NASA unveils its first space shuttle, the Enterprise

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/space-shuttle-unveiled

On September 17, 1976, NASA publicly unveils its first space shuttle, the Enterprise, during a ceremony in Palmdale, California. Development of the aircraft-like spacecraft cost almost $10 billion and took nearly a decade. In 1977, the Enterprise became the first space shuttle to fly freely when it was lifted to a height of 25,000 feet by a Boeing 747 airplane and then released, gliding back to Edwards Air Force Base on its own accord.

Regular flights of the space shuttle began on April 12, 1981, with the launching of Columbia from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Launched by two solid-rocket boosters and an external tank, only the aircraft-like shuttle entered into orbit around Earth. When the two-day mission was completed, the shuttle fired engines to reduce speed and, after descending through the atmosphere, landed like a glider at California’s Edwards Air Force Base.

Early shuttles took satellite equipment into space and carried out various scientific experiments. On January 28, 1986, NASA and the space shuttle program suffered a major setback when the Challenger exploded 74 seconds after takeoff and all seven people aboard were killed.

In September 1988, space shuttle flights resumed with the successful launching of the Discovery. Since then, the space shuttle has carried out numerous important missions, such as the repair and maintenance of the Hubble Space Telescope and the construction and manning of the International Space Station.A tragedy in space again rocked the nation on February 1, 2003, when Columbia, on its 28th mission, disintegrated during re-entry of the earth’s atmosphere. All seven astronauts aboard were killed. In the aftermath, the space-shuttle program was grounded until Discovery returned to space in July 2005, amid concerns that the problems that had downed Columbia had not yet been fully solved.

U.S. Constitution signed

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/u-s-constitution-signed

The Constitution of the United States of America is signed by 38 of 41 delegates present at the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Supporters of the document waged a hard-won battle to win ratification by the necessary nine out of 13 U.S. states.

The Articles of Confederation, ratified several months before the British surrender at Yorktown in 1781, provided for a loose confederation of U.S. states, which were sovereign in most of their affairs. On paper, Congress–the central authority–had the power to govern foreign affairs, conduct war, and regulate currency, but in practice these powers were sharply limited because Congress was given no authority to enforce its requests to the states for money or troops. By 1786, it was apparent that the Union would soon break up if the Articles of Confederation were not amended or replaced. Five states met in Annapolis, Maryland, to discuss the issue, and all the states were invited to send delegates to a new constitutional convention to be held in Philadelphia.

On May 25, 1787, delegates representing every state except Rhode Island convened at Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania State House for the Constitutional Convention. The building, which is now known as Independence Hall, had earlier seen the drafting of the Declaration of Independence and the signing of the Articles of Confederation. The assembly immediately discarded the idea of amending the Articles of Confederation and set about drawing up a new scheme of government. Revolutionary War hero George Washington, a delegate from Virginia, was elected convention president.

During an intensive debate, the delegates devised a brilliant federal organization characterized by an intricate system of checks and balances. The convention was divided over the issue of state representation in Congress, as more-populated states sought proportional legislation, and smaller states wanted equal representation. The problem was resolved by the Connecticut Compromise, which proposed a bicameral legislature with proportional representation in the lower house (House of Representatives) and equal representation of the states in the upper house (Senate).

On September 17, 1787, the Constitution was signed. As dictated by Article VII, the document would not become binding until it was ratified by nine of the 13 states. Beginning on December 7, five states—Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, and Connecticut—ratified it in quick succession. However, other states, especially Massachusetts, opposed the document, as it failed to reserve undelegated powers to the states and lacked constitutional protection of basic political rights, such as freedom of speech, religion, and the press. In February 1788, a compromise was reached under which Massachusetts and other states would agree to ratify the document with the assurance that amendments would be immediately proposed. The Constitution was thus narrowly ratified in Massachusetts, followed by Maryland and South Carolina. On June 21, 1788, New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify the document, and it was subsequently agreed that government under the U.S. Constitution would begin on March 4, 1789. In June, Virginia ratified the Constitution, followed by New York in July.

