The end of January is not a good time for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Clustered within a week are three separate events, events that claimed the lives of a total of seventeen astronauts.
It’s history now that President John F. Kennedy exhorted his fellow Americans to band together, businesses and private citizens, and support the race into space by landing a man on the moon by the close of the decade. It’s a horrible and sad irony that a decade later the Apollo missions had come to a stop and were deemed worthy of hardly a mention by the American media.
Part of that rush to get a man into space involved “ground testing”. By simulating, as much as possible, the conditions to be found in orbit, and including situations where a computer may fail or an engine shut off earlier than expected, the astronauts would, theoretically, be able to handle such a situation.
January 27, 1967. Apollo 1 is undergoing a launch simulation. There’s been communication issues between the capsule and ground control, with Gus Grissom blasting: “How are we going to get to the moon if we can’t talk between two or three buildings?”
A practice countdown was paused whilst attempts to solve the issues were taken. At 6.31pm one single word was heard. “Fire”.
As fast upon the scene rescuers were, it was not enough. An inquest later determined a combination of factors contributed to the deaths of Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee. The fire was likely sparked by a faulty wire near Grissom’s couch, and in a near pure oxygen atmosphere combustion was swift and brutal. The hatch door itself was deemed to be a contributor, with the then current design making it impossible to be opened quickly.
It would take over eighteen months before the Apollo missions resumed.
January 28, 1986. The space shuttle program was well into its running, with the launches settling into a comfortable routine. Although not nearly as frequent as NASA had envisaged, the schedule was not behind time and had already been seen as a welcome return to space.
An addition to the astronaut program was the implementation of civilians. A country wide survey and search had revealed that a school teacher would be the first, and it was Christa McAuliffe that was granted the honour. Undertaking the same rigorous program as the military astronauts, McAuliffe’s brief was to provide lessons from the Challenger while in orbit.
Tragically, just 73 seconds after launch, just after the uttering of the fateful words, “Challenger, you are go for throttle up”, a rubber seal fractured in one of the booster rockets. The booster was pushed into the still attached main fuel tank, with a simultaneous failure of a dome seal inside the external tank, causing an explosion that blew the shuttle apart. It’s not known if the seven aboard died in that explosion, or when their crew compartment impacted the cold waters of the North Atlantic Ocean.Subsequent video and physical inspections, plus a walk back through documentation, revealed that the launch conditions, a freezing winter’s day, and the cold in the days preceding, had shrunken the seal enough to allow it to fail. It was noted that within a second after launch that smoke was visible from the right hand side solid fuel rocket booster. A violent wind shear 36 seconds into the launch had dislodged a plug of solid fuel that sealed the leak almost instantly after launch.The last words received from Challenger were from pilot Mike Smith. At the 73 second mark they were: “Uh oh.”
February 1, 2003. NASA’s original “great white bird”, the Columbia, the first shuttle into space in 1981, is on approach to Florida from the west coast on the United States. On its 28th flight, with its mission parameters of a multi-disciplinary microgravity and Earth science research successfully completed, all looked fine for the original shuttle to land safely at Kennedy Space Centre.At 8.44am Columbia was deemed to have entered the atmosphere. Known as the EI, or Entry Interface, it’s a point determined to be 120 kilometres above the earth’s surface. On an eastbound trajectory towards the American east coast, communications were lost at 9.00am Eastern Standard Time, just 16 minutes before her scheduled landing time.Media started receiving calls shortly after with people advising they had seen a large object breaking into smaller pieces over the south and central western states. Unbeknownst to the astronauts, a large piece of insulation foam had broken loose from the main external fuel tank and impacted the heat shield tiles on the left wing’s leading edge.
The velocity and searing temperatures of re-entry worked together to enter the Columbia’s left wing, and tore the structure of the shuttle apart. Subsequent investigations showed that the astronauts had desperately tried to right a tumbling and disintegrating craft, with even the auto-pilot service showing as having been reset.
Tragically, most of those on board were not strapped into their seats, not that the end result would have been different. However by not doing so, fatal and traumatic bodily injuries were inflicted.Recommendations included using the Canadarm, the remote operated flexible arm located in the shuttle’s cargo bay, to conduct a visual inspection of the exterior in future missions
It was the beginning of the end for the shuttle program, with NASA retiring the remaining three shuttles; Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour, in 2011. They are now part of museums in the U.S.
NASA holds memorial services every year for the lost crews.