Friday, January 28, 2011

25th Anniversary of NASA Space Shuttle Challenger disaster

In honour and memory of the men and women of NASA flight crew Challenger that lost their lives 25 years ago today. A day that I will never forget...

Jason Neumann

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Space Shuttle Challenger disaster

The Space Shuttle Challenger disaster occurred on Tuesday, January 28, 1986, when Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart 73 seconds into its flight, leading to the deaths of its seven crew members. The spacecraft disintegrated over the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of central Florida, United States, at 11:38 a.m. EST (16:38 UTC).

Disintegration of the entire vehicle began after an O-ring seal in its right solid rocket booster (SRB) failed at liftoff. The O-ring failure caused a breach in the SRB joint it sealed, allowing pressurized hot gas from within the solid rocket motor to reach the outside and impinge upon the adjacent SRB attachment hardware and external fuel tank. This led to the separation of the right-hand SRB's aft attachment and the structural failure of the external tank. Aerodynamic forces promptly broke up the orbiter.

Challenger was originally set to launch from Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 2:42 p.m. Eastern Standard Time (EST) on January 22. However, delays suffered by the previous mission, STS-61-C, caused the launch date to be pushed back to January 23 and then to January 24. Launch was then rescheduled to January 25 due to bad weather at the Transoceanic Abort Landing (TAL) site in Dakar, Senegal. NASA decided to use Casablanca as the TAL site, but because it was not equipped for night landings, the launch had to be moved to the morning (Florida time). Predictions of unacceptable weather at Kennedy Space Center caused the launch to be rescheduled for 9:37 a.m. EST on January 27.

In Mission Control, there was a burst of static on the air-to-ground loop as Challenger disintegrated. Television screens showed a cloud of smoke and water vapor (the product of hydrogen combustion) where Challenger had been, with pieces of debris falling toward the ocean. At about T+89, flight director Jay Greene prompted his flight dynamics officer (FIDO) for information. FIDO responded that "...the (radar) filter has discreting sources", a further indication that Challenger had broken into multiple pieces. A minute later, the ground controller reported "negative contact (and) loss of downlink" of radio and telemetry data from Challenger. Greene ordered his team to "watch your data carefully" and look for any sign that the Orbiter had escaped.

Contrary to the flight dynamics officer's initial statement, the shuttle and external tank did not actually "explode". Instead they rapidly disintegrated under tremendous aerodynamic forces, since the shuttle was slightly past "Max Q", or maximum aerodynamic pressure ("past" meaning that the dynamic pressure had started to decrease after reaching its maximum). When the external tank disintegrated, the fuel and oxidizer stored within it were released, producing the appearance of a massive fireball. However, according to the NASA team that analyzed imagery after the accident, there was only "localized combustion" of propellant.[10] Instead, the visible cloud was primarily composed of vapor and gases resulting from the release of the shuttle's liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen propellant. Stored in cryogenic conditions, the liquid hydrogen could not have ignited rapidly enough to trigger an "explosion" in the traditional sense of a detonation (as opposed to a deflagration, which was what occurred). Had there been a true explosion, the entire shuttle would have been instantly destroyed, killing the crew at that moment. The more robustly constructed crew cabin and SRBs survived the breakup of the launch vehicle; while the SRBs were subsequently detonated remotely by the RSO, the detached cabin continued along a ballistic trajectory, and was observed exiting the cloud of gases at T+75.237.[10] Twenty-five seconds after the breakup of the vehicle, which occurred at 48,000 feet (14.6 kilometres (9.1 mi)), the trajectory of the crew compartment peaked at a height of 65,000 feet (19.8 kilometres (12.3 mi)).[13]

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