Challenger accident shapes new wave of passenger spaceships
FILE - In this Jan. 28, 1986 file photo, the space shuttle Challenger explodes shortly after lifting off from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. (AP Photo/Bruce Weaver, File)
FILE - In this Jan. 28, 1986 picture, the space shuttle Challenger lifts off from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. shortly before it exploded with a crew of seven aboard. (AP Photo/Thom Baur)
FILE - This photo provided by NASA shows the crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger mission 51L. All seven members of the crew were killed when the shuttle exploded during launch on Jan. 28, 1986. Front row from left are Michael J. Smith, Francis R. (Dick) Scobee, and Ronald E. McNair. Front row from left are Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, and Judith Resnik. (NASA via AP)
Space Shuttle Challenger Commander Francis Scobee and Christa McAuliffe smiles after a test flight at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida, Jan. 24, 1986. McAuliffe, a New Hampshire school teacher, is a member of the crew for Sunday's scheduled launch. (AP Photo/Paul Kizzle)
FILE - In this Jan. 27, 1986 file picture, the crew members of space shuttle Challenger flight 51-L, leave their quarters for the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. From foreground are commander Francis Scobee, Mission Spl. Judith Resnik, Mission Spl. Ronald McNair, Payload Spl. Gregory Jarvis, Mission Spl. Ellison Onizuka, teacher Christa McAuliffe and pilot Michael Smith. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
FILE - In this Jan. 28, 1986 file picture, spectators at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. react after they witnessed the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. (AP Photo/File)
FILE - This Jan. 28, 1986 file picture shows U.S. President Ronald Reagan in the Oval Office of the White House after a televised address to the nation about the space shuttle Challenger explosion. (AP Photo/Dennis Cook)
FILE - In this Friday, Feb. 1, 1986 file photo, customer David Kimball of Manchester, N.H. reacts as store employees Lynne Beck of Salisbury, N.H. and Lisa Olson, far right, of Manchester, N.H., embrace each other as they watch the Houston memorial service for the astronauts who died in the space shuttle Challenger explosion on a television in a store in Concord, N.H. Pictured on the television screen are family members of one of the astronauts. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
The Space Shuttle Challenger lifts off Pad 39B at Kennedy Space Center, Florida, at 11:38 a.m., EST, January 28, 1986. The entire crew of seven was lost in the explosion 73 seconds into the launch. (AP Photo/NASA)
FILE - In this series of Jan. 28, 1986 photos, the space shuttle Challenger explodes shortly after lifting off from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. A family from Michigan watches the explosion from Shepard Park in Cocoa Beach. (Malcolm Denemark/Florida Today via AP)
TV monitor shots of Space Shuttle Challenger Flight 51-L, exploding, Jan. 28, 1986. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)
Traveling at nearly 2,000 miles-per-hour, the United States space shuttle "Challenger" explodes shortly after being launched from Cape Canaveral on Jan. 28, 1986, taking its crew on seven to instant death. The crew had included Mrs. Sharon Christa McAuliffe, 37, a mother of two children, who had been selected from more than 11,000 applicants to be the first schoolteacher to fly in the space shuttle as a member of NASA's citizen-in-space-program. It was the first in-air disaster of 56 United States manned space mission. There was no immediate explanation of what went wrong with the 860 million Euro space ship. Pictures are from a television replay of the disaster as recorded in London. (AP Photo)
In this 1985 photo, high school teacher Christa McAuliffe gives a thumbs-up during a parade down Main Street in Concord, N.H. McAuliffe was one of seven crew members killed in the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion on Jan. 28, 1986. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)
FILE - In this 1986 file photo, workers transport debris from the space shuttle Challenger, recovered after the Jan. 28, 1986 explosion, to a storage site on the Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Fla. (AP Photo/James Neihouse)
FILE - This undated file photo provided by NASA shows astronaut and commander in the U.S. Navy, Michael J. Smith. Smith was the pilot of space shuttle Challenger STS-51-L, which exploded 73 seconds after liftoff from Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Jan. 28, 1986. All seven crew members were killed in the explosion. (AP Photo/NASA, File)
FILE - This undated photo provided by NASA shows American astronaut and Air Force pilot Francis R. Scobee. Scobee was the spacecraft commander on the space shuttle Challenger STS-51-L, which exploded 73 seconds after liftoff at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Jan. 28, 1986. All seven crew members were killed. (AP Photo/NASA, File)
American Astronaut Gregory B. Jarvis poses in this undated photo. Jarvis was a payload specialist whose duties on the space shuttle Challenger STS-51-L were to gather new information on the design of liquid-fueled rockets. He was one of seven crewmembers killed aboard the Challenger mission, which exploded 73 seconds after liftoff from Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Jan. 28, 1986. Jarvis was born on Aug. 24, 1944. (AP Photo)
FILE - In this Jan. 31, 1986 file photo, Coast Guardsmen prepare to hoist the fulcrum of one of the space shuttle Challenger's solid rocket boosters onto the deck of U.S. Coast Guard cutter Dallas during salvage operations off the Florida coast. The Challenger exploded shortly after takeoff on Jan. 28. (AP Photo/File)
FILE - This Jan. 28, 1986 photo provided by NASA shows icicles on hand rails of the space shuttle Challenger's service structure on the morning of its final launch from Kennedy Space Center, Fla. The cold weather affected O-ring seals on a solid rocket booster, causing the explosion during launch. (AP Photo/NASA)
FILE - In this 1986 file photo, members of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident walk past the solid rocket boosters and the external tank of a shuttle being fitted in the Vehicle Assembly building at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. (AP Photo/Pool, File)
