Remembering the Challenger Disaster

While the Challenger disaster jeopardized the abstract dreams of a generation of aspiring astronauts, the tragedy also had tangible effects on the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), where professionals and academics were studying, researching, and developing projects for the space program.

Located at 60 Garden St., the CfA was officially created in 1973 and combined projects under the Harvard College Observatory and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Center.

The CfA had a direct connection with the Challenger, having designed an infrared telescope aboard the shuttle’s previous 1985 mission.

McDowell says that the disaster caused developmental and financial setbacks at the CfA, where he began working as an astrophysicist in 1987.

“We were making a big slow turn in one direction, and we had to make a screeching U-turn,” McDowell says. “We lost a good part of a decade in space exploration as a result of this.”


For example, the hiatus of the shuttle program delayed several satellite projects at the CfA.

Before the disaster, many scientists believed that all future projects were going to fly into space aboard shuttles, which were then seen as the most dependable vehicle to carry complicated and expensive payloads, according to Harvey D. Tananbaum—a senior astrophysicist and director of the Chandra X-ray Observatory Center.

After spending years and millions of dollars developing satellites that would be safe alongside astronauts for shuttle launches, researchers now had to temporarily redesign satellites to be compatible with rocket launch.

“We were all very eager to have this go, so that was a big deal when [the program] stopped,” says Astronomy Professor Robert P. Kirshner ’70, who had designed a satellite that was intended to be launched aboard a shuttle.

Given its supposed reliability, the shuttle had also once been envisioned as a way to allow scientists to perform their own experiments in space.

But Martin Elvis, a senior astrophysicist at the CfA, says that the death of six astronauts and a civilian aboard a shuttle made that hope unrealistic.

“No way we were going to be flying to space with our own experiments after this, which was the fantasy originally,” Elvis says.

During the shuttle program hiatus, researchers at the CfA did not halt their research entirely, but they were forced to work entirely with old data, according to McDowell.

“There was plenty of work to do, but people lost direction a little bit,” says Roush, who had secured work-study employment at the CfA before he changed his academic path.

Irwin I. Shapiro, the director of the CfA from 1983 to 2004, says he does not recall a serious detrimental impact on the observatory, but says the disaster  caused a number of short term difficulties for the space program.

For example, the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope was delayed in response to the Challenger, which in turn delayed the launch of the CfA’s Chandra telescope—described as an X-ray version of the Hubble.

Although the CfA had begun work on Chandra in the 1980s, they did not receive a contract to develop it until 1991, two years after the return of the shuttle program. The telescope was finally launched in 1999.

—Staff writer Kerry M. Flynn can be reached at

—Staff writer Rebecca D. Robbins can be reached at