SPACE SHUTTLE CHALLENGER DISASTER
(January 28, 1986 – Cape Canaveral, Florida)
Michael J. Smith
The Official Story
MICHAEL J. SMITH
(Pilot, Space Shuttle Challenger)
Michael John Smith (April 30, 1945 – January 28, 1986), (Capt USN) was an American engineer and astronaut. He served as the pilot of the Space Shuttle Challenger when it was destroyed during the STS-51-L mission, when it broke up 73 seconds into the flight, and at an altitude of 48,000 feet (14.6 km), killing all 7 crew members. Smith’s voice was the last one heard on the Challenger voice recorder.
During his Naval career, Smith flew 28 different types of civilian and military aircraft and logged 4,867 hours of flying time. Following the Challenger disaster, he was promoted posthumously by Congress to the rank of captain, and has had a chair named in his honor at the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) in Monterey, California.
Smith was selected for the astronaut program in May 1980; he served as a commander in the Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory (SAIL), Deputy Chief of Aircraft Operations Division, Technical Assistant to the Director, Flight Operations Directorate, and was also assigned to the Astronaut Office Development and Test Group. In addition to being pilot on the Challenger, he had been slated to pilot a future Shuttle mission (STS-61-I) which had been scheduled for the Fall of 1986. Smith’s voice was the last one heard on the flight deck tape recorder aboard Challenger; his final remark was “Uh oh.”
Following the Challenger disaster, examination of the recovered vehicle cockpit revealed that three of the crew members’ Personal Egress Air Packs were activated: those of Smith, mission specialist Judith Resnik, and mission specialist Ellison Onizuka. The location of Smith’s activation switch, on the back side of his seat, means that either Resnik or Onizuka could have activated it for him. This is the only evidence available from the disaster that shows Onizuka and Resnik were alive after the cockpit separated from the vehicle. However, if the cabin had lost pressure, the packs alone would not have sustained the crew during the two-minute descent.
While analyzing the wreckage, investigators discovered that several electrical system switches on Smith’s right-hand panel had been moved from their usual launch positions. Fellow Astronaut Richard Mullane wrote, “These switches were protected with lever locks that required them to be pulled outward against a spring force before they could be moved to a new position.” Later tests established that neither the force of the explosion, nor the impact with the ocean could have moved them indicating that he made the switch changes, presumably in an attempt to restore electrical power to the cockpit after the crew cabin detached from the rest of the orbiter.