Monday, January 28, 2008

Space Shuttle Challenger

Today's Highlight in History:

On Jan. 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff from the Kennedy Space Center, killing all seven of its crew members: flight commander Francis R. "Dick" Scobee; pilot Michael Smith; Ronald McNair; Ellison Onizuka; Judith Resnik; Gregory Jarvis; and schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe.

From Charter News

A BBC News report was typical of most news broadcasts, claiming that, “The explosion was witnessed by millions on live TV.”

Nothing can take away from the tragedy of the fiery breakup of the shuttle and the death of the entire crew. These men and women are to be honored for their dedication and courage, and for the very real contributions they made to the Space Program. The seven would be better honored, however, if the information repeated, rehearsed, and rebroadcast for the past 22 years was a little more accurate.

An interesting article by James Oberg,
NBC News space analyst, brings together several myths concerning the Challenger disaster and at least partially debunks them. This is no conspiracy theorist spreading wild eyed allegations of sinister plots. It is rather a tale of bureaucracy run rampant, to the cost of the truth. It is a sad fact that in the wake of every tragedy in which there was governmental involvement, there is an immediate scurrying about, putting a bit better spin on the matter, all in the spirit of covering one's ass, and full disclosure be damned.

Mr. Oberg's article confronts seven myths surrounding the Challenger disaster, and seeks to set the record straight. He tells us - - :

  1. Few people actually saw the Challenger tragedy unfold live on television.

  2. The shuttle did not explode in the common definition of that word.

  3. The flight, and the astronauts’ lives, did not end at that point, 73 seconds after launch.

  4. The design of the booster, while possessing flaws subject to improvement, was neither especially dangerous if operated properly, nor the result of political interference.

  5. Replacement of the original asbestos-bearing putty in the booster seals was unrelated to the failure.

  6. There were pressures on the flight schedule, but none of any recognizable political origin.

  7. Claims that the disaster was the unavoidable price to be paid for pioneering a new frontier were self-serving rationalizations on the part of those responsible for incompetent engineering management — the disaster should have been avoidable.
Each of these misconceptions perpetuated by the media – with little or NO correction by any agency of the government – is worthy of a lengthy article. I am most interested in the first three points.

1. The shuttle launch was NOT being broadcast as it happened, except for a satellite feed available only to those with the properly configured dishes. Christa McAuliffe, being the “First Teacher in Space,” a live feed from CNN was made available to and viewed at many public schools. The various news sources WERE video recording the launch, and tapes were broadcast within minutes, and perhaps seconds, after the breakup.

2. There was no actual explosion in the sense of a detonation. The disastrous fuel leak led to an immediate fire and huge fireball, causing separation of boosters from the shuttle, and the breakup and destruction of the entire vehicle. A large part of the shuttle itself was virtually intact, though certainly not airworthy.

3. The breakup, a minute 13 seconds after launch, at 48,000 feet altitude, was certainly NOT when the crew died. The crew compartment peaked at 65,000 feet and only then started downward. It impacted on the ocean's surface some two minutes 45 seconds after the fuel tank ignited.

The cockpit voice recordings have never been released, so the general public cannot know exactly how long any of the shuttle crew remained conscious once the breakup began. It IS known that of the four emergency Personal Egress Air Packs recovered, three had been manually activated. At least some of the crew were alive, conscious, and were doing what they could to survive.

The point is moot for the Challenger personnel, for there were no ejection seats and indeed, no personal parachutes aboard. Modified SR-71 Blackbird ejection seats and full pressure suits
were used on the first four shuttle orbital missions, which were considered test flights, but they were removed for the operational missions that followed. It was over two years later that the design of a crew bailout system was approved for use on subsequent missions.

Again, these points, and the four others, are not the ravings of some paranoid writer, trying to drum up interest for a new “exposé” book. The sources are NOT super secret and ultra confidential; the data are all available to anyone with Internet access. If you can read this, you can access Google, Yahoo!, or other search engines, and research the allegations made in Mr. Oberg's article.

My purpose is not to attack the shuttle program nor the space program in general. I feel it is beneficial to humankind that we continue our questing into space. With such massive sums of our tax money being spent, though, it is not unreasonable to expect open and honest disclosures about the program. Those who die in the service of our country and of mankind deserve no less.


Yuri Orlov said...

I remember watching that on the news later on that night and being very, very depressed.

SpeakerTweaker said...

I have very detailed and lengthy memories of this event, and a fairly intimate knowledge (with the available information, of course) of the tragedy.

I, along with everyone I went to school with in the entire county, was watching it live, apparently through the CNN feed. I was one of those kids who thought that anything that flew was worthy of knowing all there is to know about it. So, when it happened, I knew something was terribly wrong.

In my senior year of high school I did my senior research paper on the tragedy, and learned leaps and bounds more than I already knew, including that little tidbit about the difference between an explosion and what happened to Challenger. A while back I had that conversation with a couple guys I work with.

