Imagine sitting in a space shuttle being launched into space at over 3,000 mph. Then, in the blink of an eye, BANG! The shuttle that you’re on is torn to pieces, and there is no escape. This is exactly what happened on January 28,1986 to the seven-crew members of the space shuttle Challenger—mission commander Francis Scobee; pilot Michael Smith; mission specialists Judith Resnick, Ronald McNair, and Ellison Onizuka; and payload specialists Gregory Jarvis and Christa McAuliffe.
Pressure to Launch
NASA really wanted to launch Challenger on schedule so no other launches would be delayed. The Ulysses and Galileo space probes had delayed the Challenger many times. After the probes were finally launched, the Challenger had technical problems that delayed the launch even more. NASA knew of some problems before the launch, but the same problems occurred on other spacecrafts and nothing went wrong.
The media was criticizing NASA for all the delays. NASA was also under pressure because the launch was on live television. Schools all over the U.S. were planning to watch the launch because a teacher, Christa McAuliffe who had been selected from more than 11,000 applicants to fly aboard the shuttle, was going into space.
What NASA Wanted to Show the World
NASA wanted to show a lot of things to the world including:
Important Equipment on Board
The Challenger was carrying several payloads. The Spartan-Halley Science Package was supposed to study and take pictures of Halley’s Comet. A tracking and data relay satellite was supposed to control all spy satellites orbiting Earth.
What Went Wrong?
What really happened to Challenger when it exploded? A piece of the rocket boosters failed. This piece is called the O-ring, which looks like a big washer. When the shuttle launched it was very cold, and the seal around the O-ring failed. This allowed hot gases and flames to leak out of the rocket boosters. The flames burned a hole in the shuttle’s external fuel tank and the piece that held the booster rocket to the side of the shuttle. The booster rocket broke off and smashed into the external fuel tank. The fuels in the external tank mixed, exploded, and tore the shuttle apart.
Public Reaction to the Disaster
Shuttles have been redesigned to prevent another accident like the Challenger. The O-ring was improved, and several changes were made to make sure everything on future shuttles is working correctly before they are given the go-ahead to launch.
After the Challenger was destroyed, it changed the way people looked at NASA. NASA wanted people to support it, but instead of impressing the viewers, the Challenger accident scared them. NASA also wanted to make sending regular people into space an everyday thing. Even though it has been 15 years since the disaster, NASA still has not attempted to send anyone that is not a trained astronaut into space since.
Unless otherwise noted, all images courtesy of NASA. Permission for use at http://www.nasa.gov/gallery/photo/guideline.html.
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