FILE - In this Friday, Jan. 28, 2011 file photo, June Scobee Rodgers, widow of Dick Scobee, commander of space shuttle Challenger, looks upward during the playing of the National Anthem at a remembrance ceremony to mark the 25th anniversary of the Challenger explosion at the Kennedy Space Center visitor complex in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Friday, Jan. 28, 2011. On the 30th anniversary of the space shuttle Challenger accident, June Scobee Rodgers _ widow of Challenger commander Dick Scobee and longtime spokeswoman for the families of the lost astronauts _ is passing the torch to daughter Kathie. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
This Dec. 25, 1972 photo provided by June Scobee Rodgers shows her late husband, Dick Scobee and their children, and Rich and Kathie. On the 30th anniversary of the space shuttle Challenger accident, June Scobee Rodgers, longtime spokeswoman for the families of the lost astronauts is passing the torch to daughter Kathie Scobee Fulgham. Fulgham, not Rodgers, will be on the speaker platform for the ceremony on Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016. (Courtesy June Scobee Rodgers via AP)
This May 2014 photo provided by June Scobee Rodgers shows her with her children, Rich Scobee and Kathie Scobee Fulgham, in Tennessee. On the 30th anniversary of the space shuttle Challenger accident, June Scobee Rodgers _ widow of Challenger commander Dick Scobee and longtime spokeswoman for the families of the lost astronauts _ is passing the torch to daughter Kathie. (David Humber/June Scobee Rodgers via AP)
Acting NASA Administrator Dr. William Graham, right, watches as the remains of one of the crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger is carried from a jet to awaiting hearses at Dover Air Force Base in Dover, Delaware, Tuesday, April 29, 1986. At Dover AFB, the remains are to be prepared for burial in accordance with the wishes on the individual families. (AP Photo/Gary Emeigh)
A military honor guard carries the remains of one of the crew members of the Space Shuttle Challenger at Kennedy Space Center, Fla., on Tuesday, April 29, 1986, as the body was being transferred to Dover, Del. Seven crew members were killed in the Jan. 28th explosion. (AP Photo/Phil Sandlin)
Unidentified onlookers and servicemen salutes as hearses carrying the remains of the seven astronauts killed in the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion are driven from the tarmac at Dover Air Force Base in Dover, Delaware on Tuesday, April 30, 1986. The remains were flown to Dover AFB for burial preparation. (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta)
This is the portion of the right hand solid rocket booster at Kennedy Space Center, Florida on June 12, 1986, which is being blamed for the explosion on January 28, which destroyed the Space Shuttle Challenger and killed the 7 crew members. Visible in the lower left is the section which burned through and allowed hot gases to escape and burn into the External Fuel Tank. (AP Photo/James Neihouse)
John White, National Transportation Safety Board inspector, stands near the left side of the wreckage of the Space Shuttle Challenger, Wednesday, April 10, 1986, Kennedy Space Center, Fla. The press was allowed to view the Challenger wreckage for the first time. (AP Photo)
Former astronaut Neil Armstrong, a member of the presidential panel investigating the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion, listens to testimony before the commission in Washington, Feb. 11, 1986. David Acheson, a commission member, listens in the background. A model of the shuttle sits on the table. (AP Photo/Scott Stewart)
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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (Reuters) - Thirty years after the space shuttle Challenger exploded during liftoff, a new generation of spaceships continues to build on changes made after NASA's fatal accident.
Challenger blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on the frigid morning of Jan. 28, 1986. The flight lasted just 73 seconds after a rubber seal in one of the shuttle's twin booster rockets failed, triggering an explosion.
The disaster exposed shuttle design shortcomings and operational problems in the U.S. space program. But it also helped seed a commercial space transportation industry that is now developing passenger spaceships.
Accident investigators also found that pressure to maintain a busy flight schedule contributed to Challenger's demise. At the time, NASA's four-ship shuttle fleet, flying several times a month, was the nation's sole space transportation system.
After the accident, then-President Ronald Reagan banned commercial satellites from the shuttles and bolstered military efforts to develop alternative launchers.
The policy shift laid the groundwork for today's commercial space transportation industry, which generated global revenues of $5.9 billion in 2014, according to a report last year by the Satellite Industry Association.
Accidents remain inevitable as the field matures, said Mike Leinbach, a former NASA shuttle launch director.
"Spaceflight is like any other big engineering system," he said, noting that cruise ships and aircraft became safer after accidents. "You get smart by successes. You get smart by failures. ... It's an evolution."
Six astronauts and a high school teacher flying aboard Challenger had no chance of escaping due to a spacecraft design decision, which is not being repeated on the passenger spaceships now under development.
These will launch on top of rockets, not alongside them, and have separate systems to fly crews to safety if a booster falters.
The Challenger accident also exposed NASA management problems. For example, the night before launch, engineers warned that freezing temperatures might be a problem for the shuttle booster rockets, but their concerns were quashed.
"I just hope that the new entrants into the market learn from the mistakes of the past," Leinbach said. "I see that happening."
So far, the only fatality in the emerging industry occurred in October 2014 when a pilot died testing an experimental passenger spaceship for Virgin Galactic, founded by British billionaire Richard Branson.
Investigators cited safety shortfalls and pilot inadequate training as key factors behind the accident.
(Editing by Letitia Stein, Patrick Enright and Leslie Adler)