The flight did not last long. A series of events rapidly unfolded beginning with a big puff of gray smoke spurting from a joint on the shuttle’s right solid booster rocket less than a second after blastoff. Eight blacker puffs of smoke followed over the next 2.5 seconds.
Thirty-seven seconds into the flight, Challenger encountered a series of high-altitude wind shears, which the boosters’ steering system automatically compensated for. After passing through the region of maximum aerodynamic pressure, the shuttle’s main engines were throttling up and the boosters were increasing their thrust when a flicker of flame appeared on the right solid rocket booster in the area known as the aft field joint.
By a minute into the flight, the flame was a plume and the right booster was losing chamber pressure, indicating a growing leak. By 64.6 seconds after liftoff, the flames had breached the shuttle’s fuel tank, creating an abrupt change in the shape and color of the plume.
With leaking hydrogen now feeding the flame, the end was near. At about 72.2 seconds the lower strut holding the right booster to the tank broke away, leaving it free to rotate around the upper attachment strut. A second later, the tank began to break apart, releasing massive amounts of liquid hydrogen. About the same time, the rotating booster rocket hit the tank, releasing more hydrogen as well as liquid oxygen. Challenger, traveling at just under twice the speed of sound at an altitude of 46,000 feet, was quickly engulfed. The orbiter broke apart, its main engines still firing, 73 seconds after launch.