It was January 28, 1986. The space shuttle Challenger sat on Kennedy Space Center’s pad 39B, awaiting the go-ahead for its 10th launch. Boosters rumbled. The radio chattered. And the eyes of NASA turned toward Morton Thiokol in Utah. 

Following the recovery of the engines that had propelled the shuttle Discovery into space in January 1985, engineers at Ogden’s Morton Thiokol Inc. found black soot on the rings that seal and separate the motors from the fuel supply. That meant one thing: a leak. The only variable they could isolate to explain why 23 of 24 previous launches hadn’t produced that same soot was temperature. It was an unusually cool 53 degrees along the Florida coast on the morning of Discovery’s launch. And with the Challenger awaiting clearance a year later, meteorologists were predicting an unheard-of dip to below freezing. 

The final moments of the space shuttle Challenger as it leaves the launch pad in 1986. | Bettmann Archive / Getty Images / Deseret News

One engineer wrote a stark memo: The seals, he believed, could fail in freezing temperatures. “The result could be a catastrophe of the highest order — the loss of human life,” he said. But with the scheduled launch approaching and Christa McAuliffe, the first winner of the Teacher in Space project, onboard, NASA wanted to make it happen. Morton Thiokol engineers wouldn’t sign off on a launch, but management opted to give the go-ahead anyway. The historic liftoff would proceed as planned. 

The temperatures were as anticipated: At 7 a.m., the mercury dipped to a mere 24 degrees. Icicles crusted the launch pad. NASA delayed the launch to give the ice time to melt, and at 11:38 a.m., with temperatures at 36 degrees, the engines ignited. Unknown to the crew, to mission control or to millions watching on TVs across the country, the seal in the right booster engine began to fail almost immediately. Hot exhaust escaped and began burning a hole in the fuel tank, which held 525,000 gallons of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. When the fumes punctured the tank 73 seconds after liftoff, the shuttle erupted into a fireball and was torn apart by the devastating forces of compromised aerodynamics. All seven crew members died instantly, making the Challenger the deadliest space disaster in history and leading to the suspension of the shuttle program and an investigation commission ordered by then-President Ronald Reagan. 

The resulting 450-page document, commonly called the Rogers Commission Report, mentions Utah 16 times, placing it at the center of one of the most tragic and well-known moments in the history of space exploration. If you followed that saga, you probably aren’t surprised by any of this; Utah’s role in the Challenger disaster was well-publicized at the time. But what may surprise you beyond that dishonorable distinction is the essential role the arid Intermountain West has played — and continues to play — in all manner of space missions. From New Mexico to Arizona, from Apollo to Artemis, this slice of the country has proven essential for some of the most consequential expeditions in human history. At almost every major stepping stone toward the cosmos  — whether past, present or future — you can find, if you dig enough, roots in the American West.

“In the West, we have certain resources and talents and treasures that can be brought to bear upon space exploration,” says Paul McFarlane, director of Reno’s Fleischmann Planetarium and Science Center. “And I think sometimes, those parts of the story are not known, and are maybe underappreciated.”


For as long as humans have existed, we have looked to the stars. For guidance. For stories. For God. But only within the last hundred-or-so years have our ambitions to walk among the heavens become a reality — a reality that, arguably, began to take shape in Roswell, New Mexico. 

In 1930, Robert Goddard arrived from Massachusetts with a plan. He’d been working on it for years, having patented both a multistage rocket and a liquid-fueled rocket by 1914. By 1926, he conducted the first successful rocket launch. But his Massachusetts neighbors had grown wary of his potentially dangerous experiments. So he ended up in Roswell, naturally. It was isolated, it didn’t feature much flammable vegetation and it had good weather nearly year-round — the perfect spot to launch rockets. His research there yielded the first human-made vehicle to break the sound barrier in 1935. 

Wernher von Braun, the notorious Nazi-turned-American, also set up shop in New Mexico after World War II, leading to more advances at what was then known as the White Sands Proving Ground. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration was birthed in 1958, and using designs — and dreams — from Goddard and von Braun, reaching the moon started to seem like a real possibility. But before that could happen, a closer study of where we were going was warranted. 

