The Challenge of Space Flight

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Suddenly and for the first time I saw Amanda as a little child wide eyed with both awe and fear, among other children some sitting on the floor, some in chairs, some standing behind desks, eyes trained on a TV monitor and their teacher as the sudden realization dawned on all of them that the Space Shuttle Challenger had been consumed in a fiery, deadly explosion.

The teacher on board seemed to have been incinerated before their very eyes. As the explosion developed, shooting out huge arms of smoke, and the voice-over began to acknowledge that something was wrong, NASA’s space program was suddenly transformed, in the eyes of the innocent little children of America almost all of whom were watching the event live, from a somewhat interesting science project to a place where teachers went to die. Seventeen percent of Americans saw it live, 80% learned of it within 60 minutes after it happened.

I had never really visualized Amanda as a little girl before, but a few years ago when this came up, on an earlier Anniversary of the Challenger explosion, this image formed as a lump in my throat.

I’m a few years older than Amanda, so my experience was a little different. I had just returned form the Congo. I had borrowed a car … a Laser, which is a sort of sports car … and driven downtown to a friend’s apartment over an Italian restaurant and tavern, and parked it on a snow bank out front. That’s normal for Upstate New York. By the time morning came, the car was more than a little stuck, so I called Triple-A to pull it out.

I made the call from the tavern, and while doing so I noticed that the Challenger launch was being shown on the TV. So I stood at the bar and watched the launch. And the explosion. When the tow truck came, I mentioned to the driver that the Challenger had just exploded. He thought for a moment and said, shaking his head slowly, “You’re not gonna get me on that thing. No sir!” I thought … yeah, that might be a tough sell from this point forward.

It is said that when NASA started the Shuttle program, they made an estimate of risk of death to those who would be on board. Given the number of flights and the number of deadly events and the number of those killed, they’re apparently right in the expected range. I’ve not been able to confirm that estimate.

In any event, it turns out that space travel is dangerous. We recently remembered the tragic death of three astronauts on the launch pad, during a test, which came to be known as Apollo 1. In a few days from now, we’ll have the anniversary of the deadly destruction of the Columbia shuttle during re-entry. (Phil Plait has a few thoughts about this, here.) Four cosmonauts died during space missions as well.

Story Corps has a video about Ronald McNair, one of the scientists on the Challenger:

Amy Shira Teitel has a summary of January’s historic events in space travel:

Originally posted here, slightly edited.

Image: “Challenger flight 51-l crew” by NASA – NASA Human Space Flight Gallery (image link). Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.


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17 thoughts on “The Challenge of Space Flight

  1. After the grand tour of NASA’s Cape Canaveral liquid hydrogen works , it was a relief to see Apollo XI not blow up 46 summers ago.

    After the launch , we pliedour hosts with stone crab and margaritas, and one of them related what a Mercury astronaut shouted into the mike connecting him to mission control on a very roug and audibly rattling ride into orbit atop a missile originally built for a more warlike purpose :

    “Houston, why the hell do you have to buy these things from the lowest bidder?”

  2. Great article, links and videos here -thanks and well said. Love what Phil Plait said and couldn’t agree more – vale to all those who perished. You won’t be forgotten. You will be missed. You were and remain heroes.

    But just one thing, maybe I’m getting a bit of brain fade or something here and missing something very obvious (wouldn’t be the first time I guess!) but – just who is the Amanda you are referring to at the start here?

  3. Tragic horror, and thankful remembrances.

    When we think of our military members, we might recall the saying that “the price of freedom isn’t ‘free’.”

    The same case obtains for the astronaut corps: the price of knowledge isn’t “free” either.

    On Memorial Day or some other suitable national holiday, we should include those who have given their lives in the exploration of space.

  4. Personally I think Nasa rushed the project of space launching as they were in competition with the Russians. They knew about the risks involved but yet they proceed with their plans. Even though there’s a huge controversy about the moon first landing, after wards that i feel they should implemented better strategies in space launching because its seems like they were more unsuccessful launches than successful ones. In a way they changed and came with great discovers about space life.

  5. The “rushing” actually worked to help the U.S. “defeat” the Soviets in the space race — and some would say it also helped bankrupt the USSR and led to the breakup.

    They knew about the risks, as did the astronauts — which is why nearly all were test pilots — and they were very familiar, technically, with the spacecraft they flew. (Some, such as Gus Grissom, participated in spacecraft design.)

    Only a fool would expect that space travel is without real risk. However, NASA did an exceptional job in managing that risk. We should also compliment the contractors (North American and Grumman, for two) for doing a high-quality job of building the spacecraft & rockets. (The fact that the F1 engines of the Saturn V did not have a single failure, nor did the main engines of the Space Shuttles, is a awe-inspiring testimony of the care and quality NASA and its contractors instilled in the program.)

    There were far, FAR (FAR!) more successful launches than unsuccessful ones. I hope that was a typo on your part…

  6. I remember learning that the Challenger had exploded when I was in 5th grade. Another kid came up to me at the end of recess and said that the space shuttle had blown up. I believe that I rather foolishly blurted out something like “It can’t blow up!” I assumed that because space shuttle missions were becoming fairly common at the time, that they must be very safe and that tragic accidents were very unlikely. It was a shocking reminder to me of how dangerous the whole thing really is.

    I also remember getting pretty depressed when Columbia broke apart during reentry in 2003. I was an adult by then, of course, and a little less naive about the dangers, but there was a sinking feeling of “not again”.

