NASA’s Challenger Disaster – Episode 50


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Fellow crisis communicator Jeff Worden joins Tim to talk about one of the worst crises NASA ever faced when the space shuttle Challenger came apart in midair shortly after launch in front of millions. In this episode, we talk with Jeff about the tragic events around January 28, 1986. That was supposed to be a day of celebration but turned to tragedy when the Space Shuttle Challenger’s booster rockets exploded shortly after launch. That event marked a turning point for the way we see space travel. The NASA space shuttle Challenger came apart in the air 73 seconds after launch on that sunny day in January. The tragedy took the lives of all seven astronauts on board, which included Crista McAuliffe, a teacher from New Hampshire who had won the honor of be the first civilian in space. The event shocked the nation and the world, and was arguably the worst crisis NASA had ever faced to that time. Confidence in America’s leadership in space was shaken. Later, it was found that two rubber O-rings were the problem. They had been designed to separate the sections of the rocket booster on liftoff, but they failed due to cold temperatures on the morning of the launch. After that tragedy, NASA had to temporarily suspend all shuttle missions. Those who perished were Dick Scobee – Spacecraft Commander; Michael Smith – Pilot; Judith Resnik – Mission Specialist; Ronald McNair – Mission Specialist; Ellison Onizuka – Mission Specialist; Gregory Jarvis – Payload Specialist; and Christa McAuliffe – First Teacher in Space. Civilian. On July 19, 1985, she was chosen to be the first teacher and the first civilian to go to space. Her presence on this mission made it anything but routine. Problems Before Launch The mission had already been delayed 6 days for weather and technical problems. That morning was very cold. We would later learn that engineers warned their supervisors that certain components, including the rubber O-rings that sealed the joints of the shuttle’s rocket boosters – could fail at low temperatures. The warnings were ignored. Myths Challenger's Maiden Launch 1982. Source: NASA The Challenger did not explode. NASA public affairs officer Steve Nesbitt said at the time that “We have a report from the flight dynamics officer that the vehicle has exploded.” It wasn’t that simple. The external fuel tank collapsed, releasing all of its flammable contents. They ignited to create a huge fireball in the air. The shuttle itself was still intact and still rising. The truth is, it was trying to stay on its path but it broke off of the tank, and it was moving so fast, it couldn’t tolerate the aerodynamic forces. The tail and main engine section broke off. Both of the wings broke off. The crew cabin and the forward fuselage separated from the payload bay and they broke up when the fell from the sky into the water. The crew did not die instantly. Experts believe the astronauts were alive until their crew cabin hit the Atlantic Ocean at 200 miles per hour. The National Air and Space Museum has said that the astronauts were still strapped into their seats when they were found. Still, it’s hard to know if they were conscious when things went awry. While millions did see the tragedy on TV, most did not see it live. The major TV networks did not air the launch live. It occurred on a Tuesday at 11:30 a.m., Eastern Time. Most people were at work or going about their daily routines. The people who saw it live were those watching the NASA channel on satellite dishes (new at the time and rare), and the people who may have been watching CNN. Source: NASA How it Changed NASA When NASA launched the Shuttle Program, it framed it as a way to make space travel more affordable and routine.

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