Remembering space shuttle Challenger: Five ways it changed spaceflight

Twenty-five years ago Friday, the space shuttle Challenger came to a tragic end, exploding on liftoff and claiming the lives of seven astronauts. We remember the loss of the Challenger and its crew, yet we often forget the contributions it made to space exploration.

The night of the disaster, President Ronald Reagan told the nation: “The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we'll continue to follow them.” Here are five ways the Challenger pushed spaceflight forward.

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Nick Ut/AP Photo
Henry Cruz, lower right, looks at a space shuttle Challenger replica honoring USAF Colonel Ellison Onizuka, the first Japanese American astronaut who died in the Challenger explosion in 1986, at a memorial Wednesday Jan. 26, 2011 in Los Angeles. Friday marks the 25th anniversary of the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger which killed seven astronauts.

1. Free space walk

At about 300 feet from the cargo bay of the space shuttle Challenger, Bruce McCandless II was farther out than anyone had ever been before. Guided by a Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU), astronaut McCandless, pictured above, was floating free in space. McCandless and fellow NASA astronaut Robert Stewart were the first to experience such an 'untethered space walk' during Space Shuttle mission 41-B in 1984. The MMU works by shooting jets of nitrogen and has since been used to help deploy and retrieve satellites.

Challenger crew members Bruce McCandless II and Robert Stewart made the first free spacewalks in 1984, using a jetpack-like device called the manned maneuvering unit. Though no longer in use, these units allowed astronauts greater freedom and maneuverability, freeing them from being tethered to the shuttle. In 1985, the crew used the manned maneuvering unit to repair a malfunctioning satellite, at a cost of $50 million. This was a bargain, considering replacing the satellite would have cost about $250 million.

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