Utah State University’s Space Dynamics Lab traces its origins to around that same time — 1959. That’s when a scientist named Doran Baker arrived, fresh off a postdoctoral study at Harvard, hoping to conduct experiments in electrical engineering. His work flourished for decades; along with his brother, Kay, he explored the lingering effects of atmospheric nuclear weapons testing. In 1982, Baker merged his work with another lab to create today’s Space Dynamics Lab and “helped put Utah State on the map as a hub for space research,” according to his obituary published earlier this year. “That research and development over the last 60-plus years,” explains current lab president Jed Hancock, “has evolved into who we are today” — a well-known lab in the admittedly niche space travel world, charged with collecting asteroid samples and leading the boom in small satellites.

“There was other research that was going on about space in Utah at the time (we were founded), so I don’t want to claim we’re the oldest,” Hancock adds, “but we’re right in the roots of it.” That legacy continues with projects like SunRISE, a constellation of six small satellites anticipated to launch in 2024, all to be built in Logan, Utah, tasked with the mission of studying solar storms. Solar storms can knock out satellites, power grids and, in the future, could have consequences for manned missions to Mars and beyond. Understanding them will help scientists mitigate their effects. In space travel, preparation is everything. 

That’s precisely how the eventual Apollo 11 crew — Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins  — ended up in northern Nevada in August 1964 with 11 other astronauts. They’d congregated on the outskirts of Reno for a simulated survival experience to prepare them in the event of an errant landing upon reentry to Earth. The chances of such an occurrence were remote — and, ultimately, unrealized. But his time in the dusty, bright reaches of the West seemed to have left an impression on Armstong, who upon becoming the first human to step foot on the moon remarked, “It has a stark beauty all of its own, but like much of the high desert of the United States, it’s different, but it’s very pretty out here.”

Shortly after the success of the Apollo 11 mission in 1969, the then-president of the University of Utah, James C. Fletcher, was appointed by then-President Richard Nixon to lead NASA — specifically the development of the space shuttle program. He left that position in 1977 but was reappointed by Reagan in May 1986, tasked with rehabilitating the organization’s reputation following the Challenger disaster. His tenure, which ended in 1989, began that process. Unfortunately, any progress was undone in the early 2000s.


It was February 1, 2003. From just outside her five-wheel camper nicknamed “The Outpost,” Shannon Rupert looked to the sky with awe. The space shuttle Columbia, en route to a planned landing at Cape Canaveral after a 16-day trip to low Earth orbit, whizzed overhead outside of Hanksville, a 162-person town in Utah’s canyon country. Behind it, a trail of exhaust gleamed like a golden ribbon in the morning sun. For Rupert, it was a reminder that her work here on Earth had a place beyond, too. 

Rupert believes that soon enough (from a planetary perspective of time), it won’t be uncommon for humans to explore in orbit, on Mars and beyond. The gravitational pull of the stars isn’t just a force of physics; it’s a force of human nature, a magnet of the imagination. It’s the thrill of the unknown right before it is discovered. A never-ending Christmas Eve. We can’t help ourselves. We conjure images of what “Star Trek” aptly called the final frontier; the last escape hatch — in theory, at least. And space — not only the one in the sky, but the one that denotes large, open areas — is vital to achieving that science fiction-worthy goal. 

Hugh Gregory, left, and Veronica Ann Zabala-Aliberto, right, climb a hill outside the Utah-based Mars Desert Research Station. | George Frey / Getty Images / Deseret News

Rupert serves as director of the Mars Desert Research Station, located in the wide-open expanse of the Southwest desert. The facility bases its operations on the “Mars Direct” plan authored in 1990 by aerospace engineer Robert Zubrin, which outlines the goal of getting people to Mars as quickly and cheaply as possible. It calls for the vehicle that is used to reach Mars to become living quarters upon landing. In Utah, Rupert operates a simulation of the Mars Direct plan — preparing people today on Earth for what is to come on the red rock planet. The simulator consists first of what Rupert calls the “tuna can” — a few dorms, a kitchen and a communal table. The rest of the simulation quarters are accessible via tunnels, which lead to all six buildings on the campus, including an engineering bay, a greenhouse and a pair of observatories.

A simulated experience of life on Mars via the station’s field courses can range from a week to a month in length. Participants cut off contact with the outside world and communicate (on a delay) with “mission control” — i.e. Rupert. “We get a lot of scientists and engineers,” she says. “But we also have sociologists, psychologists, artists, astronomers — I mean, you name it. The people who come run the full gamut of interests and how they relate to a future as an interplanetary species.” The station is funded largely by course fees and donations, while receiving a small amount of funding from NASA for its STEM education program. A similar program called HI-SEAS exists in Hawaii but is not NASA funded.

