Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Challenger Disaster Anniversary

Normally I do not use pictures taken by people other than me, but today is an exception.  Today marks the anniversary of the Challenger Disaster.  The space shuttle Challenger blew up on January 28, 1986.  Everyone has that moment in history that they remember.  I guess TV has helped that regard a bit since we don't actually have to be a first person witness to history but still.

The Challenger explosion marks one of those moments for me.  If you have followed this blog for any length of time, you know that I am a huge aviation fan and some of that extends to our space program.  The first shuttle launch occurred when I was 12 and I was a junior in high school when this happened.  One of the teachers showed the news broadcast in our class.

I think one of the sadder aspects of this disaster is that it gave us too much pause about our space program.  Up until this point, space launches were fairly routine and people didn't remember some of the disasters prior to this.  The investigation of this accident delayed the program for over two years.  Even when the shuttle program resumed, some of the luster of the space program has worn off and I don't think it ever really recovered.
 The mission was designated as STS-51-L and the crew are pictured above.  The front row from left to right:  Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee (the commander of the flight) and Ronald McNair.  The back row from left to right:  Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis and Judith Resnick.  The mission was the first that would send a teacher into space (Christa McAulliffe).  Take a look at the picture, it represents a good sample of America.  I always looked up to pilots (and astronauts by extension) and while now I realize that they have flaws just like everyone else, there was nothing cooler in my books.
 A picture of the astronauts as they head towards the shuttle.  They almost look like passengers heading towards a flight.
The mission itself was originally scheduled to launch on January 22, 1986.  Delays in the previous mission caused this launch to get delayed to January 24.  Bad weather at one of the abort locations pushed the launch to January 25.  Predictions of bad weather at Kennedy Space Center pushed the launch back further January 27.  The fact that the alternate abort site picked was not equipped for night landings pushed the launch to the fateful day of January 28.  (NOTE:  I wish I had my own picture of a shuttle launch.)

Unusually cold weather on the morning of launch raised some concerns with the booster rockets.  The Thiokol engineers were of the thought that the o-rings used to seal the boosters would not be resilient enough to keep the hot gases of the boosters from affecting the shuttle.  The Thiokol engineers were over-ridden by NASA which couldn't afford another delay.

The picture above would have been taken around 11:38 A.M., the time of the shuttle launch.  At that time the temperatures were around 28 to 29 F.  Not only were the o-rings a concern, but the Rockwell engineers were concerned that ice may fall off the shuttle and damage some of it's heat resistant tiles leading to the potential of the shuttle burning up as it tried to land.

As the shuttle escaped the launch pad, it experienced wind shear greater than any other time in the past.  This could have been an abort point.  68 seconds after launch, we would hear the last transmission from the Challenger as the Shuttle Commander Scobee would acknowledge "throttle up".  The Challenger would explode roughly 22 seconds after that point.  I figured I would not include pictures of that, as that is probably the most famous scene.  Even if the explosion hadn't been so spectacular, the crew really had no chance as there was no escape mechanism during the powered phase of flight.

After the disaster, a Presidential commission was formed to investigate the cause of the disaster and it pretty much pointed at the o-rings.  The weren't designed for the temperatures at the time of launch.  The seal on the booster rockets wasn't the greatest and a few other things.  One of the members of the commission was the physicist Richard Feynman (look up his two autobiographies, they are pretty good reads).  He basically said that NASA's management had different numbers for reliability than the engineers (the management numbers were more optimistic).  His quote related to this:  "For a successful technology," he concluded, "reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled."  He probably would have said the same thing about the Columbia disaster.

As I said above, the disaster delayed the Shuttle program for two and half years while the fixes were implemented.  I honestly don't think the Shuttle ever really recovered from the disaster.  For that matter, I don't really think NASA ever really recovered.  It is kind of sad really because NASA should be our nation's inspiration.  There is nothing particularly inspiring by any of the science programs coming out.  More fuel economy is nice...but it is not the Moon or Mars.  I think we need another grand vision like Kennedy's.

The pictures come from NASA's archives.

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