A shuttle lost, seven dead: Challenger crash recalled
Published: Saturday, February 1, 2003 at 3:55 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, February 1, 2003 at 3:55 p.m.
WASHINGTON (AP) - The circumstances were different _they were coming home, not vaulting into space _ but again there was the familiar jolt to the gut.
Once again the great space adventure that began 42 years ago claimed seven lives. Once again flags across the land were lowered to half staff. Once again, the president of the United States had to deliver the news to the nation.
Like space shuttle Challenger, 17 years and four days earlier, the end for Columbia came in a tremendous burst of light. In Challenger's case, the capsule housing the astronauts was hurtled 8.7 miles to the sea below. Columbia was 38 miles high over Texas when it was enveloped in flame on Saturday.
Challenger's end was only 73 seconds after liftoff. Columbia's was in the last 16 minutes of a 17-day flight, not far from the runway at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
The last time this happened, NASA learned from on-board voice recorders that Challenger's astronauts lived through much of the capsule's death plunge. But the force of the crash ended any chance for life. On Saturday, there was no chance at all in Columbia's breakup high above Earth's atmosphere.
In the anguished hours after the Challenger disaster on Jan. 28, 1986, President Reagan canceled his State of the Union speech scheduled for that evening.
"The future doesn't belong to the fainthearted, it belongs to the brave," Reagan said.
"We'll continue our quest in space. There will be more shuttle flights and more shuttle crews and yes, more volunteers, more civilians, more teachers in space."
It was more than two-and-a-half years later before shuttle flights would resume.
The Challenger explosion followed what had been described as a nearly flawless launch. Soon afterward, the word came from NASA's Steve Nesbitt, "We have a report from the flight dynamics officer that the vehicle has exploded. Flight director confirms that."
Challenger did not 'explode" in the common sense of the word; it was set aflame by a leak in the seals of one of its right booster rocket.
"No other element of the space shuttle system contributed to this failure," according to a presidential commission that looked into the accident.
The commission criticized NASA for ignoring evidence that other booster rockets had leaks. A rash of firings at top levels followed the Challenger crash.
Among the Challenger crew on that wintry day of 1986 was a schoolteacher, Christa McAuliffe, who had hoped to give lessons from space. Just last week, NASA announced it would hire three to six teachers for its next astronaut class.
The Challenger flight was No. 25 in the shuttle series. Increasingly NASA had been under pressure to fly more, carry more and earn back the enormous cost of the space shuttle program
"Fast turnaround" became a way of life.On each work day, as they passed through the Kennedy Space Center gates, engineers and janitors alike were reminded by signboards of how many days it was until launch.
NASA went to great lengths to shave a day here and there off the turnaround time. Yet, NASA never hesitated to delay a flight for safety reasons. The weather had to be right, the ship had to be right. And the agency always insisted that safety was its prime concern.
The plan originally was to launch 24 shuttles a year but before long the agency realized it could not meet the goal.
The Challenger accident caused a more than two-year hiatus in launches as the agency made numerous changes. It firmed up the "O-ring" seals in the rocket booster joints, created an escape system within the spacecraft, and firmed up its error reporting system.
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