I do NOT work with many intellectuals;)


Old NFO said...

I was actually involved in the Challenger search from the Navy perspective. I watched it come apart while standing on top of the hangar at NAS Jax. We knew something had happened, and immediately prepped to participate in a rescue attempt (we were the Ready Alert at NAS Jax) we launched 45 minutes later, and found ourselves in a furball with helo's light acft and military acft all in one 14 sq mile box of air over the splash point. We flew 30+ hours in the search phase over the next three days, and it is a miracle we did not have multiple crashes of search acft due to flying VERY low and overlapping turn points to make search legs.

Assrot said...

Hmmm... Back then I was in construction work and on this day I had brought my Telescope (I mean a real 12" Schmitt-Cassegrain not some little spotting scope) to work and set it up on top of the building.

Call it what you like but I saw pretty much what this picture you have posted shows happen in real time.

We also had a radio playing on one of the local channels down here in Palm Beach County. They announced that the shuttle had exploded about 15 minutes after I saw this through my telescope.

It was one of the saddest days of my life. I was not sure what I had seen but I knew something was wrong and when they said it exploded, I felt like I had lost a loved one.

I've been a big space buff and star gazer since I was a kid. I think I kind of felt like humanity as a whole had lost some very good people that day.

I'll never forget it as long as I live. I think the whole thing could have been avoided with better planning and better testing.

It's like everything else though. The engineers and people that know tell the managers and bean counters what needs to be done and what the safety requirements are.

People start screaming about spending so much money and the managers and bean counters start "value engineering" everything. They do this by using cheaper contractors, vendors and equipment. Hence the bad O-rings that it is believed caused this.

I would like to know exactly what happened that day and why. Same for the Columbia. I think there should be full and complete disclosure on what really happened in both cases.

I am sure we don't have the complete and true story on either. I doubt we will in our lifetimes. Maybe our grandchildren will find out someday but we'll be long gone and they will just look at it as an interesting part of history since they weren't even born when it happened.

Good post JPG.


Matt G said...

The perpetuation of the belief of "instantaneous death" is understandably attractive, as opposed to the contrary. Falling 60k feet to your death is the kind of nightmare that I've awoken from, sitting bolt upright in bed with a cold sweat and a heavy tachy heartbeat, more than once.

Some ejection seats that could be tagged out upon reaching outer space might well have saved some lives.

Larry said...

I was checking out of A school at NAS Memphis when this happened. Many years later the footage was used in an aircraft mishap investigation class that I took.

Old NFO said...

Matt, I actually had that discussion with some NASA engineers during the post incident briefings- Three issues- weight, size and how to create blowout panels that could withstand a vacuum. None of those had been solved to this day.

Matt G said...

Old NFO-- why not have a parachute that would lower the entire crew cabin to the ocean? By all accounts, that's the most reinforced part of the spacecraft, and indeed it was found largely intact. A 'chute might let the craft hit at 30mph rather than 200mph. The issue of floating would have to be worked out (saltwater activated gas-inflated floats on the same lock-out as the 'chute?). The point is, they didn't die at the moment of separation, and it would be nice to have a chance to fight for your life rather than simply fall to your death.

Trust me: I totally accept that some people are going to die in the space program, and I can deal with that, and still want desperately to climb aboard a spacecraft, TODAY. If I could talk NASA into sending me, I'd do it in a heartbeat. Uh, how about "First Cop On The Moon"? :)

We need to get up, and out. Man's destiny is to explore, regardless of the cost. If we fail to do so, we fail in so many other ways.

phlegmfatale said...

fascinating post. I've always wondered about how long the crew survived. Sad tale, but interesting questions that must be asked and should be answered.

Old NFO said...

Matt, the problem is making what is called a separable bulkhead that can stand 15 G's and still have a hatch component in it. Total weight of the Shuttle is appx 4.4 Million pounds, with an estimate of 5 to 700,000 pounds for the foward fuselage (Crew Cabin). Additionally, there is a serious issue with the number and type of parachutes it would take to provide a survivable landing. Remember Apollo only weighed 9200 pounds and took three full sized cargo chutes to slow it.

In the early shuttles, the pilots did in fact ride in ejection seats, but they were removed as crew size grew and weight and space factors limited the available cube area.

What was done after Challenger was to provide the "pole" as it is called, along with individual parachutes. The pole extends from the crew door, allowing the Astronauts to slide clear of the wing and tail prior to opening their chutes. Here is a link to the Rogers Report (at least some of it is online), completed after the Challenger crash.

Anonymous said...

Wrong, expert. I watched this LIVE on tv in Brooklyn N.Y. I was in college at the time, and I saw it LIVE on an old analog tv with rabbit ears. Get your facts straight. You know alot, but what you know is WRONG!

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The only real reason this tragedy took place was because a black and asian were on board.

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