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The space shuttle Challenger

It was a cold, crisp, and damp morning on the Florida Space Coast as the space shuttle Challenger raced through the sky at speeds approaching mach 2 at an altitude of 104,000 feet when something went perilously wrong. All of America watched, including the family members of the seven doomed crew members, as Challenger exploded into an expansive ball of fire, smoke and steam. An “Oh. . . no! ” came as the crews final utterance from the shuttle as the orbiter broke-up.

As the reality of what she was seeing became apparent, Pilot Michael John Smiths daughter, 9 year old Erin Smith, could be heard yelling, “Daddy! Daddy! I want you, Daddy! You promised nothing would happen! ” Unfortunately, the events of that tragic day could have been easily prevented. Weather had been the main cause for five delays during the last month. The launch had been carried out in spite on the fact that weather was the worst it had ever been in NASAs history of manned space flight.

With so many ! lays encountered in that twenty-fifth shuttle mission, NASA had become careless in getting Challenger on its way. As Challenger sat on the pad awaiting its ill-fated mission, there were signs that there was something wrong with the Right hand SRB (Solid Rocket Booster). Nevertheless these signs were ignored by a neglectful staff whose only concern was scheduling and not safety. Also, at the time of the accident, for purely monetary reasons, the shuttle had not been fitted with a means of escape for the crew in the case of an emergency; a fact not revealed until after the accident.

Though the Space shuttle was the cutting edge of technology at the time, new advancements in technology make the Space Shuttle old, unsafe, inefficient, and not cost effective. However, because of cut backs in funding, NASA is unable to make any advancements in its technology to prevent another catastrophic accident for the space program. Also as a result of the cut backs, NASA has had tro! uble keeping the existing space shuttles hardware kept up. The effects of the accident were numerous; the space program was shut down for three years.

Also the effects on the NASA staff were immense, leaving a feeling of guilt and fear. On January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger and its crew embarked on a mission to broaden educational horizons and promote the advancement of scientific knowledge; their mission was cut short in one of the most tragic and most easily prevented tragedies in Americas history in space. Before the accident, the 51-L (This missions assigned number) mission was supposed to be remembered for many reasons. One reason was that this was to be the twenty-fifth space shuttle mission.

Another reason was that this was to be the first shuttle launch from pad 39-b which hadnt been used since the Apollo missions. However, The major reason was this was to be the first crew to include a civilian member. Sharon Chista McAuliffe was chosen from a pool of 11,400 applicants. McAuliffe, 37, was a social studies teacher in Concord High School in New Hampshire. While in space, she planned to still teach two lessons entitled, “Where weve been, where were going, why? “, to her class. Then, at T plus 1:13, the mission and its crew became remembered for other, more disastrous reasons.

An O-ring in the right SRB shattered in the extreme cold and began allowing liquid hydrogen to leak then explode incinerating the seven crew members, destroying the valuable payload, and bring! ing the space program to a halt for nearly three years. America listened a long ten seconds before “the commentary was resumed in a tense monotone”(Lewis, p21); “Flight Controllers are looking very carefully at the situation. Obviously a major malfunction. We have no downlink. We have a report from the flight dynamics officer that the vehicle has exploded. The flight director confirms that.

We are looking at checking with recovery forces to see what can be done at this point. Contingency procedures are in effect. We will report more as we have information available”(Lewis, p21) “Major Malfunction”, a phrase that stuck with everyone watching the launch that day. Although later, flight commentator Nesbit would be commended for remaining calm by some people, many people described the statement as “the understatement of the century”. Following all the delays caused by the weather over the past five days, the launch was rescheduled for the morning of January, 28th.

A cold front with high winds was forecasted to pass through east central Florida. However, the winds were expected to die down, and the morning was expected to be clear but very cold. Temperatures were expected to fall into the low twenties, a rarity for the sub-tropical Florida climate. “Mission managers for NASA assessed the possible effects of the cold weather on the launch, but the only threat they perceived to the launch safety was the ice on the pad structureIce breaking off the structure during launch could damage Challengers heat shield. Lewis, p4)

Ice inspection teams visited the launch pad three times on the morning of the 28th. Their job was to find any debris that might be blown out by engine exhaust. They found a layer of ice ranging from one-eighth to three inches thick on the launch pad caused from allowing water to dribb! le to prevent the pipes from freezing. Similar ice problems had prevented the space shuttle Discovery from being launched a year earlier, regardless of that, the Challenger was allowed to proceed with the launch. Weather conditions for this launch were the worst in NASAs history of manned space flight.

