Iconic Photos

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The Challenger Disaster

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I have previously written about it, but no history of shuttle program will be complete without one of its low points: the Challenger Disaster. 

Hours after the Challenger disaster, President Ronald Reagan addressed the nation. The astronauts had “slipped the surly bonds of Earth … to touch the face of God,” he said, quoting the poet-aviator John Gillespie Magee. But a more memorable quote that day was that of the mission control; as the shuttle exploded with seven astronauts onboard, an oddly detached commentary came: “Flight controllers here are looking very carefully at the situation. Obviously a major malfunction.”

Writing in the Washington Monthly five years before the disaster, Gregg Easterbrook warned that the shuttles’ solid rocket boosters were not safe. On that fatal day, the cold air created a rupture in a seal on one of the boosters, letting a jet of flame escape and igniting the fuel. The last words from Challenger were “We are go at throttle up!” — this application of maximum thrust turned out to be a fatal act.

It was assumed that some survived the initial explosion but subsequently perished during descent and impact. The crew’s remains were flown from Kennedy Space Center to Dover Air Force Base for formal identification. The above photo was taken at that poignant moment as seven fellow astronauts accompanied the caskets on the journey. The crew was buried in the Arlington National Cemetery. NASA buried all the remains of the Challenger in an old missile silo and sealed it with tons of concrete so the debris would never be auctioned off or commercially exploited.

The subsequent investigation, the Rogers Commission, was a revelation; engineers who knew about the boost-joint problem asked NASA not to launch that day and were ignored. NASA and its private contractors had at first failed to recognized the design flaw, then “failed to fix it and finally treated it as an acceptable flight risk”. In short, the commission noted that it was an “accident rooted in history”.

But interestingly, the committee recommended that essentially nothing change. No one was fired; no additional safety systems were added to the rocket boosters whose explosion destroyed Challenger; no escape-capsule system was even discussed. Easterbrook wrote, “Post-Challenger “reforms” were left up to the very old-boy network that had created the problem in the first place.”

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

July 14, 2011 at 4:54 pm

4 Responses

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  1. The crew was not all buried at Arlington National Cemetery. At least one crew member is buried in the “Punchbowl”, the National Cemetery of the Pacific, in Hawaii.

    P. Obbard

    July 14, 2011 at 5:18 pm

  2. A disaster for the US perhaps-but for much of the world it was an exemplar of America’s hubris and arrogance.

    Across the world from Europe to Africa and the MIddle East the deaths of the American astronauts were celebrated. In fact, I suspect that the event is second only to 9/11 in demonstrating ways in which the US Government despises it’s people.

    Deidre Finbarr

    July 14, 2011 at 10:41 pm

  3. Back in the 60s it was commonly rumored that Russian spaceships had been unable to return and the cosmonauts just drifted off to die in space. I have wondered if any of that had been found to have really happened. I know of the re-entry deaths in 1971.

    xulonjam

    July 14, 2011 at 11:47 pm

  4. The investigation into the disaster did change things. The o-ring system was redesigned and emergency crew bail-out system was added. This required major modifications to the shuttles – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Space_Shuttle_abort_modes#Post-Challenger_abort_enhancements

    @xulonjam – There is no evidence that any Cosmonauts died this way.

    Chris Tregenza

    July 15, 2011 at 9:17 am


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