Beaufort Native Michael Smith Died in Shuttle Explosion

Challenger Crew

A photo of a earlier Challenger mission crew presented to the people of North Carolina by NASA and now in the collection of the N.C. Museum of History

On January 28, 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded just 73 seconds after its 11:38 a.m. launch from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The seven crew members, including the pilot, U.S. Navy Captain Michael John Smith of Beaufort, North Carolina, died in the disaster. Investigators later determined that cold weather caused a seal in the craft’s right solid rocket booster to fail, allowing pressurized hot gas from the solid rocket motor to reach the external fuel tank. The spacecraft broke apart and disintegrated in a plume of white smoke over the Atlantic Ocean.

The fatal mission (Flight STS-51L), which was to have deployed two satellites into orbit, received much media attention because it marked the first time a civilian, high school teacher Christa McAuliffe, was allowed to travel in space. After the disaster, NASA suspended shuttle flights for two years. The Challenger’s remains were recovered from the ocean floor nearly two months after the explosion. Captain Smith was buried in Arlington National Cemetery on May 3, 1986. There is a monument to Smith on the waterfront in Beaufort and the town’s Michael J. Smith Airport is named in his honor.

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