Incredible story of soccer ball that survived the Challenger explosion

From space to the Atlantic Ocean and back again: The incredible story of the soccer ball that survived the 1986 Challenger explosion

  • NASA’s Challenger shuttle exploded on January 29, 1986, killing all on board
  • From the wreckage, some of the crew’s personal effects were recovered
  • One item was a soccer ball a girl gave her father with a ‘good luck’ message on it
  • The ball survived crash and was left on display at her high school for decades
  • In 2016, the ball made a second journey into space with another astronaut 

In 1986, NASA’s Challenger shuttle exploded 73 seconds after takeoff, killing all seven crew members.

The shuttle created 14 tons of debris, which the US coast guard had to sift through to find the bodies of its occupants, and anything important that may have survived. 

One of the unlikely survivors of the failed launch is a tattered soccer ball, covered in good luck messages from schoolchildren in Texas. 

Janelle Onizuka, the daughter of astronaut Ellison Onizuka, told ESPN she had given the ball to her father ahead of the Challenger launch.

The ball was no more than a practice ball, that had been signed by Janelle’s team with ‘Good Luck, Shuttle Crew’, scrawled in big blue writing on one side. 

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A soccer ball (pictured) survived the explosion of NASA’s challenger shuttle in 1986 – a blast that killed seven – and made it back to space a second time nearly exactly 30 years later

Ellison, who was in quarantine at the time to ensure he wasn’t sick when he boarded the rocket, slipped out to be presented the ball, and to say goodbye to his daughter.     

‘By virtue of the catastrophic days that followed, it is quite literally, my last fond memory of my dad face to face,’ Janelle told ABC last year. 

Janelle Onizuka (pictured) had presented the ball, signed by her and her friends, to her astronaut father soon before the doomed mission

The ball was found floating in the Atlantic Ocean after the crash. 

Following NASA’s investigation into what had happened and why, all personal items that were retrieved from the ocean were returned to the families of the crew member they belonged to .

Janelle’s mom, Lorna, said she received a call about the soccer ball. 

‘I wouldn’t have wanted the ball to become a recovered artifact sitting in a locked vault somewhere, archived forever,’ she said of her decision to retrieve it.   

The ball was donated to Clear Lake High School, where it sat gathering dust in a general trophy cabinet for decades. 

But nearly exactly 30 years on from the ball’s tragic first voyage, it was taken into space again. 

The launch killed all on board (pictured) and created 14 tons of debris. Left to right are Teacher-in-Space payload specialist Sharon Christa McAuliffe; payload specialist Gregory Jarvis; and astronauts Judith A. Resnik, mission specialist; Francis R. (Dick) Scobee, mission commander; Ronald E. McNair, mission specialist; Mike J. Smith, pilot; and Ellison S. Onizuka, mission specialist.


Ellison (left) took the soccer ball on the doomed mission, and when it was retrieved, it was placed on display at his daughter Janelle’s school. About 30 years later, Shane Kimbrough (right) took it to space again

The ball was spotted by an eagle-eyed parent, who recalled the devastating story behind it and offered to build an individual trophy case for it. 

School principal Karen Engle hadn’t known about it, and nearly didn’t believe the story until she spied the message written across the ball in faded ink.

WHAT CAUSED THE EXPLOSION 

The Challenger’s final liftoff thirty years ago came after days of delays, and under unprecedented launch conditions, with temperatures much colder than normal. 

It was initially planned for January 22, 1986, but after bad weather, it was rescheduled numerous times before being set for Jan 28.

Even then, it was pushed back another two hours before finally launching despite the cold weather. 

According to Nasa, the explosion was ultimately caused by an o-ring failure in the right solid rocket booster.

And, they determined that cold weather was a factor.

Shane Kimbrough, an astronaut on the International Space Station, had been preparing for his second trip to space about the same time, and asked Ms Engle if there was anything the school wanted to put into space.

Immediately, her mind turned to the ball, and on October 19, 2016, the ball boarded Expedition 49 with Kimbrough, where it would spent 173 days.

The astronaut, overwhelmed with the piece of history he was holding, took some pictures of the ball finally on a mission.

‘It was a bit emotional just thinking about where this came from and what had transpired over these many years to get to that point,’ he told ESPN. 

‘I started thinking about their family and what it meant to them, and as a result, took some pictures and sent some down to them.’

The ball now sits, tattered and worn from age, inside its very own glass case with a plaque that reads: Space Shuttle Challenger – January 28 1986, International Space Station – October 19, 2016, Clear Lake High School – November 3, 2017.


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The Challenger’s final liftoff thirty years ago came after days of delays, and under unprecedented launch conditions, with temperatures much colder than normal. It is pictured during a launch in 1985

The shuttle only lasted 73 seconds before a booster engine failed and the rocket was consumed by flames

 

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