28 January, 2021

January 28, 1986

The Challenger Disaster.

From Wikipedia, and forgive me, I don’t usually quote quite so extensively:

The Space Shuttle Challenger disaster was a fatal incident in the United States' space program that occurred on January 28, 1986, when the Space Shuttle Challenger (OV-099) broke apart 73 seconds into its flight, killing all seven crew members aboard. The crew consisted of five NASA astronauts, and two payload specialists. The mission carried the designation STS-51-L and was the tenth flight for the Challenger orbiter.

The spacecraft disintegrated over the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Cape Canaveral, Florida, at 11:39 a.m. EST (16:39 UTC). The disintegration of the vehicle began after a joint in its right solid rocket booster (SRB) failed at liftoff. The failure was caused by the failure of O-ring seals used in the joint that were not designed to handle the unusually cold conditions that existed at this launch. The seals' failure caused a breach in the SRB joint, allowing pressurized burning gas from within the solid rocket motor to reach the outside and impinge upon the adjacent SRB aft field joint attachment hardware and external fuel tank. This led to the separation of the right-hand SRB's aft field joint attachment and the structural failure of the external tank. Aerodynamic forces broke up the orbiter.

The crew compartment and many other vehicle fragments were eventually recovered from the ocean floor after a lengthy search and recovery operation. The exact timing of the death of the crew is unknown; several crew members are known to have survived the initial breakup of the spacecraft. The shuttle had no escape system,[a][1] and the impact of the crew compartment at terminal velocity with the ocean surface was too violent to be survivable.[2]

The disaster resulted in a 32-month hiatus in the Space Shuttle program and the formation of the Rogers Commission, a special commission appointed by United States President Ronald Reagan to investigate the accident. The Rogers Commission found that NASA's organizational culture and decision-making processes had been key contributing factors to the accident,[3] with the agency violating its own safety rules. NASA managers had known since 1977 that contractor Morton-Thiokol's design of the SRBs contained a potentially catastrophic flaw in the O-rings, but they had failed to address this problem properly. NASA managers also disregarded warnings from engineers about the dangers of launching posed by the low temperatures of that morning, and failed to adequately report these technical concerns to their superiors.

Approximately 17 percent of the US population witnessed the launch on live television broadcast because of the presence of high school teacher Christa McAuliffe, who would have been the first teacher in space. Media coverage of the accident was extensive; one study reported that 85 percent of Americans surveyed had heard the news within an hour of the accident.[4] The Challenger disaster has been used as a case study in many discussions of engineering safety and workplace ethics.

This is one of those “where were you?” moments for my generation. 35 years ago today. I remember this as if it happened yesterday. I watched it live on TV in a friend’s room on campus with his roommate. I can remember exactly where all three of us were standing. I remember the explosion and all three of us looking at each other like “did we just see what we thought we saw?”

I wasn’t born when the Apollo fire occurred. And, whether it makes a difference or not, that occurred on the launch pad, in a test scenario. This was an actual mission to space. It was the first time we’d lost Americans in space, and while everyone knew that a perfect record wouldn’t last forever, it was still gut wrenching to see and to go through.

35 years ago today.

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