On September 25, 1789, the first Congress of the United States adopted 12 amendments to the U.S. Constitution–the Bill of Rights–and sent them to the states for ratification. Ten of these amendments were ratified in 1791. In November 1789, North Carolina became the 12th state to ratify the U.S. Constitution. Rhode Island, which opposed federal control of currency and was critical of compromise on the issue of slavery, resisted ratifying the Constitution until the U.S. government threatened to sever commercial relations with the state. On May 29, 1790, Rhode Island voted by two votes to ratify the document, and the last of the original 13 colonies joined the United States. Today, the U.S. Constitution is the oldest written constitution in operation in the world.

Oprah launches influential book club

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/oprah-launches-influential-book-club

On September 17, 1996, daytime talk show host Oprah Winfrey launches a television book club and announces “The Deep End of the Ocean” by Jacquelyn Mitchard as her first selection. Oprah’s Book Club quickly became a hugely influential force in the publishing world, with the popular TV host’s endorsement capable of catapulting a previously little-known book onto best-seller lists.

When Oprah’s Book Club first launched, some in the publishing world were skeptical about its chances for success. As The New York Times noted: “Winfrey’s project—recommending books, even challenging literary novels, for viewers to read in advance of discussions on her talk show—initially provoked considerable skepticism in the literary world, where many associated daytime television with lowbrow entertainments like soap operas and game shows.” However, the club proved to be a hit with Winfrey’s legions of fans, and many of her picks sold over 1 million copies. (She earned no money from book sales.) Winfrey’s ability to turn not just books but almost any product or person she recommended into a phenomenon came to be known as the “Oprah Effect.”

Winfrey gave her stamp of approval to books by first-time novelists, including Mitchard, Wally Lamb (“She’s Come Undone”) and David Wroblewski (“The Story of Edgar Sawtelle”), as well as established authors, such as Maeve Binchy (“Tara Road”), Cormac McCarthy (“The Road”) and Jeffrey Eugenides (“Middlesex”). Toni Morrison had four works selected for the club—”The Bluest Eye,” “Paradise,” “The Song of Solomon, and “Sula”—more than any other author.

In 2001, after Winfrey chose novelist Jonathan Franzen’s “The Corrections,” he famously offended her by publicly suggesting that some of her selections were “schmaltzy” and that being picked for the club might alienate a book’s potential male readership. Franzen’s invitation to appear on Winfrey’s TV show to discuss his work was rescinded; however, he got a second chance nine years later, when his best-selling novel “Freedom” was selected for Oprah’s Book Club. In December 2010, he went on her show to talk about his novel, which Winfrey called “a masterpiece.”

In 2003, Winfrey switched her recommendations from contemporary titles to classic tomes, including “The Good Earth” by Pearl S. Buck, “East of Eden” by John Steinbeck and “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” by Carson McCullers. In 2004, when Winfrey chose “Anna Karenina” by Leo Tolstoy, the novel’s publisher printed an additional 800,000 copies.

In 2005, Winfrey reversed her nothing-but-the-classics policy, in part so she could have in-person discussions with the authors whose work she endorsed. Her first contemporary title was James Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces,” a 2003 memoir about addiction and recovery. After appearing on Winfrey’s show to promote the book, Frey was later forced to admit that parts of the story were fiction. He appeared on the show again in early 2006 and faced tough questioning from Winfrey. Frey’s fabrications sparked a national debate over the definition of memoir.

By the final season of Winfrey’s TV show,” in 2011, more than 60 titles had been chosen for Oprah’s Book Club.

Cheyenne and Sioux decimate frontiersmen at Beecher's Island

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/cheyenne-and-sioux-decimate-frontiersmen-at-beechers-island

Early in the morning on September 17, 1868, a large band of Cheyenne and Sioux stage a surprise attack on Major George A. Forsyth and a volunteer force of 50 frontiersmen in Colorado.

