It was 56 years ago this week when space shuttle Challenger disintegrated during launch.
Last Thursday, the largest rocket ever built exploded shortly into a test flight from Boca Chica, Texas.
SpaceX engineers referred to it as an unplanned rapid disassembly; but according to environmental scientists it was a disaster.
Space Shuttle Challenger
Space Shuttle Challenger was destroyed by a massive explosion 73 seconds after launch, killing all seven astronauts onboard and drawing widespread media coverage. NASA then decided to ground their shuttle fleet for nearly three years as a result of this tragic event.
Bob Ebeling watched Challenger’s explosion unfold on television at Morton Thiokol, the aerospace company that built it. Ebeling had repeatedly warned his superiors that Challenger wasn’t ready for flight but were overruled.
On January 28th 1986, Challenger took off from Cape Canaveral on its 10th mission. Led by Commander Francis Scobee and Pilot Michael Smith, crewmembers included mission specialists Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik and Gregory Jarvis as well as New Hampshire teacher Christa McAuliffe who would become first civilian into space.
Investigation revealed that unexpectedly cold temperatures had reduced the resilience of rubber O-ring seals within one of Challenger’s solid rocket booster segment joints, leading to their failure and an escape of explosive gases which caused one section to separate from its surrounding booster and fly away.
Space Shuttle Columbia
On February 1, 2003, Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated upon reentry over eastern Texas and Louisiana, killing all seven members of its seven-person crew – including commander Rick Husband – during reentry. A debris field from Columbia spread west-to-east for over 380 miles from Eastland to Alexandria while north-to-south it extended 250 miles between Sulphur Springs and Vernon Parish.
Columbia was destroyed due to foam from its external fuel tank leaking and striking its orbiter’s wing, creating a hole through which hot gases could enter during reentry and explode it during reentry.
An investigation determined that NASA had become complacent regarding the loss of foam from their external tank, citing management and organizational issues as the reason. Following this incident, their policies changed in response to it and they retired the shuttle program in 2011. Now using cargo ships as transport vessels instead of shuttles – following a model which separates fuel and human passengers, unlike Apollo and Challenger designs which placed crew directly above pyrotechnics – to transport astronauts into space.
Space Shuttle Discovery
Since Challenger in 1986, no other space shuttle had experienced atmospheric reentry that ended in fire. A missing thermal tile allowed hot gases to infiltrate a portion of its wing and melt aluminum before emergency strikes – giving crewmembers time to escape before disaster struck.
Divers filming a television documentary off Florida’s Space Coast came across an odd piece, partially covered with sand and sporting distinctive square tiles, according to NASA. They confirmed its identification as part of a shuttle via underwater video footage.
Discovery took off from Pad 39-B at Kennedy with seven experienced astronauts aboard to install the Hubble Space Telescope, a mission which marked an important milestone in NASA history. Mission Specialist Stephen Bowen had flown on several shuttle missions before retiring; on this mission he spent over 47 hours outside during Extravehicular Activities before Discovery disintegrated 73 seconds postlaunch and killed all aboard.
Space Shuttle Atlantis
Atlantis launched from its assembly plant near Palmdale almost exactly two years after Columbia was destroyed; she weighed nearly as much when leaving as when Columbia exploded.
Atlantis carried a crew comprised of Commander Chris Ferguson, Pilot Doug Hurley and Mission Specialists Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim for STS-51J, providing supplies and equipment to the International Space Station while conducting maintenance on Zarya including replacing batteries as well as installing fans and ductwork.
As the flight nears completion, ground control notices damage to one of Atlantis’ heat shield tiles on its right side. Unfortunately, its limited technology was unable to transmit clear images back to NASA; an agreement with the Department of Defense was struck so they could beam down low-speed encrypted video showing only its underside; what the astronauts see is alarming.