"The future is not free: the story of all human progress is one of a struggle against all odds. We learned again that this America…was built on heroism and noble sacrifice. It was built by men and women like our seven star voyagers, who answered a call beyond duty, who gave more than was expected or required and who gave it little thought of worldly reward."

- President Ronald Reagan, January 31, 1986

On January 28, 1986, Space Shuttle Challenger was set to launch on STS-51-L, a mission to observe and track Halley’s Comet. Additionally, Christa McAuliffe, one of the mission’s astronauts and part of the Teacher in Space program, was going to present various lessons from space. Tragically, that did not happen—73 seconds after Challenger launched, the shuttle disintegrated, killing all seven crew members.

This event was watched by the whole world and, as the footage of the disaster played out, it shook all who saw it. This was most heavily felt in space community and even in realm of the cultural arts. Particularly, famed science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke and astronaut Sally K. Ride had their own respective responses to this tragedy, which can be found in the National Air and Space Museum Archives.

Arthur C. Clarke and Challenger

Throughout Arthur C. Clarke’s career, he wrote numerous works about the beauty and infinite possibilities that space travel would offer humanity. In both his science fiction (e.g. Rendezvous with Rama, Fountains of Paradise) and his science non-fiction (e.g. Interplanetary Flight) Clarke showcased to the masses the wonders of space travel. Besides his writing, Clarke supported numerous organizations that promoted the development of space travel from International Space University (ISU) to the Planetary Society (founded by one of his frequent correspondents, Carl Sagan) to the National Space Institute (later renamed as the National Space Society, originally founded by rocket pioneer Wernher von Braun). In addition, Clarke was a guest commenter on news programs for all the Apollo missions to the Moon, which showed how invested he was in the American space program.

The Challenger disaster was reflected in the correspondence Clarke received in early 1986. In one letter, author Jeff Greenwald tells Clarke how this disaster has deeply affected America, but offers a glimmer of hope that despite the tragedy there is still support for space travel.

In the realm of music and film, Clarke received letters from two people he had come to known over the past few years. In a series of letters in early January 1986, French electronic music pioneer Jean-Michel Jarre discussed that his upcoming concert in Houston, Texas, was going to have Ronald "Ron" McNair, one of the Challenger astronauts, play the saxophone while in space for Jarre’s song “Rendez-Vous VI.” 

Page 1 of January 20, 1986 letter from Jean-Michel Jarre to Arthur C. Clarke discussing Jarre’s upcoming concert in Houston which (at the time) would have included Challenger astronaut Ronald McNair playing the saxophone in dialogue with one of Jarre’s songs.

Page 2 of January 20, 1986 letter from Jean-Michel Jarre to Arthur C. Clarke discussing Jarre’s upcoming concert in Houston which (at the time) would have included Challenger astronaut Ronald McNair playing the saxophone in dialogue with one of Jarre’s songs.

However, after the Challenger disaster occurred, Jarre sent another later to Clarke proclaiming that his Houston concert, titled Rendez-vous Houston, would now become a memorial for the Challenger astronauts.

February 11, 1986 letter from Jean-Michel Jarre to Arthur C. Clarke about how the Challenger disaster had made Jarre’s upcoming Houston concert a memorial tribute to the fallen astronauts.

Peter Hyams, a film director, became acquainted with Arthur C. Clarke during the early 1980s, as Hyams was chosen to direct 2010, the sequel film to 2001: A Space Odyssey. His letter to Clarke showcases his anguish over the disaster of Challenger, yet also highlights how the selection of the schoolteacher, Christa McAuliffe, perfectly encapsulates Clarke’s vision that space travel illuminates the best of humanity.

January 29, 1986 letter from Peter Hyams to Arthur C. Clarke discussing the Challenger disaster, highlighting Christa McAuliffe’s accomplishment as a private citizen astronaut.

February 13, 1986 letter from Arthur C. Clarke to Peter Hyams expressing his sympathies with Hyams on Challenger

Sally K. Ride and Challenger

While Arthur C. Clarke was shocked by the tragic event of the destruction of Challenger, he was not involved with NASA and its astronaut program. Sally K. Ride, however, was heavily connected with NASA and would play an important role in the aftermath of the Challenger disaster.

In 1983, Sally Ride made history to become the first American woman in space. A year later, she went up again. Both times Sally Ride went into space, she and her respective crews travelled on the Challenger shuttle. When Challenger was destroyed in 1986, Ride was training for her third shuttle mission. Soon she was selected to be a part of the accident investigation team, which became the Rogers Commission, to investigate the causes of the disaster.

The Sally K. Ride Papers in the National Air and Space Museum Archives contain all her notes and annotations for the Rogers Commission. Here are some samples, in Sally Ride’s own words.

First page of the fourth draft of the Rogers Commission report discussing abort capabilities. 

Sally Ride’s own personal notations on one of the pages of the draft of the Rogers Commission. Text reads: "Scrubs These scrubs affected the 51L KSC testing schedule, and affected the availability of facilities and of the crew, which these factors in turn-required changes to the 51L training schedule."

Sally Ride’s own personal changes to one of the pages of the 12th draft of the Rogers Commission.

Front cover of Sally Ride’s own personal notebook for the Rogers Commission, with the mission insignia sticker for the Challenger.

Page, dated February 5, 1986, from Sally Ride's notebook discussing the goals and intent of the Rogers Commission.

A page of Sally Ride's notes from the Rogers Commission, investigating the cause of the Challenger disaster.

Personal notes from Sally Ride’s fellow Rogers Commission members on an internal page of her copy of the commission report.

The front cover of the Rogers Commission Report.

Ride’s involvement in the investigation of the causes of the Challenger disaster were highly praised. NASA’s administrator at the time, James C. Fletcher, was quite pleased with Ride’s and the Commission’s findings as seen in this letter to Ride.

July 9, 1987 letter from NASA Administrator James C. Fletcher to Sally Ride discussing NASA’s response to the recommendations of the Rogers Commission.

Arthur C. Clarke and Sally K. Ride were both enthusiastic about the wonders of spaceflight. Both were authors of written works and promoters of science. Yet, one was an astronaut who had been to space, while the other was just a writer of science fiction. Despite this difference, both Clarke and Ride were deeply affected by the tragedy of Challenger and worked to make sure the lives of those seven astronauts and the dream of spaceflight for all humanity would never be forgotten.

The Sally K. Ride Papers and the Arthur C. Clarke Collection of Sri Lanka are available to all as digital National Air and Space Museum Archives collections on the Smithsonian Online Virtual Archives

Related Topics Spaceflight Space Shuttle program Society and Culture
Twitter Comments? Contact Us
You may also like Famous Correspondents of Arthur C. Clarke Remembering Challenger 25 Years Later Inside the Sally K. Ride Papers – Now Open for Research