What Spacecraft Blown Up?

On February 1, 1986, seven astronauts died when Space Shuttle Challenger disintegrated 73 seconds into its flight due to foam shedding from an external tank and hitting its left wing.

Explorers searching the Atlantic Ocean for World War II artifacts discovered this piece of debris from Challenger spacecraft in their search, which they donated to NASA.

The External Tank

The External Tank, or ET, serves as the “gas tank” for Orbiter by holding over half-million gallons of liquid hydrogen and oxygen for its main shuttle engines. Additionally, the ET serves as the backbone for launch by providing structural support between Solid Rocket Boosters and Orbiter.

As it detaches from its orbiter at a great height and lacks heat shields or aerodynamic control surfaces, it cannot be recycled; rather it lands on a predetermined trajectory before falling into the ocean.

NASA’s final ET has set sail today from their Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans and headed toward Los Angeles where it will become part of Samuel Oschin Air and Space Center museum exhibit. ET-94 was constructed alongside one that launched Columbia on its final flight; unfortunately it crashed upon its return, killing seven astronauts including New Hampshire school teacher Christa McAuliffe who perished as a result.

The Orbiter

The Orbiter is designed to look like an oversized airplane fuselage and contains the crew cabin as well as vital systems such as propulsion and power, structures, thermal control and life support systems. Additionally, it transports Tracking and Data Relay Satellites, Inertial Upper Stage rocket boosters and support equipment.

Engineers at Rockwell International struggled to understand what had caused the explosion of a spacecraft they had taken immense pride in creating. They reviewed all flight data related to Orbiter and collected vehicle parts before studying debris at the accident scene.

One of the solid rocket boosters failed after being exposed to unusually cold temperatures on the launch pad, leaking explosive gases during takeoff and leading to its tank’s explosion 73 seconds after launch, killing all aboard including teacher-in-space Christa McAuliffe from Concord, New Hampshire whom NASA had chosen as their representative in order to attract more teachers towards high-tech careers.

The Crew Compartment

On January 28th 1986, a shuttle explosion tragically claimed seven lives onboard and was witnessed by millions via live broadcast from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Millions watched this terrifying event unfold before their eyes as millions tuned in.

Investigators studied every piece of evidence from the Challenger disaster, and came to an astounding realization: those in its crew cabin didn’t die instantly when she exploded as was widely presumed at first.

Christa McAuliffe (an educator set to become the first civilian in space), pilot Dick Scobee, engineer Ellison Onizuka and engineers Judith Resnik and Gregory Jarvis were in the crew cabin during its fall back down towards Earth and subsequent crash landing in the Atlantic ocean at over 200 mph. It did not depressurize immediately upon return home as predicted – instead remaining fully pressurized throughout.

The Debris

The explosion created a cloud of debris that will soon travel toward the space station, with over 2,500 known pieces measuring four inches or larger swarming like mini wrecking balls towards a fleet of satellites that monitor weather, monitor climate and provide critical communications services.

NASA and international communities alike are deeply alarmed at this development, given that only 20 years ago the Space Shuttle Challenger disintegrated during reentry over Texas and Louisiana, killing all seven astronauts onboard. NPR’s Gaige Davila visited both locations – Boca Chica Beach in California where SpaceX launches are located – where Challenger exploded, as well as where particulates from debris rain down on cars and homes near launchpads like Boca Chica Beach where its launchpad sits; both places provide tranquil beauty while reminding residents that each piece that falls back could mean uncontrolled reentry situations further away from Earth- with potential uncontrolled reentries further out at sea or over Texas or Louisiana coast reentry back out into space again!

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