Space Shuttle Challenger

Continuing from the last two weeks’ blogs, the topic for today’s entry is the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. Around three weeks ago, memorials were held to coincide with the 25th anniversary of this tragedy, with large crowds turning up at the site of the disaster in Cape Canaveral.

On Tuesday 28th January 1986, Challenger launched. However, only 73 seconds into its flight, the shuttle broke apart, killing all seven crew members. The disintegration of the spacecraft was caused by the failure of a seal in its right solid rocket booster (SRB – the thin, white ones). This allowed pressurised hot gas from within the solid rocket motor to reach the outside, which led to the separation of the right-hand SRB’s aft attachment and the structural failure of the external fuel tank (the big orange one). Aerodynamic forces promptly tore the orbiter apart.

Despite this, the crew compartment, along with many other vehicle fragments, was eventually recovered by NASA  from the ocean floor. It is believed that several crew members survived the initial breakup of the orbiter. However, the shuttle had no escape system and the astronauts could not have survived the impact of the crew compartment with the ocean surface.

Challenger explosion

Following this disaster, NASA suspended the shuttle programme for 32 months, during which time extensive investigations took place. These investigations led to a number of fundamental changes, both in terms of shuttle design and NASA’s regulatory infrastructure.

In the immediate wake of the disaster, President Ronald Regan gave a live television speech, in which he made reference to Kennedy’s famous metaphor of space being our century’s new ocean, our new frontier:

“There’s a coincidence today. On this day 390 years ago, the great explorer Sir Francis Drake died aboard a ship off the coast of Panama. In his lifetime the great frontiers were the oceans, and a historian later said, ‘He lived by the sea, died on it, and was buried in it.’ Well, today we can say of the Challenger crew: Their dedication was, like Drake’s, complete.”

The crew of Space Shuttle mission STS-51-L pose for their official portrait on November 15, 1985. Back row (from left to right): Ellison S. Onizuka, Sharon Christa McAuliffe, Greg Jarvis, and Judy Resnik. Front row (from left to right): Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee, and Ron McNair. Christa McAuliffe was set to be the first member of the Teacher in Space Project. Her presence meant that the launch was watched by an unusually large audience, especially in the US.

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