Last week, on the 28th of January, marked the 30th year since Challenger Disaster. NASA made it a day of remembrance for the sacrificed and contemplation upon the future of manned spaceflight. To be fair, NASA had many achievements along the years. Recently, it shone brightly with projects like New Horizons and Mars Rovers. All these did not come in easy, it took many people’s many effort, to ensure things were right. In movies, we often see the glorious moment when the spacecraft succeeded in entering space and so forth, with people cheering at the control centre. Indeed, these are the moment worth celebrating.
Despite the usual meticulousness of the whole process, NASA was still subjected to a few grave moments. To name a few, Columbia, Apollo 1 and Challenger.
In 1986, Space Shuttle Program STS-51-L was launched with Challenger space shuttle before ending as a disaster a minute later. This flight consisted of seven crew, including one school teacher. This incident was very much talked about in science class or spaceflight accidents, not only because it was tragic, but it served as a reminder of how often we overlooked something very small. After investigation, it was reported the cause of the accident was due to some faulty o-ring seal.
If you have no idea what an o-ring looks like, here it is:
Yes, exactly. This is something you get to see everywhere, from equipments to your water bottle to your pipes. Of course, in a space shuttle, the scale is different, but they served the same purpose. In Challenger’s case, hot gas from the right Solid Rocket Booster(SRB) had been causing the casing the bent and smoke. During previous mission, this process allowed the o-ring to melt and seal properly, hence a design meant for extrusion. However, during the mission in 1986, the weather might have been a bit cold for the seal to melt in time for the sealing to be complete. The disaster went on with the sealing with molten aluminium oxide, the unfortunate not-seated-well backup o-ring, liquid hydrogen tank. Within a minute, the aerodynamics of the spacecraft was finally compromised and failed. The structural failure, however, did not affect the crew cabin. And this had also brought about the notion that the crew might be fully aware or conscious throughout the process until the impact of the hit back on Earth. None of the crew survived.
What happened after that? In 1998, there was another accident, Columbia disaster, during its re-entry to Earth atmosphere. And for NASA, it spelled the temporary end of space shuttle program. To this date, all of our travel from our Pale Blue Dot to the International Space Station (ISS), were by the Soyuz spacecraft, which was meant for Soviet manned lunar programme. It had been in service for quite a long time. Yet, these accidents or incidents hinted us of how early we are still in terms of manned space flight. Putting things away from Earth was still not our forté and work still needed to be done in this field to ensure solid foundation before we could confidently send people off this planet.
Let us remember and appreciate the work and sacrifice done by those, who had contributed in our journey as we forward ourselves in the knowledge and practicality of aerospace activities. NASA had prepared a page on their thoughts for these too.