Retreating to a small sandbar in the Arikaree River that thereafter became known as Beecher’s Island, Forsyth and his men succeeded in repulsing three massed Indian charges. Thanks to the rapid fire capability of their seven-shot Spencer rifles, Forsyth’s volunteers were able to kill or wound many of the Indian attackers, including the war chief Roman Nose. But as evening came and the fighting temporarily halted, Forsyth found he had 22 men either dead or wounded, and he estimated the survivors were surrounded by a force of 600 Indians. The whites faced certain annihilation unless they could somehow bring help. Two men-Jack Stilwell and Pierre Trudeau-volunteered to attempt a daring escape through the Indian lines and silently melted into the night.

The battle raged for five more days. Forsyth’s effective fighting force was reduced to ten men before the Indians finally withdrew, perhaps reasoning that they had inflicted enough damage. Miles from help and lacking wagons and horses, Forsyth knew that many of his wounded would soon be dead if they didn’t get help. Fortunately, on September 25, the 10th Cavalry-one of the Army’s two African-American units nicknamed the “Buffalo Soldiers”-came riding to their rescue with a field ambulance and medical supplies. Miraculously, Stilwell and Trudeau had managed to make it through the Sioux and Cheyenne and bring help. Thanks to their bravery and the timely arrival of the Buffalo Soldiers, the lives of many men were saved.

Gandhi begins fast in protest of caste separation

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/gandhi-begins-fast-in-protest-of-caste-separation

On September 16, 1932, in his cell at Yerwada Jail near Bombay, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi begins a hunger strike in protest of the British government’s decision to separate India’s electoral system by caste.

A leader in the Indian campaign for home rule, Gandhi worked all his life to spread his own brand of passive resistance across India and the world. By 1920, his concept of Satyagraha (or “insistence upon truth”) had made Gandhi an enormously influential figure for millions of followers. Jailed by the British government from 1922-24, he withdrew from political action for a time during the 1920s but in 1930 returned with a new civil disobedience campaign. This landed Gandhi in prison again, but only briefly, as the British made concessions to his demands and invited him to represent the Indian National Congress Party at a round-table conference in London.

After his return to India in January 1932, Gandhi wasted no time beginning another civil disobedience campaign, for which he was jailed yet again. Eight months later, Gandhi announced he was beginning a “fast unto death” in order to protest British support of a new Indian constitution, which gave the country’s lowest classes—known as “untouchables”—their own separate political representation for a period of 70 years. Gandhi believed this would permanently and unfairly divide India’s social classes. A member of the more powerful Vaisya, or merchant caste, Gandhi nonetheless advocated the emancipation of the untouchables, whom he called Harijans, or “Children of God.”

“This is a god-given opportunity that has come to me,” Gandhi said from his prison cell at Yerovda, “to offer my life as a final sacrifice to the downtrodden.” Though other public figures in India–including Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambdekar, the official political representative of the untouchables–had questioned Gandhi’s true commitment to the lower classes, his six-day fast ended after the British government accepted the principal terms of a settlement between higher caste Indians and the untouchables that reversed the separation decision.

As India slowly moved towards independence, Gandhi’s influence only grew. He continued to resort to the hunger strike as a method of resistance, knowing the British government would not be able to withstand the pressure of the public’s concern for the man they called Mahatma, or “Great Soul.” On January 12, 1948, Gandhi undertook his last successful fast in New Delhi, to persuade Hindus and Muslims in that city to work toward peace. On January 30, less than two weeks after breaking that fast, he was assassinated by a Hindu extremist on his way to an evening prayer meeting.

Opera star Maria Callas dies

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/maria-callas-dies

Celebrated soprano Maria Callas dies in Paris at the age of 53.

Born in New York City in 1923 to Greek immigrants, Callas demonstrated her talent for singing at an early age. When she was 13, she went to Athens to study under the noted soprano Elvira de Hidalgo. Her first major operatic role came in 1947, when she appeared in La Gioconda in Verona. Acclaimed for a powerful soprano voice that lent itself to the difficult coloratura roles, she was soon appearing in opera houses around the world. Her talents made possible the revival of 19th-century bel canto works by Bellini and others that had not been performed for decades. In 1954, the “Divine Callas” made her American debut in Chicago in the title role of Norma, a performance she repeated before a record audience at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera.

