Challenger memories linger 20 years later


**FILE** The crew of the space shuttle Challenger is seen in this 1986 file photo released by NASA. From left to right: Ellison Onizuka, Mike Smith, Christa McAuliffe, Dick Scobee, Greg Jarvis, Ron McNair and Judy Resnick. The space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after lifting off from Kennedy Space Center Jan. 28, 1986. All seven crew members died in the explosion, which was blamed on faulty O-rings in the shuttle's booster rockets. The disaster shattered NASA's image and the belief that flying on a spacecraft could become as routine as flying on an airplane. The 20th anniversary of the disaster is Saturday, Jan. 28, 2006.

AP Photo/NASA, FILE
Published: Saturday, January 28, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 28, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
WEST PALM BEACH - On a bright cool winter morning 20 years ago today, seven astronauts fell nearly 4 miles out of the sky, a height so far aloft it took them nearly three minutes to hit the ocean, traveling at a speed of 207 mph.
They may have been alive all the way down, though their bodies would have experienced violent forces equal to 200 times the pull of gravity upon striking the sea surface. The coroner's report was inconclusive. Their remains, retrieved with a special submarine, were as fragmentary as the craft that exploded around them: the space shuttle Challenger. But there was evidence they had the presence of mind to turn on their individual pressurized oxygen hoses, so they must have been alive and thinking, at least for a time after the explosion.
"Uh-oh," was the last recorded radio transmission from the doomed spaceship.
"We share this pain with all of the people of our country," said then-President Ronald Reagan. "This is truly a national loss. Nineteen years ago, almost to the day, we lost three astronauts in a terrible accident on the ground. But we've never lost an astronaut in flight. We've never had a tragedy like this."
The seven killed were: commander Francis R. "Dick" Scobee, a Vietnam veteran airman; Michael J. Smith, a U.S. Navy test pilot; mission specialist Judith A. Resnick, an electrical engineer and the first Jewish astronaut; mission specialist Ronald E. McNair, a physicist and laser scientist; Hawaiian-born mission specialist Ellison S. Onizuka, who was on active duty with the U.S. Air Force and who handled classified military aspects of the mission; payload specialist Gregory B. Jarvis, who was supposed to study the performance of liquid-fueled rockets; and Sharon Christa McAuliffe, a high school teacher from Concord, N.H. McAuliffe is the most remembered, because she seemed the most innocent. Everyone else was slotted for duty. McAuliffe was just along for the ride. Faith and hope were her sole qualifications for space flight. NASA wanted a schoolteacher to fly on the shuttle and McAuliffe was selected from about 11,500 applicants, a bright, symbolic, young Everywoman.
"I watched the space age being born and I would like to participate," she wrote on her application. After she was picked, she told her students the flight would be "the ultimate field trip."
Challenger was skyborne for only 73 seconds before it exploded, but the memory of its Icarian fall has lasted 20 years. Today the distance and perspective of two decades filled with disasters enable us to gauge, partway at least, the shock of that morning.
We have seen it happen again, when the space shuttle Columbia blew up over Texas on Feb. 1, 2003, upon reentry to the Earth's atmosphere, killing another seven astronauts.
The fiery suicidal abattoir of 9-11, which claimed thousands of lives in 2001, dwarfs the death toll from the two space disasters.
The gigantic Asian tsunami of 2004 extinguished more than 200,000 lives in the space of a few hours.
Yet Challenger remains a vivid mental scorch mark. People still recall where they were when they heard of it.
Many can never forget the famous photograph of the explosion, in which the disintegrating vehicle seems to go in several directions like a luminous white thistle of vapor nodding and drooping against the brilliant blue sky. It lingers in the mind's eye like the retina-afterburn against your eyelid, when a flashbulb has popped in your face.
Challenger weighed 175,111 pounds and had flown nine successful missions. It was to be the 25th mission in the shuttle program overall. Challenger was built in 1982, and was the second-oldest craft in a fleet that would eventually number five vessels.
Challenger's 10th liftoff was scheduled for Jan. 21, but was postponed several times. Challenger, its rockets and its huge fuel tank, were left outside on the launch pad during the unseasonably cold winter nights. The evening before the launch, temperatures dropped to 26 degrees. The O-rings along the sides of the solid rocket boosters were guaranteed only as low as 53 degrees.
Somehow, silently on one of those cold nights, one O-ring cracked.
After the usual pre-takeoff glitches due to weather, sensors and a stubborn hatch door that wouldn't shut properly and had to be fixed, Challenger was launched at 11:38 a.m. on Jan. 28, 1986.
Millions watched on television, aghast, as it exploded one minute and 13 seconds later.
The cause proved surprisingly easy to ascertain. It had even been captured on film.
A gout of fire can clearly be seen spurting from one of the solid-fuel rockets on the right side of the shuttle shortly after liftoff.
The faulty O-ring had allowed hot gases to leak out from the solid rocket booster.
Fire followed the gases, enlarging the small hole. These burned through the wall of the external fuel tank like a blowtorch.
Worse, they melted off one of the metal supports that attached the booster to the tank. The support smashed through the tank wall like a hunk of sharp shrapnel and permitted the liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen to mix and explode.
Almost instantly the space ship blew to pieces, though the shuttle cabin, with the hapless astronauts encased within, may have remained intact in its long fall seaward.
How long did they live? The so-called "Kerwin Report" put together by NASA after the tragedy said, in effect, it was impossible to determine:
"It is possible, but not certain, that the crew lost consciousness due to an in-flight loss of crew module pressure . . . Impact damage was so severe that no positive evidence for or against in-flight pressure loss could be found."
The investigative panel faulted the failed O-ring, but also blamed NASA for disregarding the concerns of their own engineers.
Morton Thiokol, the firm that built the solid rocket boosters in Utah, warned NASA the O-rings were only reliable at temperatures of 53 degrees and above. NASA said the chances of such a catastrophe were one in a thousand. Physicist Feynman said they were more like one in a hundred.
Feynman decried "an almost incredible lack of communication between (NASA) and their working engineers.
"In any event this has had very unfortunate consequences, the most serious of which is to encourage ordinary citizens to fly in such a dangerous machine, as if it had attained the safety of an ordinary airliner."
SUBHEAD IN COPY The shuttle program was suspended for two years and eight months after Challenger blew up. Tom Wolfe, author of "The Right Stuff," a chronicle of the early days of the manned space program, wrote an incisive essay on the tragedy for Time magazine. He focused on the symbolism of Christa McAuliffe's participation:
"Her flight was to be the crossover, at last, from a quarter of a century in which space had been a frontier open only to pioneers who lived and were willing to die by the code of 'the right stuff' - the Alan Shepards, John Glenns and Neil Armstrongs - to an era when space would belong to the entire citizenry, to Everyman."
The schoolteacher was supposed to break the mold of the "original breed of fighter-pilot and test-pilot astronaut - the breed who had been willing, over and over again, to sit on top of enormous tubular bombs, some 36 stories high, gorged with several of the most explosive materials this side of nuclear fission, and let some NASA GS-18 engineer light the fuse."
The fact was, Wolfe suggests, that McAuliffe and her companions "hurtled for 73 seconds out on the edge of a still-raw technology" before they died.
And so, he asks: "If space flight still involves odds unacceptable to Everyman, then should it be put back in the hands of those whose profession consists of hanging their hides, quite willingly, out over the yawning red maw?"

Reader comments posted to this article may be published in our print edition. All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.

Comments are currently unavailable on this article

▲ Return to Top