Together, the programs illustrate humankind’s obsession with Mars — foremost because of all the celestial bodies in our solar system, it’s both one of the most likely to contain the ingredients necessary for life and one of the most accessible. Knowing whether life on our planet stands alone in the universe has been a fundamental question of humankind for as long as our species has looked up at the sky, prompting NASA to send rovers searching for signs of it on the red planet. And for the uber wealthy to invest in a future beyond our atmosphere. 

At almost every major stepping stone toward the Cosmos — whether past, present or future — you can find, if you dig deep enough, roots of the American West.

Space-bound private companies founded by billionaires have sprung up in recent years. There’s Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin. Elon Musk’s SpaceX. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. Each has offered high-minded explanations for their interest in space, from their lifelong, understandably human fascination with the larger universe to space’s potential to save humans from extinction, if only we can figure out how to become an interplanetary species in time. That, of course, obscures their more immediate motivations, which could be any number of economic incentives, from resource extraction to tourism to building the bridge toward interstellar colonization. Ultimately, though, their interests aren’t all that different from those of the Mars Desert Research Station or of NASA: This is all about understanding the nature of life, of what it means to be alive — human or otherwise. 

Not too far from Rupert’s home near Hanksville, along the dried-up edges of Walker Lake, Nevada, scientists have been trying to understand what, exactly, fossilized microbial life would look like in a desolate, unforgiving place like Mars. In the oppressive heat of the northern Arizona desert, a NASA initiative called the Desert RATS Analog mission (“RATS” meaning Research and Technology Studies) spent 13 years testing robotics equipment, including potential Mars rovers that would allow humans to explore the Martian surface. Today’s robotic rovers already offer us a glimpse of the terrain, helping scientists confirm, for example, that liquid water once flowed on the planet’s surface. But if humans are to someday reach the surface ourselves, tests like the Desert RATS program will prove vital in what we’re able to accomplish while we’re there. Until then, the best we can do is continue to study Mars and other celestial bodies from here on Earth, which has never been easier. 

For over two decades, researchers have been using the Utah Test and Training Range, one of the largest military installations in the world, as a safe landing place to bring back samples from different space phenomena. Like atoms from the sun, or in the case of a program called the Stardust mission, pieces of a comet. 

Walker Lake, Nevada, is the site of scientific studies hopeful to determine what microbial life might look like on Mars. | UCG / Getty Images / Deseret News

Don Brownlee, a professor of astronomy at the University of Washington, spearheaded the Stardust mission from its launch in 1999 to its landing in 2006. He was there, in the Utah desert, when the landing module reentered the atmosphere at a speed of over 28,000 miles per hour — a record for the fastest speed of any human-made object returning to Earth. “It was like the finger of God coming out of the sky,” he says.

He and many others studied the samples, which told them that comets may contain molecules ejected from a young sun, and that comets may have formed very differently from how scientists then theorized. The mission didn’t unequivocally contribute any knowledge that’ll lead to humans someday zipping through the stars, but it did add to our library of intrigue. To the Star Trek fantasy that forces us to marvel at the very concept of a comet. 

That tempting romanticism, though, can sometimes blur stark realities. Realities that Mars, our solar system and space itself are all extremely hostile to human life, as embodied by that January morning in 2003 that Rupert looked to the sky. 

Not long after passing over Utah, while soaring above Texas, the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated and rained debris across the South. A piece of the shuttle’s reusable heat shield had been damaged during the launch, and the result was another seven dead astronauts. Rupert watched it unfold on satellite TV, knowing she’d have to break the news to the crew undergoing a simulation. Combined with the desolate landscape spread out before her, Columbia’s demise offered a dose of terrifying clarity. “The realities of spaceflight,” she says, “were very, very real in that moment.” 

Indeed, spaceflight is risky — much less spaceflight to Mars. But again, that’s part of the appeal; the voyage into the unknown that makes disaster inevitable but giving up impossible. It’s part of what we’ll have to confront as companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin make civilian space flights more accessible; as the James Webb Space Telescope reveals new truths about the universe; and as our probes currently roving Mars search for clues about life past — and future. 

Decorated Utah astronaut Don Lind dies at 92
The Mars Desert Research Station in Southern Utah lets students and professionals train for surviving Mars
Australian man's mission to Mars begins in the Utah desert


It was 2018. The idea of collecting rock samples from Mars had already been around for decades. The Soviets tried it in the ’70s. The Americans had thought about it since at least the early 2000s. But after many false starts and dashed hopes, the newest iteration began four years ago. This go-around appears to be the closest yet to achieving the long-awaited goal: sending a collection of rocks collected on and launched from the Martian surface back to Earth. 

