On January 28, 1986, 25 years ago today, at 5:39 p.m. Spanish time, 73 seconds after taking off on NASA’s STS-51-L mission and at a height of 14.6 kilometers, the space shuttle Challenger disintegrated in mid-air and its seven crew members died, giving rise to one of the most representative images of the last century.
The ultimate cause of its disintegration was the partial separation of the right solid propellant propellant, produced by an ignition gas leak that burned its lower support, weakening it until it broke, leaving the propellant half loose.
This caused the Challenger to suddenly start to fly sideways, exposing it to forces of approximately 20g, far greater than the 5g it was designed for, causing its destruction.
But as the investigation after the destruction of the Challenger brought to light, as early as 1977 it was known that the O-rings that seal the union between the different sections that make up the thrusters were very sensitive to temperature, becoming rigid and brittle with the cold, and Challenger’s launch on February 28 was about 12 degrees cooler than any previous launch.
It was also known that if one of these joints failed, there was no backup mechanism that could contain the gas leak.
But despite this, those responsible for NASA’s Marshall Center, where the propulsion systems for the shuttles were developed, decided that this was an acceptable risk without discussing it with anyone other than the manufacturer of the propellants, something that In fact, it was against the agency’s rules, which required that this type of decision be consulted with someone outside the process.
This way, none of the shuttle program managers who might have stopped it until these problems were fixed were aware that it existed, and none of the engineers who on launch day showed concern about the issue. low temperature and its possible effects on the joints in question was able to get his message to the right people.
In fact, in addition to ordering the immediate redesign of the solid-fuel boosters, the report of the commission in charge of studying the Challenger disaster harshly criticized NASA’s shortcomings in terms of safety management and estimation of risks. In the words of Richard Feynman, one of its members, “to have a successful technology, reality must prevail over public relations, since nature cannot be fooled.”
The keys to the tragedy
However, the most chilling part of the Challenger disaster is that although we generally associate the infamous image with an explosion, in reality there was no such explosion , but what you see is the cloud of smoke and water vapor caused by the deflagration of the liquid hydrogen that was carrying the fuel tank.
And as harsh as it sounds, it would have been much better if there had been an explosion, because given the explosive power stored in the fuel tank, it would have instantly killed all seven of Challenger’s crew, including Christa McAuliffe, who was to be the first teacher in space.
“Everything seems to indicate that all seven survived the initial disintegration of the ship“
Instead, and although we will never know for sure, everything seems to indicate that the seven almost certainly survived the disintegration of their ship, since the cabin, one of the most resistant components of the ship, was completely detached , and when his remains were located, it was found that several of the on-board equipment were in a configuration other than the takeoff configuration, indicating that at least some of the crew members were still alive and conscious after everything went to waste. garete.
The doubt is rather whether they were aware or not when 2 minutes and 45 seconds after the destruction of the ship and after having reached a maximum height of 19.8 kilometers, the cabin collided with the surface of the Atlantic at a speed approximately 333 kilometers per hour, which caused a deceleration of well over 200g, deadly of necessity.
Fortunately, it is very likely, however, that at the moment of the final impact they were already unconscious from lack of oxygen, since the cabin had lost its airtightness.
In any case, they had no escape mechanism, so they were doomed from the moment their ship disintegrated.
The loss of Challenger, in addition to a 32-month hiatus in space shuttle missions while what had happened and what needed to be done was analyzed, led to a series of changes in regulations and in the organization of the agency that sought to correct these shortcomings.
But it does not seem that they had the desired effect, because when the Columbia was lost on February 1, 2003, again with its entire crew on board, the engineers who suspected that there could be some serious problem with the ship could not I paid attention to them, although that’s another story.