The Challenger Disaster

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.”

Space Walks

It was one of the most famous images of the Space Age. What many people didn’t realize was how far that “untethered space walk” travelled.  

Spacewalking was nothing new by the time space shuttles began to soar. In March 1965, the Russian Alexei Leonov became the first person to take a “walk” in space in an exercise that nearly went wrong. Three months later, American Ed White followed his lead, but  both were tied to their spacecraft.

It was left for two astronauts on the shuttle Challenger, Bruce McCandless and Robert Stewart, to try an untied version. With Robert Gibson taking photos from inside the shuttle with a Hasselblad, McCandless achieved this on February 7th 1984, becoming the first “human satellite” traveling at some 17,500 miles per hour.

He reached a distance of 320 feet, with the azure Earth 150 nautical miles below, but McCandless spent just a little more than an hour free-flying. Even today, spacesuits are awkward, unwieldy and uncomfortable; while spacewalks typically lasted no longer than three hours, the astronauts are often trapped in their suits for as long as 10 hours, and had to drink through straws.

Although McCandless’ photo inspired many sci-fi fantasies, his spacewalk would amount to nothing more than a stunt. After McCandless and Stewart, four other astronauts on later shuttles flew untethered, but after 1984, NASA stopped producing the nitrogen-powered jet pack (in that inelegant space jargon, known as Manned Maneuvering Unit). The shuttle’s robotic arm precluded the need for such daring spacewalks.

Today, a modified version of the jetpack is worn only as a emergency backup during spacewalks. It was smaller but by no ways capable of reaching the distances previously travelled.

 And there in a way is a metaphor for the American space programme.


The Apollo-Soyuz Mission

The above image made from a frame of 16 millimeter motion picture film marked the high point in the Detente. The Apollo-Soyuz Test Project was the first time that the US and the USSR cooperated in a manned space mission. Engineering teams from both sides collaborated in the development of a docking module to link the spacecraft, with the Russians being forced to reveal their past failures to NASA.

Apollo commander Thomas P. Stafford (right) and Soyuz-19 commander Aleksei A. Leonov (left) greet each other for the first time in space with a handshake. It was an event broadcast live on global television. This mission was meant to symbolize the end of competition and the beginning of an era of cooperation in space. The crews visited each other’s spacecraft, shared meals, and worked on various tasks during several days together in space. This fulfilled a 1972 agreement between the Soviet Union and the United States to participate in a joint venture in space–messages were relayed from the crews directly to President Ford and Premier Brezhnev.

The two spacecraft remained docked for two days, and undocked and re-docked for practice purposes. This would be the final flight of the Apollo spacecrafts.

Buzz Adrin salutes American Flag


Conspiracy theorists suggested that NASA asked Stanley Kubrick, the director of 2001: A Space Odessey a year prior, to direct the ‘fake’ lunar landings. They have no problems with subsequent landings, but Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s moon walk was–and still is–a lie to them.

They say the U.S. government, desparate to beat the Russians, faked the lunar landings; Saturn V rocket with Collins, Armstrong and Aldrin was lunched but they were immediately transferred into a landing module, and they acted out their mission on a secret film set, located either in the Hollywood Hills or in Area 51. With the photos and videos of the Apollo missions only available through NASA, there’s no independent verification that the lunar landings were anything but a hoax. NASA’s losing and careless guardianship of those tapes didn’t help either.

Conspiracy aficionados pointed the above instance of Aldrin planting a waving American flag on the moon as the smoking gun. The flag’s movement, they say, clearly shows the presence of wind, which is impossible in the vacuum. NASA says that Aldrin was twisting the flag pole to get the moon soil, which caused the wire-framed flag to move. In above picture, the Lunar Module (LM) is on the left, and the footprints of the astronauts are clearly visible in the soil of the moon. Astronaut Neil A. Armstrong, commander, took this picture with a 70mm Hasselblad lunar surface camera.

Astronauts have brought back hundreds of independently verified moon rocks, but theorists claimed these rocks come from moon meteors NASA had collected in the polar regions. Theorists have even suggested that Virgil I. Grissom, Edward H. White, Roger B. Chaffee — three astronauts who died in a fire while testing equipment for the first moon mission — were executed by the U.S. government, which feared they were about to disclose the truth.

Far-fetched as the hoax theory may seem, a 1999 Gallup poll showed that it’s comparatively durable: 6% of Americans said they thought the lunar landings were fake and 5% said they were undecided. They inspired the 1978 conspiracy thriller, Capricorn One about faked Martian landings.

Apart from the conspiracies aside, the first flag that flew on the Moon was also drenched in history and lore. Putting a U.S flag on the Moon was sensitive because it had to sidestep a law banning appropriation of the outer space and celestial bodies.  A $5.50 flag was brought from a convenience store, and was fitted with wire frames. However, a wrong coating prevented frames from extending fully, thus creating a rippled effect. Now, six U.S. flags fly on the Moon, all with frames that didn’t extend fully because NASA liked the accidental effect.