The Story of the Soccer Ball that Survived the 1986 Challenger Explosion

The ball eventually made it to space, though not on it's original mission.
Trevor English

While engineering is an incredibly rewarding career or hobby, it has the ability to result in failure. While sometimes that failure means lost money or just a warranty claim, sometimes it can be catastrophic. Stories of engineering failures allow us to learn from mistakes and ultimately design better, but many failures have grave consequences.

The Challenger disaster

On the fateful day of January 28th, 1986, the skies over the coast of Florida lit ablaze. The Challenger shuttle had just exploded, 73 seconds after takeoff, instantly killing all seven crew members.

This day is remembered by many around the world today. As for what caused the explosion, an investigation into the launch and subsequent explosion noted a number of factors. The launch was initially planned for January 22, 1986, but after bad weather, it had been rescheduled a number of times before the January 28th, launch date. Even on the day of launch, it's time had been pushed back 2 hours due to exceptionally cold weather. The ultimate official cause of failure was an o-ring failure in the right solid rocket booster, but the investigation determined that the cold weather played a factor in this internal failure.

What survived the crash

In total, the Challenger explosion created 14 tons of debris scattered across the Florida coast and floating in the Atlantic ocean.

While many objects survived the blast, perhaps most notable is that of a tattered soccer ball covered in messages from schoolchildren in Texas.

Ellison Onizuka was one of the astronauts on the Challenger flight, and his daughter, Janelle, had given him that soccer ball ahead of the launch for good luck. The ball itself was no more than a practice ball used by Janelle's team, but it was signed by her teammates and said: "Good Luck, Shuttle Crew," on the side in big blue letters.


It's that same soccer ball that was found just hours after Janelle had handed it off by the U.S. Coast Guard floating in the Atlantic in the recovery efforts.

While this story of heartbreaking engineering failure may seem to end there, it starts us off on an inspiring journey.

Janelle Onizuka says that the moment she hugged her dad and handed him that fateful soccer ball was the last fond memory she had of him face to face.

Following the investigation into the explosion by NASA, all of the personal effects found from the crash were returned to the families of the crew member they belonged to. Janelle's mom, Lorna, received the call from NASA about the ball and decided to donate it to Clear Lake High School, where it sat in a display cabinet for nearly 30 years in remembrance of the Challenger crew.

The ball itself never made it into space on the Challenger, but its days on earth sitting idly in a display cabinet were numbered.

In 2016, Shane Kimbrough, an astronaut slated for another stint in the International Space Station was preparing for his second trip away from Earth. He asked the Clear Lake High School principal if there was anything that the school wanted to put into space and her mind immediately turned to the ball on display.

The ball made it to space

On October 19, 2016, the ball boarded Expedition 49 with Kimbrough and spent 173 days in space.

The astronaut took pictures with the ball aboard the ISS cementing its redemption arc in space history.

After returning from the international space station, the ball now sits in its own glass case 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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