Since its founding in 1756, The Onion has been the gold standard for journalistic integrity, never hesitating to grab truth by the collar, hold it up to a bright, blinding light, and demand answers. While lesser publications debase themselves by chasing after web traffic and social media attention, we maintain our ethical dominance of the industry by sparing no expense to ensure the words in these pages are 100 percent accurate. It was in this same spirit of moral supremacy that we began, 32 years ago, an extensive investigation into the space shuttle Challenger disaster.
In 1986, The Onion published an article stating that the shuttle blew apart in the sky 73 seconds after liftoff. Today, after decades of follow-up reporting, we are issuing an update to confirm there were no survivors in the accident.
It has taken millions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of man hours to reach this definitive conclusion. A dedicated unit of highly trained journalists from The Onion sacrificed their professional and personal lives for this project, working countless late nights and weekends as they studied footage of the Challenger explosion frame by frame and interviewed everyone in the state of Florida they considered a possible eyewitness. Oftentimes they grew frustrated, such as when they undertook diving missions to look for shuttle debris off the coast of Cape Canaveral and covered 500 square miles of ocean floor before discovering, years later, that the wreckage had already been hauled away for analysis by NASA. But in the name of accuracy and journalistic excellence, they never abandoned the task before them.
Inferior reporters at second-rate news outlets may take the easy way out and rush to conclusions in the moments after a story breaks, but The Onion never fails to consider the facts from every possible angle. In 1937, when the Hindenburg met its tragic fate, the nation’s newspapers and broadcasters didn’t hesitate to report that it had caught fire and crashed. However, The Onion’s intrepid newspapermen weren’t satisfied by mere newsreel footage showing the German airship engulfed in flames and plunging into the ground. They sent reporters to the alleged crash site to examine and catalog every charred, smoking remnant they could find. After a period of careful source-vetting and fact-checking, The Onion’s first story on the Hindenburg disaster appeared in the paper’s evening edition on June 23, 1962.
The same rigorous standards were applied in 1986. Unlike The Washington Post, The New York Times, CNN, and the Associated Press—disreputable, unreliable news organizations that immediately joined the echo chamber of voices insisting all seven astronauts aboard the Challenger had died—we pursued every possible lead until we could be absolutely certain our initial estimate of zero survivors was correct.
In the years since, there have been times when we came close to declaring our investigation complete and confirming the seven deaths. But then one of our many ace reporters would spot an unidentified blur in a photo of the shuttle breaking apart, and we would look into whether it might have been possible for a helicopter to have swooped in and saved crew members as their cabin plummeted from the sky, or whether one of the them might have exited the craft and used a stray insulation tile as a makeshift parachute for the 9-mile descent to the ocean surface.
Only in The Onion’s newsroom were tests conducted to see if human beings could survive impact speeds of 200 miles per hour. No other publication thought to check whether the astronauts, if they survived their fall, would have been able to swim to an inhabitable island nearby and survive off the land. No one else conducted large-scale excavations of every island in the area to search for evidence that one or more of the crew members might have lived there, perhaps choosing to hide from our journalists because after a quarter century they had come to cherish their solitary way of life and did not wish to return to our civilization.
Did each of these leads turn out to be a dead end? Yes. But our decision to chase down each one stands as proof of our commitment to the truth. Did the newspapers who published totally unverified reports of the Challenger astronauts’ deaths the morning after the disaster turn out to be correct? Yes. But that is no excuse for their shoddy journalism. Thanks to The Onion—and only The Onion—America finally has the answers it needs make sense of what happened that fateful day.
Now, at long last, our nation can begin its mourning process.