Callas’ stormy personal life was closely watched and exaggerated by the press, as were her professional walkouts and tiffs with rivals. The diva divorced her husband of many years after becoming involved with Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis, but he later left her when he fell in love with the widowed Jackie Kennedy. In the 1970s, Callas’ career rapidly declined, and she died in 1977.

Mexican War of Independence begins

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Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, a Catholic priest, launches the Mexican War of Independence with the issuing of his Grito de Dolores, or “Cry of Dolores.” The revolutionary tract, so-named because it was publicly read by Hidalgo in the town of Dolores, called for the end of 300 years of Spanish rule in Mexico, redistribution of land and racial equality. Thousands of Indians and mestizos flocked to Hidalgo’s banner of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and soon the peasant army was on the march to Mexico City.

In the early 19th century, Napoleon’s occupation of Spain led to the outbreak of revolts all across Spanish America. Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla—“the father of Mexican independence”—launched the Mexican rebellion with his “Cry of Delores,” and his populist army came close to capturing the Mexican capital. Defeated at Calderón in January 1811, he fled north but was captured and executed. He was followed by other peasant leaders, however, such as José María Morelos y Pavón, Mariano Matamoros, and Vicente Guerrero, who all led armies of native and racially mixed revolutionaries against the Spanish and the Royalists.

Ironically, it was the Royalists—made up of Mexicans of Spanish descent and other conservatives—who ultimately brought about independence. In 1820, liberals took power in Spain, and the new government promised reforms to appease the Mexican revolutionaries. In response, Mexican conservatives called for independence as a means of maintaining their privileged position in Mexican society.

In early 1821, Agustín de Iturbide, the leader of the Royalist forces, negotiated the Plan of Iguala with Vicente Guerrero. Under the plan, Mexico would be established as an independent constitutional monarchy, the privileged position of the Catholic Church would be maintained, and Mexicans of Spanish descent would be regarded as equal to pure Spaniards. Mexicans of mixed or pure Indian blood would have lesser rights.

Iturbide defeated the Royalist forces still opposed to independence, and the new Spanish viceroy, lacking money, provisions, and troops, was forced to accept Mexican independence. On August 24, 1821, Spanish Viceroy Juan de O’Donojú signed the Treaty of Córdoba, which approves a plan to make Mexico an independent constitutional monarchy. In 1822, as no Bourbon monarch to rule Mexico had been found, Iturbide was proclaimed the emperor of Mexico. However, his empire was short-lived, and in 1823 republican leaders Santa Anna and Guadalupe Victoria deposed Iturbide and set up a republic, with Guadalupe Victoria as its first president.

Mayflower departs England

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/mayflower-departs-england

The Mayflower sails from Plymouth, England, bound for the New World with 102 passengers. The ship was headed for Virginia, where the colonists–half religious dissenters and half entrepreneurs–had been authorized to settle by the British crown. However, stormy weather and navigational errors forced the Mayflower off course, and on November 21 the “Pilgrims” reached Massachusetts, where they founded the first permanent European settlement in New England in late December.

Thirty-five of the Pilgrims were members of the radical English Separatist Church, who traveled to America to escape the jurisdiction of the Church of England, which they found corrupt. Ten years earlier, English persecution had led a group of Separatists to flee to Holland in search of religious freedom. However, many were dissatisfied with economic opportunities in the Netherlands, and under the direction of William Bradford they decided to immigrate to Virginia, where an English colony had been founded at Jamestown in 1607.

The Separatists won financial backing from a group of investors called the London Adventurers, who were promised a sizable share of the colony’s profits. Three dozen church members made their way back to England, where they were joined by about 70 entrepreneurs–enlisted by the London stock company to ensure the success of the enterprise. In August 1620, the Mayflower left Southampton with a smaller vessel–the Speedwell–but the latter proved unseaworthy and twice was forced to return to port. On September 16, the Mayflower left for America alone from Plymouth.

