably the one ingrained into most people's minds, due in large part to the fact that it was to be the first time a private citizen would be launched into orbit and the full-scale media blitz that ensued as a result.

2020 marks the 34th anniversary of the tragedy. In remembering the seven lives lost that fateful Tuesday morning, it is also important to note that the families of these fallen have said many times that their loved ones would have wanted space travel to continue.

As June Scobee-Rodgers, widow of commander Dick Scobee, once exclaimed in her own personal reflections, "Ships are safe in the harbor, but that's not what ships are made for."

Challenger was indeed a fine ship who gave us many firsts in our space program's history.

Here's a look at some of them.

1. First Spacewalk From the Shuttle

Donald Peterson and Story Musgrave during the first ever shuttle EVA
Donald Peterson and Story Musgrave during the first ever shuttle EVA | Source

STS-6, or the sixth flight of the space shuttle, was Challenger's first. Donald Peterson, an Air Force officer, and Story Musgrave, a medical doctor, served as the mission specialists on board the flight, and performed the space shuttle program's first ever spacewalk, or extra-vehicular activity (EVA), carrying out various tests inside the orbiter's payload bay.

2. First American Woman In Space

Sally Ride
Sally Ride | Source

The ill-fated mission aside, Challenger's second voyage, STS-7, was perhaps her most well-known for the fact that a woman was on board for the first time in American history. Physicist Dr. Sally Ride was selected by NASA in 1978, fresh off of receiving her PhD in physics from Stanford. She served as the first female Capcom for the first two shuttle flights, giving her an edge over the other five women in her class to be the first selected to fly.

It wasn't an entirely clear-cut decision on the part of NASA, however. Dr. Ride maintained until her death in 2012 that she never knew why she was chosen to be first, but "would love to know." Then-director of flight operations, George Abbey, however, has mentioned that Ride's proficiency with the shuttle's robotic arm (RMS), which she helped develop, sealed the deal. The RMS was to play a crucial role on her flight.

3. First African-American In Space

Guion Bluford
Guion Bluford | Source

Sally Ride's historic flight was followed up by another first by an American astronaut. Challenger's third mission, STS-8, featured mission specialist Dr. Guion Bluford, Jr., who earned his doctorate of philosophy in aerospace engineering with a minor in laser physics from the Air Force Institute of Technology in 1978. Bluford became the first African-American in space. Like Sally, Dr. Bluford's role involved the testing of the shuttle's robotic arm, as well running several biochemical experiments. Of his historic accomplishment, Dr. Bluford said, "I felt an awesome responsibility, and I took the responsibility very seriously, of being a role model and opening another door to black Americans, but the important thing is not that I am black, but that I did a good job as a scientist and an astronaut."

4. First Night Launch & Landing

With the largest payload capacity and quickest turnaround time of the orbiter fleet, Challenger quickly assumed the role of NASA's workhorse, flying the 6th, 7th, and 8th flights of the shuttle in straight succession. In the latter of which, she proved trusty in the first night launch and landing of a space shuttle flight. While not a notable breakthrough for science or humanities, it is hard to deny that Challenger lighting up the sky that August night in 1983 was a sight to behold.

5. First Untethered Space Walk

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Bruce McCandlessRobert Stewart
Bruce McCandless
Bruce McCandless | Source
Robert Stewart
Robert Stewart | Source

Challenger's fourth flight, STS-41B, became the first to feature an untethered space walk (EVA), using a Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU). The MMU allowed for spacewalks at a distance from the shuttle, and was developed as an aid for constructing the International Space Station.

Though the unit was originally designed by the US Air Force in 1966, Mission specialists Bruce McCandless and Robert Stewart were the first to put it to the test in February of 1984. McCandless ventured out 380 feet from orbiter Challenger, while Stewart tested the "work station" foot restraint at the end of the robot arm. McCandless later stated that "fear" was his main guide as to how far he was willing to wander away from the orbiter.

Although the MMU played no role in the 1986 tragedy, it was discontinued thereafter, citing safety concerns and the fact that traditional tethers could be used for any needed EVA tasks.

6. First Flight Carrying Two Women

Kathryn Sullivan (left) and Sally Ride playing with sleep restraint on board Challenger mission STS-41G
Kathryn Sullivan (left) and Sally Ride playing with sleep restraint on board Challenger mission STS-41G | Source

It turns out Kathryn Sullivan and Sally Ride go further back in their lives than being selected as two of NASA's original six women astronaut candidates. The two grew up within a half-hour drive of each other in California's San Fernando Valley -- Sullivan from Woodland Hills, and Ride, from Encino. Upon comparing school and address history when arriving at NASA, they determined that they both attended first grade at Hayvenhurst Elementary School in Van Nuys. Though they were the same age, neither was able to remember whether they were in the same classroom or crossed paths on the playground, according to Sullivan.

