Thursday, January 28, 2016

30th Anniversary: Challenger Space Shuttle Disaster

NASA Space Shuttle Challenger (Mission STS-51-L) crew ---
Front Row: Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee, Ronald McNair;
Back Row: Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnik.
(Image Sources: NASA, , "Challenger flight 51-l crew" by NASA - NASA Human Space Flight Gallery (image link). Licensed under Public Domain via Commons - )

By Glenn A. Walsh
Reporting for SpaceWatchtower

Thirty years ago this morning (1986 January 28), the NASA Space Shuttle Challenger (Mission STS-51-L) broke apart 73 seconds after the 11:38 a.m. Eastern Standard Time (EST) / 16:38 Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Seven astronauts perished following the spacecraft's break-up and fall into the ocean.

It was the second of three major tragedies where NASA astronauts died during, or in preparation for, a space mission. In a cruel irony, all three tragedies occurred within one week of the calendar ---

1967 January 27: Fire in the Command Module of Apollo 1, which killed three astronauts while they were preparing for the launch of the first manned Apollo mission: Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White (first American to walk in space in 1965), and Roger Chaffee.

1986 January 28: Break-up of the Space Shuttle Challenger (Mission STS-51-L), shortly after launch, which included seven astronauts: Francis (Dick) Scobee, Michael Smith, Judy Resnik, Ellison Onizuka, Ronald McNair, Gregory Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe (who was to become the first Teacher-in-Space).

2003 February 1: Explosion of the Space Shuttle Columbia (Mission STS-107), during re-entry, which included seven astronauts: Rick Husband, William McCool, Michael Anderson, David Brown, Dr. Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Clark, and Ilan Ramon.

Originally, the Mission STS-51-L had been scheduled to launch on 1986 January 22 at 2:42 p.m. EST / 19:42 UTC. However, a series of delays, due to a conflict with the launch of a previous mission (Mission STS-61-C on Space Shuttle Columbia, which had launched just 10 days earlier), poor weather conditions, and technical problems with the spacecraft's exterior access hatch, led to the launch on the morning of 1986 January 28.

Shortly after the January 28 launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger, an O-ring seal in the right solid rocket booster failed, which led to the escape of burning gas from within the rocket motor. This damaged the solid rocket booster and caused a structural failure of the large external fuel tank. .

Then, aerodynamic forces broke-up the spacecraft, which fell into the Atlantic Ocean with the crew members. A crew escape system had not been included with the design of the Space Shuttle.

U.S. President Ronald Reagan addressed the nation on radio and television that evening, regarding the disaster. He appointed a blue-ribbon commission, the Rogers Commission, to investigate the accident. NASA did not return to flying the Space Shuttle in space for 32 months.

When the Rogers Commission Report was released, on 1986 June 9, the findings included:

  1. The failure of the O-rings in sealing the aft field joint on the right solid rocket booster was the primary technical finding. This was considered a design flaw, as their performance could too easily be compromised by several variables, including the temperature at launch time. The temperature at Cape Canaveral had dropped overnight prior to launch, uncommonly, to well below the freezing point: +18 degrees Fahrenheit / -7.77 degrees Celsius. In the morning before launch, the temperature was still below freezing: +29 degrees F / -1.66 degrees C.
  2. "An accident rooted in history." The Commission determined that as early as 1977 both NASA and the private contractor, Morton Thiokol, had known about the design flaw and the potential for catastrophe, yet did nothing about it.
  3. NASA's decision-making process, which led to the Challenger launch, was also flawed. Several Morton Thiokol engineers had expressed misgivings regarding the O-rings, and Rockwell International (prime Space Shuttle contractor) engineers were concerned that the ice build-up all over the launch pad could damage the spacecraft during a launch. Although both company's engineers urged a launch delay, NASA managers decided to go-ahead with the launch.
Some people speculate that, since President Reagan had planned to speak to the American people on the evening of January 28 anyway (the annual State of the Union address before the U.S. Congress), and wished to mention the successful launch with the first Teacher-in-Space (launching a Teacher-in-Space as the first citizen astronaut had been President Reagan's idea), NASA management had an extra incentive to go-forward with the launch.

This particular mission had been more closely followed by the American people than other Space Shuttle missions due to the launch of New Hampshire school teacher Christa McAuliffe as the first Teacher-in-Space. This included special viewings by school children of the launch in schools, planetaria, and Science museums throughout the country.

At Pittsburgh's original Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science (a.k.a. Buhl Science Center), Public Relations Director Jo Lee arranged for school children, from the nearby St. Peter's Elementary School, to view the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger with the first Teacher-in-Space, live, in Buhl's Little Science Theater / Lecture Hall. A satellite dish received the “NASA Select” satellite television channel, which was shown on the Lecture Hall's large projection screen. The previous week, Buhl had shown images, to the general public, from Voyager 2's encounter with Planet Uranus via “NASA Select.”

In addition to these school children, approximately 20 Buhl staff members, some with their children, also assembled that Tuesday morning in the 250-seat Little Science Theater to view this launch (at this time, Buhl Planetarium did not open to the general public until 1:00 p.m. on weekdays). While the Cable News Network (CNN) broadcast the launch live, none of the major broadcast television networks interrupted normal programming for coverage of this launch (except on the West Coast, when the network morning news programs were still airing).

After the spacecraft broke-apart, for a couple minutes no one watching the transmission knew what was happening, as there was unusual silence on “NASA Select.” It was when Buhl staff member Glenn A. Walsh quickly obtained his portable, transistor radio that the staff learned what had happened.

The students were quickly moved out of the Little Science Theater. Audrey Williams, a Buhl Planetarium Lecturer who managed Buhl’s chapter of the Young Astronauts, had prepared some special activities for the students following the launch. So, these special activities went on as scheduled to take the students’ minds off of what they had just witnessed.

"The Challenger Disaster Viewed at Pittsburgh's Buhl Planetarium" A Personal Remembrance by Glenn A. Walsh: Link >>>

Recollection of Challenger Tragedy from Eyewitness at Cape Canaveral:
Link >>>

Recollection of Challenger Tragedy from the West Coast:
Link >>>

More on the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster ---
Link 1 >>>
Link 2 >>>
Link 3 >>>

Report of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident (Rogers Commission):
Link >>>

More on the Space Shuttle Challenger:
Link >>>

Source: Glenn A. Walsh Reporting for SpaceWatchtower, a project of Friends of the Zeiss.
              2016 January 28.

                                                               Historic 10-inch Siderostat-type Refractor Telescope at Pittsburgh's original Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science.
        2016: 75th Year of Pittsburgh's Buhl Planetarium Observatory
                     Link >>>

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