The project, known as the Mars Sample Return Campaign, has plenty of existing research to draw on, from Brownlee’s Stardust mission to an ongoing experiment known as OSIRIS-REx, which is set to return an asteroid sample to the dusty Utah desert in 2023. “Scientists can learn a lot about the building blocks of life and how the solar system was formed” from studying these samples upon their return, Hancock says. And aside from showing us where our galaxy came from, these samples can also offer a glimpse of where space exploration is headed. 

Brian McCann, CEO of St. George-based startup Intergalactic, puts it this way: Space is going to be the next “kingmaker” industry — like the internet was with the advent of megacompanies like Google and Facebook. It’s one of the few underdeveloped industries left, making it ripe for commodification and financial reward. Its proximity and overlap with the defense industry also mean a chance at lucrative government contracts. “All of a sudden,” McCann says, “you have these giants that pop up that really do take advantage of the moment” by outcompeting the biggest existing defense contractors, like Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin. 

McCann’s company focuses on heat regulation. Much of developing space technology is electric, and electric batteries require temperature stability — they can’t be too hot or too cold, which is difficult to manage in the extreme environments of space. That’s where he saw an opportunity. “A lot of people are stuck in the old paradigm,” he contends. “They’re not moving fast enough. They don’t realize what’s in front of them.” As far as he can see, what’s ahead is nothing less than exponential economic growth as the industry continues to find its footing amid an endless opportunity for expansion. But that’s set off some alarm bells, most obviously embodied by the rapid proliferation of satellites. One recent study argues that there’s nowhere left on Earth to study the sky free from light pollution because of the churning maw of satellites now circling the globe, with thousands more set to launch in the coming years. Such unintended consequences, critics argue, are exactly what will become the norm if privatization takes over space exploration. “If the quest to become an interplanetary species becomes entirely propelled by profits,” asserts one article in BBC Science Focus magazine, “we risk losing sight of the values that make space exploration so important.” Space has, in the past, felt like a collective human destiny; something to be reached as a species. Does privatization, where profit rather than knowledge becomes the ultimate barometer of success, change the equation?

For now, at least, a collection of governments continues to push space exploration, whether for nationalistic or humanistic reasons. One such mission, NASA’s Artemis program, aims to put humans back on the moon by 2025. The Artemis rocket boosters were manufactured in northern Utah at the same facility that built the malfunctioning Challenger rockets. That company has changed names and ownership several times since then and is now owned by Northrop Grumman, which has had to prove itself anew. It’s a fascinating metaphor. Think about it: The same facility that manufactured rockets that accidentally killed seven people is still manufacturing similar rockets for similar missions over 35 years later. The scientific imperative must march forward. Now, and in the decades to come. 

The Mars Sample Return Campaign plans to bring rocks back from Mars by 2033; landing tests are already underway in the Utah desert. The knowledge gained from those tests, combined with the Artemis program — a sort of precursor project — could help send humans to Mars by the late 2030s or early 2040s, according to NASA’s current plans. That means we’re still about a generation removed from that vision coming to fruition. 

How appropriate, given that the desire to discover space is indeed generational — capturing the minds of ancient philosophers as much as children learning to read their first books. McAuliffe, the intrepid teacher-turned-astronaut who died on that fateful January morning aboard Challenger, inspired a man named Victor Williamson. A Utah science instructor, Williamson developed Pleasant Grove’s Christa McAuliffe Space Center — a space voyage simulator facility that has hosted field trips and summer camps since 1990, indoctrinating the next generation with a desire to be amongst the stars (or at least learn about the planets). “We have a lot of people that go through and get excited about the subject,” director James Porter says. “We’re hoping to get some of these individuals excited about going out and discovering new things, but also opening their minds to recognize that they can be a part of something going forward. They have an influence on what’s going to happen.”

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On Earth, and in the heavens.   

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the funding and ownership for two Mars-related research programs. The Mars Desert Research Station in Utah receives some funding from NASA for its STEM education program. The story incorrectly said that it did not receive funding from NASA. The HI-SEAS program in Hawaii is privately owned and not affiliated with NASA. The story incorrectly reported that it was a NASA program. 

This story appears in the November issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.

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