However, the weather was a concern for more than one reason. Separate from the problem the ice posed for the launch; the cold would prove to be a concern for the O-rings in the SRBs, holding back the extremely flammable liquid hydrogen. “The night before liftoff , engineer Roger Boisjoly had implored his supervisors at Martin Thiokol – the Utah company that made the solid rockets that boost the shuttle into orbit- to recommend that NASA delay the launch. The cold, he said — temperatures would fall to 27 degrees that night – might effect the rubber O-ring seals, thus allowing exhaust gasses to leak from the rocket joints.

If that happened he said, Challenger could explod! e on the launch pad. But Mission 51-L – Americas 53rd manned space flight – lifted off without a hitch, riding a shaft of fire toward orbit seven minutes away. In Morton Thiokols conference room, Boisjoly turned away from the TV and remarked quietly to a fellow engineer Bob Ebeling, “Well, we dodged the bullet on that one”Seconds later Boisjoly was fighting back tears. He struggled back into his office, staring at the walls, his mind blurred by images and the contrail of smoke and steam stretched across the sky. Lamb, p1)

The O-rings were made of materials called elastomers. Elastomers have several problems. When they get hot, they become gummy and sticky, and when they become cold they become brittle, as in the case of the Challenger. During the investigations an experiment showed how brittle the O-rings would have been. A piece of the same type of O-rings used in Challenger was placed in a glass of ice water for a few minutes. Upon being removed from the water, i! t was gently tapped on the table top. The O-ring shattered into pieces.

The O-ring used in the experiment was still 5-10 degrees warmer than the actual O-rings in the Space shuttle. The slight tap given to the O-ring in the experiment would have been nothing compared the vibrations encountered in rockets propelling a 40 ton Space Shuttle though the atmosphere at 1,400 miles per hour. In the end the negligent thinking of the weather and the O-rings that proved ultimately catastrophic for the Challenger and its crew. There was great political pressure on NASA officials to launch Challenger as early as possible after a month of frustrating delays.

It was rumored that the administration was anxious to have challenger in orbit by February 4th when President Regan was due to deliver his State of the Union message. It was suggested that plans had been made for a live communications hookup with challenger during the broadcast of the message. Scheduling was also tight because the space agency had scheduled 15 launches for 1986, compared with only 9 in 1985. Then 19 missions were planned for 1987. The delays in the launch of Challenger, and before that Columbia, were threatening to disrupt the schedule for the next two years.

The dominant source of pressure to get the Challenger off the launch pad was Jupiter, the target of two scientific spacecrafts, Galileo and Ulysses, to be launched in the spring of 1986 in order to hit the planet with minimum energy trajectory. If the probes missed ! their window, it would not return until July 1987. All this put great pressure on NASA to make the fatal decision to forgo safety in exchange for scheduling. As Challenger began its accent, there were many warning signs ignored that would have prompted immediate abortion of the launch.

Before the shuttle even made it off the launch pad, two black plumes of smoke were visible on the side of the SRB, but it went unnoticed. Those two black plumes burned at a temperature of 5,600 degrees, burning a hole through the half-inch steel case holding the liquid hydrogen and allowing it to leak through the O-rings being shattered by the cold and vibrations of the rocket boosters. Engineers noticed the smoke but did not acknowledge fact that anything could go so seriously wrong, and passed it off as unrelated anomaly.

Then again at 59 seconds into launch, 14 seconds before the explosion, there were eight giant bursts of flame originating from the SRB that also went ignored. Following that at 1 minute into launch pressure began to rapidly fall in the right-hand booster, showing a possible leak, by this point the explosion was too large and! the shuttle was enveloped in flame. Now all NASA could do was watch as the shuttle was destroyed. It was not until weeks later that an investigation team realized how easily it could have been prevented. Because NASA was so preoccupied with getting up to schedule, no one was looking for any signs of failure.

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