Nonetheless, they found themselves in unforgettably close quarters in October of 1984 on board STS-41G's crew of seven, the largest ever shuttle crew as of that date, and the first to carry multiple women. Dr. Sullivan is an oceanographic geologist who received her PhD in the field from Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia.

7. First American Woman to Perform a Spacewalk

Kathryn Sullivan during her EVA on STS-41G.
Kathryn Sullivan during her EVA on STS-41G. | Source

Kathryn Sullivan became the first female astronaut to walk in space on board the aforementioned STS-41G flight. Joining her for the EVA was fellow mission specialist Dave Leestma. Their assignment entailed demonstrating the orbital refueling system and testing the practicality of refueling satellites from orbit.

8. First Spaceflight Directed & Funded by a Foreign Nation

Inside the German Space Operations Center, in Oberfaffenhofen, near Munich
Inside the German Space Operations Center, in Oberfaffenhofen, near Munich | Source

STS-61A, sadly the 9th and final successful flight of Challenger, was a scientific spacelab mission, directed and funded by West Germany. The mission launched at the end of October of 1985. While NASA maintained flight control from the Johnson Space Center in Houston, the German Space Operations Center in Oberfaffenhofen (near Munich) took over control of the spacelab, a reusable space station used on various flights of the shuttle. This gave the flight the non-NASA designation of D-1, or Deutschland-1.

Not only was this the first spaceflight by NASA sponsored by a foreign nation, it also carried the distinction of being the only manned spaceflight in history monitored from outside of either the USA or Soviet union.

9. History's Largest Ever Space Crew

History's largest ever astronaut crew, featuring both NASA astronauts, as well as two physicists from West Germany and one from the Netherlands
History's largest ever astronaut crew, featuring both NASA astronauts, as well as two physicists from West Germany and one from the Netherlands | Source

Previously, the largest space shuttle crew was made up of seven astronauts, a milestone first reached in October of 1984 on board STS 41-G (see #6 above). STS-61A boasted a crew of eight, which to date remains the highest number of people on board a single spacecraft.

The crew is distinctive for its members from West Germany and the Netherlands, and also included the aforementioned Guion Bluford, who on this flight became the first African-American to make his second trip into orbit. Bonnie Dunbar, selected as an astronaut candidate in 1980, continued NASA's newfound trend of trailblazing women as she became the 7th American woman in space.

10. First Canadian and Dutchman In Space

Click thumbnail to view full-size
First Canadian in space, Marc GarneauFirst Dutchman in space, Wubbo Ockels, in Spacelab
First Canadian in space, Marc Garneau
First Canadian in space, Marc Garneau | Source
First Dutchman in space, Wubbo Ockels, in Spacelab
First Dutchman in space, Wubbo Ockels, in Spacelab | Source

Speaking of a variety of nationalities coming together for a space mission, Challenger also carried the first ever Canadian and Dutchman into orbit. Electrical engineer Marc Garneau and physicist Wubbo Ockels flew on missions 41G and 61A, respectively. Garneau conducted a series of atmospheric and robotic science experiments sponsored by the Canadian government, while Ockels explored various studies of physiological and materials science, biology, and navigation.

Neither German scientist aboard the international 61A mission was the first German in space. That distinction goes to pilot Sigmund Jähn, who flew as part of the Soviet Union's Interkosmos Program in 1978.

Your Favorite Challenger Milestone

What is your favorite memory of Challenger?

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    • skydancer profile imageAUTHOR

      Ehren E Grunewald 

      5 months ago from New Orleans / NC

      @robertsacci: And thank YOU for stopping by! I agree!

    • Robert Sacchi profile image

      Robert Sacchi 

      5 months ago

      The shuttle had some great visuals, both in and around the orbiter and of the Earth. Thank you for posting.

    • skydancer profile imageAUTHOR

      Ehren E Grunewald 

      5 months ago from New Orleans / NC

      @bdeguilio Thanks! It sure was!

    • bdegiulio profile image

      Bill De Giulio 

      5 months ago from Massachusetts

      Excellent list of historic firsts for Challenger. It was a thrilling era for the space program.


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