Thirty years ago today, in the mind of a seven year old, was another day of school. I was going into my second grade class, and I remember my teacher discussing an important event that was supposed to happen today, that a teacher would be going into space. I remember watching the launch and seeing a bright flash and almost immediately after seeing that, my teacher turned off the television. It seemed like a few moments of silence when a student asked what happened and my teacher said “they were all killed.” She didn’t mince words to a bunch of seven and eight year old kids. In that moment, my life would be changed, and the Challenger accident will literally haunt me and my dreams thirty years later.
Those of us who are old enough to remember that day, I am sure that all of you remember what you were doing and where you were on January 28, 1986. It was one of those major moments in history that will always be in the back of our mind, an example for the younger readers will be the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. It seems like every generation has a major national tragedy that will cast a shadow over that generation that they will always remember.
A brief background on what happened was that Challenger was launching on mission STS-51L that was a mission to deploy a communications satellite (TDRS-B) six hours after launch, a payload to observe Halley’s Comet (SPARTAN) and Payload Specialist Christa McAuliffe was going to teach a variety of lessons from the crew cabin of Challenger, two of which were going to be live lessons beamed down to classrooms across America. There were also experiments on chicken embryos and also liquids to see how liquid fuel behaves in satellites. This mission was going to bring America’s youth and adults into the space age because Christa’s goal was to give ownership to space exploration to children.
The launch occurred at January 28, 1986 at 11:38:00 a.m. EST after being delayed from original launch time of 9:38 a.m. due to a problem with a fire detection system and for temperatures to warm above freezing to melt ice that had formed over night. Challenger climbed slowly into the sky and if you watch video tapes you can see during the roll program the rate of ascent was extremely slow, (at the time of the disaster, the vehicle was below the altitude of previous missions). Just after ignition, hot gasses easily got passed two rubber O-rings that were supposed to seal the aft field joint in the right solid rocket booster. The leak was plugged two seconds into flight due to combustion by-product of the solid fuel (slag). That temporary seal held up until 58 seconds into flight when Challenger got violently hit with winds over 100 miles an hour due to the Jet Stream in the area at the time (you can see a dog-leg in the smoke trail if you view the YouTube video of launch from the Shuttle Landing Facility). That violent jarring of wind against the Shuttle stack broke loose the temporary seal in the solid rocket booster lower field joint and a flame appeared and grew in size and became a blow torch on the External Tank and ruptured the lower part of the tank where liquid hydrogen was stored and started leaking fuel from the tank. At 72 seconds, the lower strut that attached the right booster to the tank was burned through and the right booster began to swing at the upper attach point (at the intertank/liquid oxygen tank). At the same time, the liquid hydrogen tank failed and the entire bottom dome fell away, forcing the tank up into the intertank just as the right booster began to impact the liquid oxygen tank, setting finalizing the collapse of the tank, releasing the propellant that burned in a flash fire.
There has been a false understanding that the Challenger exploded. Challenger did not explode. The tank came apart and set free the orbiter that was attached and it turned broadside into the wind, breaking the orbiter up into several large sections. You can see the forward part of the orbiter emerge from the flames almost 1 second after the flash fire began. There is a very interesting film put together from the investigation team that tells what happened, and also what happened to the crew cabin. The accident happened at an altitude of 48,000 feet (nearly 9 miles) above the Atlantic Ocean, and the crew cabin began its upward trajectory to 65,000 feet before curving down and traveled the long 2 minute, 45 second fall to the Atlantic Ocean.
The crew survived the initial breakup, the crew saw a flash and when the nose of the orbiter pitched downward the crew was pushed violently down into their seats and the forces during breakup wasn’t severe enough to cause serious injury. No one knows if some of them were conscious when the cabin smashed into the Atlantic at 207 mph. It is known that there was some awareness of the accident at the moment of the breakup, when the cockpit voice recorder captured Pilot Mike Smith’s last words “uh-oh” at 73 seconds after launch, just before the recorder lost power when the cabin was separated from the cargo bay. The investigators did say that 4 of the 7 breathing packs were found and that 3 were activated. One of them was the Pilot Mike Smith’s and his pack was located on the back of his seat, so Onizuka or Resnik had to activate his breathing air. If the cabin lost cabin pressure, at that altitude 48,000-65,000 feet (they were between that altitude for almost a minute), they would have lost consciousness and I can only hope that was the case.
This accident sparked my interest in the space program, especially the manned space program. My mother said I was obsessed with the accident, and I guess at such a young age and how impressionable I was back then, I did get obsessed. I won’t go into details into the dreams I’ve had about the accident over the past 30 years. I don’t know why, even at the age of 37 I have dreams about the crew and the accident.
This time every year, I take time to remember the sacrifice of the crew. I hope that they will not fade into the background, and the people who think that the Earth is flat really gives me the red ass, but that’s another blog. For those of you that are interested in some YouTube video’s, just type in “Challenger disaster” and there will be video’s of different angles of the launch. The ones that are the most interesting are:
The launch from the Shuttle Landing Facility (may have to search)