In a difficult Atlantic crossing, the 90-foot Mayflower encountered rough seas and storms and was blown more than 500 miles off course. Along the way, the settlers formulated and signed the Mayflower Compact, an agreement that bound the signatories into a “civil body politic.” Because it established constitutional law and the rule of the majority, the compact is regarded as an important precursor to American democracy. After a 66-day voyage, the ship landed on November 21 on the tip of Cape Cod at what is now Provincetown, Massachusetts.

READ MORE: How the Mayflower Compact Laid a Foundation for American Democracy

After coming to anchor in Provincetown harbor, a party of armed men under the command of Captain Myles Standish was sent out to explore the area and find a location suitable for settlement. While they were gone, Susanna White gave birth to a son, Peregrine, aboard the Mayflower. He was the first English child born in New England. In mid-December, the explorers went ashore at a location across Cape Cod Bay where they found cleared fields and plentiful running water and named the site Plymouth.

The expedition returned to Provincetown, and on December 21 the Mayflower came to anchor in Plymouth harbor. Just after Christmas, the pilgrims began work on dwellings that would shelter them through their difficult first winter in America.

In the first year of settlement, half the colonists died of disease. In 1621, the health and economic condition of the colonists improved, and that autumn Governor William Bradford invited neighboring Indians to Plymouth to celebrate the bounty of that year’s harvest season. Plymouth soon secured treaties with most local Indian tribes, and the economy steadily grew, and more colonists were attracted to the settlement. By the mid 1640s, Plymouth’s population numbered 3,000 people, but by then the settlement had been overshadowed by the larger Massachusetts Bay Colony to the north, settled by Puritans in 1629.

The term “Pilgrim” was not used to describe the Plymouth colonists until the early 19th century and was derived from a manuscript in which Governor Bradford spoke of the “saints” who left Holland as “pilgrimes.” The orator Daniel Webster spoke of “Pilgrim Fathers” at a bicentennial celebration of Plymouth’s founding in 1820, and thereafter the term entered common usage.

Gunman kills 12 in D.C. Navy Yard massacre

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/gunman-kills-12-in-d-c-navy-yard-massacre

On September 16, 2013, a 34-year-old man goes on a rampage at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., killing 12 people and wounding several others over the course of an hour before he is fatally shot by police. Investigators later determined that the gunman, Aaron Alexis, a computer contractor for a private information technology firm, had acted alone.

Shortly after 8 a.m., Alexis used his security pass to enter Building 197 at the Navy Yard, a former shipyard, dating to the early 1800s, and weapons plant that now serves as an administrative center for the Navy. At approximately 8:16 a.m., Alexis, armed with a sawed-off Remington 870 shotgun and dressed in a short-sleeve polo shirt and pants, shot his first victim. Over the course of the next hour, he moved through the 630,000-square-foot, multi-level Building 197, the headquarters of the Naval Sea Systems Command, gunning down more victims and exchanging fire with law enforcement officials. Alexis was shot and killed by police at 9:25 a.m. The shooting spree caused officials to put part of Washington on lockdown due to initial suspicions that other gunmen might have been involved in the incident; however, by the end of the day, authorities determined that Alexis had acted alone.

A Navy reservist from 2007 to 2011, Alexis began work as a computer technician at the Navy Yard on September 9, 2013. Five days later, at a gun store in Virginia, he purchased the Remington 870 and ammunition used in the attack. Investigators found no evidence that any specific event triggered the deadly massacre, and they believed Alexis shot his victims at random. The shotgun he used (he also took a handgun from one of his victims) was etched with several phrases, including “Better off this way” and “My ELF weapon,” and the FBI announced there was a variety of evidence indicating Alexis was under the “delusional belief” he was being controlled by extremely low frequency (ELF) electromagnetic waves. In August 2013, Alexis told police in Rhode Island, where he was working, that he was hearing voices. The private IT contracting firm employing Alexis took him off his assignment for a few days then let him back on the job; weeks later, he went to work at the Navy Yard.

The 12 men and women murdered during the September 16th rampage ranged in age from 46 to 73. They were memorialized by then-President Barack Obama at a September 22, 2013, ceremony in which he remembered them and also issued a call to tighten America’s gun laws. That call largely went unheeded, and the number of mass shootings in the U.S. has continued to rise.