Millions of people witnessed as the space shuttle Challenger lifted off from a frigid Florida morning on January 28, 1986, carrying Christa McAuliffe – a teacher from New Hampshire chosen as America’s inaugural civilian astronaut.
Although companies are creating technology to help clean up space debris, fragmentation remains an issue. Researchers study this phenomenon by looking at telescope data on rocket upper stages.
1. Space Shuttle Challenger
On January 28th 1986, just 73 seconds after launch, NASA’s Space Shuttle Challenger exploded, killing all seven astronauts on board and sending shockwaves through engineering safety, organizational culture and group-think. Engineers at Morton Thiokol – which designed its fuel boosters – had warned NASA not to launch in case temperatures dropped too far below launch temperature thresholds but their managers overrode their advice and launch anyway.
The explosion was caused by two rubber O-rings failing in a rocket booster when exposed to cold temperatures during launch preparations, leading to their rupture. Noble Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman provided remarkable testimony during Rogers Commission hearings, conducting an impromptu experiment whereby he dunked O-ring material into ice water to demonstrate its loss of resilience when exposed to low temperatures. Aerodynamic forces then tore apart the SRB, throwing into rotation both orbiter and cargo and ultimately leading to its explosion.
2. Space Shuttle Columbia
In February 2003, Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated during reentry over Texas. Seven members of its crew–Commander Rick Husband, Pilot Willie McCool, Mission Specialist Michael Anderson Laurel Clark Kalpana Chawla Ilan Ramon of Israel–died as a result. Post-disaster analysis determined that foam strike during launch had compromised thermal protection system which permitted superheated atmospheric gases into aluminum structure causing structural failure and melting away aluminum pieces of the shuttle itself.
Engineers notified mission managers, but NASA officials decided to continue with the flight believing such foam strikes were relatively minor and would pose no reentry-related threats. Furthermore, they believed the heat-resistant tiles covering the orbiter’s left wing would protect it. Subsequent investigations revealed that one such foam strike caused holes to form on its leading edge exposing it to intense friction that eventually caused its disintegration; furthermore a damning report blamed NASA’s broken culture as being at fault and demanded safety reforms as a solution.
3. Space Shuttle Discovery
After Challenger was lost, NASA took two years off before shuttle flights resumed with Discovery’s launch on July 2005. Discovery, like Challenger before it, had served multiple missions before embarking on her final one – STS-133 – making its return an historic occasion.
Christa McAuliffe was selected as America’s inaugural educator-in-space during a nationwide contest to inspire young students towards science and technology careers in 1984 from her home state of New Hampshire. This mission marked her return home.
As part of the accident, structural damage prevented SRB rings from resealing properly, providing an outlet for exhaust gases to escape through and eventually lead to their explosion during reentry, sending shrapnel across a wide swath of Atlantic Ocean known as the Bermuda Triangle where many shipwrecks and plane crashes have taken place over time.
4. Space Shuttle Atlantis
NASA historians expected one of their most iconic vehicles – Space Shuttle Atlantis – would make its final wheels-stop at Kennedy Space Center in Florida after 30 years of service and many successful flights. After many successful landings over those three decades, she was finally retired on November 2 – just days ahead of a new attraction dedicated to honoring Atlantis and her legacy.
On its inaugural flight on October 3, 1985, Atlantis launched on a classified Department of Defense mission with five astronauts aboard. A piece of debris from one side booster detached and hit thermal protection system tiles located outside Atlantis during this mission.
Thankfully, the impact was not severe enough to damage either the shuttle or its crew, yet it highlighted the significance of verifying all components on launch vehicles are functioning as they should prior to any launch attempt. As a result, NASA decided to install permanent covers over TPS tiles on future shuttles, to prevent mishaps like these from reoccurring.