  7. Paul, keep in mind that in order to climb the steep climb out of Earth’s “gravity well”, astronauts must ride atop a “continuously and slowly exploding bomb” (with the bomb’s blast being entirely directed downwards, of course).

    In the case of the Saturn V that took men to the moon, this “bomb” weighed 2.5 million kilograms (RP1+LOX) and had the wallop of a small atomic bomb (0.5 to 1 kiloton of TNT).

    So, while “it can’t blow up!”, it gets “blown upwards” for several minutes — until the craft has been accelerated to 17,000 mph on reaching orbit.

    The Saturn V F1 main engines are a most amazing engineering feat. The combined power output of the five F1 engines of the Saturn V first stage was 60 gigawatts — nearly equivalent to the peak electricity demand of the United Kingdom.

    Just the gas generator alone on the F1 produced about 31,000 pounds of thrust, more than an F16 fighter’s engine running at full afterburner. This auxiliary engine was used to drive a turbine producing 55,000 shaft horsepower for pumping fuel & oxidizer into the combustion chamber. Note that that was 55,000 horsepower just to run the F1’s pumps; the F1 itself (if you could rate rocket engines this way) produced the equivalent of something like 32 million horsepower.

    It takes a lot of guts to trust that to hold together for 11-12 minutes to get into Earth orbit. (Then they had to trust the rest of the craft to keep them safe & alive for several days — and get them home again.)

  8. The loss of Challenger one of my early memories and one even earlier one was sitting watching for the very first shuttle flight with astronauts aboard – staying up for hours until it was scrubbed for a computer glitch but just in awe of this wonderful new spaceplane.

    I think the Space Shuttles were wonders of the modern world and behind only the Apollo-Saturn V craft as the greatest thing humans have ever built.

    A couple of clips showing why I think is so :

    A tribute putting the Space Shuttle missions in context with everyone of the 135 flights included in chronological order. (But all in a mere eight minutes.) Challenger’s loss and Reaguns excellent memorial speech following it at the 2 minutes 50 seconds mark.

    This is another tribute clip showing the details of one launch (STS-129 Atlantis) in all its splendour :

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ewLLBalvehg

    Which I could watch a thousand and fifty plus times and never get sick of.

    Oh, and just one more because, so durn good – a night launch (STS-130 Endeavour orbiter) :

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VEDLASr3QN0

    to enjoy as well. If you haven’t seen these before, well you’re in for a treat – if you have, well they’re definitely worth viewing again. About my all-time fave youtube clips and what a spacecraft we used to have.

    I hope we see its like – and better still – again in my lifetime.

    ***

    “But out of the whirlwind came a silent bird from the stars, a symbol of our ability to work with nature, to use our intelligence and within the limitations of our world, to do great things.”
    – David Levy on witnessing the 4th landing of the Space Shuttle Columbia’, Page 28, ‘Astronomy’ magazine October 1982.

  9. Yes, the space shuttle was a magnificent vehicle, and was used to accomplish great things. But still, it was not adequately safe — by design, because the government skimped on development funds. The original request was for $12 billion; the Nixon administration granted $5.15 billion. (With overruns, final cost was $6.74 billion.)

    The original concept was like what Virgin Galactic is doing, but on a somewhat larger scale: A winged first stage would carry the orbiter to about 50,000 feet, then release it to climb to orbit. This orbiter would have been smaller, more of a “people-mover” than a cargo hauler. The system would have been fully reusable.

    Mark Wade’s Encyclopedia Astronautica says:

    “The final shortcoming was that the shuttle was designed as if it had the inherent operating safety of an airliner. It was not equipped with any provision for crew rescue in case of booster failure during ascent to orbit, or being stranded in orbit, or structural failure during re-entry. The crew was not even provided with spacesuits, despite the lessons of the Soviet space program. This seemed an extraordinary act of engineering hubris, given that contemporary military aircraft were equipped with pressure suits and ejection seats. But the weight problem also meant that there was no margin for crew safety measures without (to NASA) unacceptable impact to the net payload.”

    There’s a great deal more to the shuttle safety story, of course. I won’t belabor the point here. Just remember it as one more lesson in the high cost of short-sightedness.

  10. I would like to see numbers comparing high performance jets (fighter jets, etc.), the space shuttle, and more mundane and very safe airliners.

  11. I don’t begin to fathom what happened to my link, Tim #13, but it was supposed to be a trailor to Eric Steven Stahl’s Final Approach and the ‘black project’ nature of test pilots:

  12. I had a thought: Perhaps we should all pull back and take a look at the ‘big picture’. That is, *heating causes expansion*. Let us step out and measure the lithospheric/atmospheric organism as a whole. Perhaps it is prudent to proxy up the rotational period of Earth — To be sure, there is some noise such as earthquakes and Earth staggers like a drunkard. But even a drunkard finds his way back to the bar with a ceartain well-defined periodicity.

    But, in the spirit of anthropogenic effect upon the atmosphere +rocketry, I find no better example than Atlas V Sonic Boom Meets Sundog:

  13. @ ^ Tim : Saw that sundog and SDO launch one on the Bad Astronomy blog ages ago – great clip.

    Sure I’ve forgotten more than one – there are so many great Space Shuttle clips out there. Movie trailer clips there have worked but weren’t exactly what I was thinking of. Still cool though.

    As for the first paragraph there, I think that’ discussion is better left for a more appropriate and relevant thread.

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