Politics and personality made them different from the start.
In the official parlance of Houston's Johnson Space Center they were Mission 51L. But to NASA's Jerry Swain, a lead instructor who had trained seven other shuttle teams, this Challenger crew was a favorite. Perhaps it was because they were all so different, their seven divergent backgrounds and outlooks merging into a distinctive collective personality.
Swain had been scheduled to join another mission in January. But because he enjoyed the Challenger assignment so much, he asked to stay on until the mission was completed. One of the things he liked best was watching the homey way the seven went about making themselves a team: They had summer barbecues, went to local happy hours and watched football games together.
"None of them were like that 'Right Stuff' syndrome," Swain said. "Of course, there were civilians on the flight, but even the others were more like regular people and didn't look at themselves as prima donnas. This crew was different from the ones in the days when astronauts were all test pilots. The macho wasn't there.
"They weren't there to ride a rocket into orbit to see if it would fly; they were launching satellites, studying Halley's comet. They were more like scientists and engineers who realized the importance of the other people involved in the mission . . . not seat-of-the-pants guys like in the movies."
But different as the Challenger seven may have been, they constituted a sort of living history of America's manned space effort. Two of them--mission commander Dick Scobee, 46, and pilot Michael Smith, 40--did bring to mind the original Mercury astronauts. Both were pilots first and last, men who had built their lives around the wonder and adventure of flight itself.
Three of the crew--mission specialists Judith Resnik, 36, Ronald McNair, 35, and Ellison Onizuka, 39--represented the second phase in NASA's development. That was a period in which daredevil jet jockeys made room for scientists and engineers, and a crew-cut, white, all-male astronaut corps expanded to include women and ethnic minorities.
The other two--payload specialist Gregory Jarvis, 41, and social studies teacher Sharon Christa McAuliffe, 37--were emblems of new realities: the space program's need to produce profits and advance science while building wider public support.
Scobee, McNair, Onizuka and Resnik were members of the so-called "Class of 1978," a group whose selection changed the face of manned space flight.
Former astronaut Alan Bean, the fourth man to set foot on the moon, was then director of operations and training at the Johnson Space Center, and he worried about that class. Mainly, his anxiety focused on the six women and three blacks who were among the 35 new astronauts chosen from among 8,079 applicants. He wanted to make sure they received no special treatment--real or imagined--that might engender resentment among their colleagues.
Then there was the question of their training: 20 of the 35 were not even test pilots, as all American astronauts up to then had been. Instead, they were scientists and engineers, people with lists of degrees so long they made many of the veteran astronauts look like high school dropouts.
Whether they were pilots or not, Bean's job was to prepare the 35 for the space shuttle missions set to begin in three years. He soon found, however, that he had little to worry about. The Class of '78 was not just good; it was the best ever.
"They were very cocky because they knew they were needed," said Bean, who now makes his living as an artist, painting pictures of space exploration. "There wasn't the kind of competition that we had in the previous programs like Apollo, where there were just so many flights available. They all felt they would fly soon. They felt they would fly as much as they wanted to. And, they were real good."
Mack Herring, a spokesman for NASA's Space Technology Laboratories in Bay St. Louis, Miss., remembers being awed by his first encounter with the Class of '78. "They were different, the first of the super-smart new generation."
Intelligence was not the only thing that set the new astronauts apart, for their number included Sally Ride, a research assistant at Stanford University who would become the first American woman in space; and Guion Bluford, an Air Force major who became the first black astronaut. Among their classmates were three men and a woman who would go to their deaths aboard the Challenger.
One was Dick Scobee, a railroad engineer's son who enlisted in the Air Force as a mechanic, then went to night school until he won his bachelor's degree and a commission. Scobee became a test pilot, and by the time he joined the space program he had logged more than 6,500 hours in 45 different types of aircraft.