Remembering the Challenger Disaster

At 5 a.m. on the first icy winter days of 1986, Iris M. Mack used to exercise.

On some mornings, the fifth-year graduate student at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences jogged by the frozen Charles River. On others, she went to the gym to lift weights with two male friends.

“I was crazy,” she recalls of those freezing early mornings. “But back then I was in tip-top shape.”

Mack was training in pursuit of a dream—a spot in the NASA space shuttle mission specialist program, which she planned to apply to upon receiving her Ph.D. in applied math that spring.

Encouraged by her mentor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology-educated astronaut Ronald McNair—who was then preparing to go into space onboard the 1986 Challenger space shuttle expedition—Mack signed up for flying lessons and continued her rigorous workout routine.


She was heading out for a daytime run on Tuesday, January 28 when she heard the news.

The Challenger—with McNair, high school teacher Christa McAuliffe, and five other astronauts onboard—had exploded 73 seconds into its flight.

As news of the tragedy spread across Harvard’s campus, the disaster set into motion emotional, professional, and institutional changes in how students and researchers viewed the space program.


Tracy E. Velazquez ’86 was walking into the Mather House tower when she found out about the disaster.

John P. Dennis III ’86 was interviewing in Washington, D.C. for a post-graduation career in the Navy when the news broke.

Wade E. Roush ’89 was in the Science Center doing a programming assignment when a student announced what had happened. Roush ran across the Yard back to Straus Hall and spent the rest of the day glued to the television, watching coverage of the disaster.

In Leverett House, Joseph F. McCafferty Jr. ’86 and his roommates gathered in their dorm room to watch replays “over and over.” McCafferty recalls that many students did not attend their afternoon classes.

“Campus life kind of slowed, if not stopped,” says Velazquez. “You went back from where you were when you heard about it and watched television.”

The tone on campus was “quite subdued and somber,” says Christopher S. Yoo ’86.