Jan. 28, 1986
January 28, 2006 7:52 AM   Subscribe

This post was deleted for the following reason: Poster's Request -- Brandon Blatcher

posted by caddis at 8:15 AM on January 28, 2006

Since this is going to be one of 'those' threads, to educate the utterly clueless, a '.' means "words fail me" as caddis demonstrates admirably. Thus, posting a comment followed by a '.' is meaningless.

posted by mischief at 8:18 AM on January 28, 2006

posted by null terminated at 8:19 AM on January 28, 2006

posted by lemonfridge at 8:20 AM on January 28, 2006

I'll never forget watching it as it happened. We had cable in 1986, an oddity. I was 11 years old, and home sick from school. I thought the shuttles were the greatest thing ever, that we were going to get the future the way the Jetsons told us we would.

Then, boom. Well, not really boom, there wasn't an explosion as such. But it looked like it.

When my father got home from work, he literally said nothing about it. It was as if the fact couldn't fit into his head.

The next week was the first time I purchased Time magazine. I still have that issue.
posted by andreaazure at 8:26 AM on January 28, 2006

Great post. Until I read some of those links I never realized that, despite the famous photograph and common mythology, the shuttle itself never actually exploded. It was shattered by aerodynamic forces, rather than being blown into pieces.
posted by Mercaptan at 8:26 AM on January 28, 2006

The dot represents a moment of silence, not "words fail me." So it's okay to make a comment and then indicate your moment of silence.

posted by Gator at 8:30 AM on January 28, 2006


I was nine -- I heard about the disaster secondhand. I was in the backseat of a car on the way to a Cub Scouts meeting. I remember the setting with perfect clarity.
posted by killdevil at 8:31 AM on January 28, 2006

Words don't fail me. NASA's political agenda to build a "space truck" eclipsed safety concerns. The Space Shuttle is widely acknowledged, by those who flew them, to be an unsafe design compromise stemming from budget constraints, political influence, and mission creep.

Sure, we will build a plaque to the Challenger astronauts, and we'll weep real tears, but what the American people manifestly refuse to do is to spend the money to do the job the right way and safely. Instead, we rely on the heroism of the astronauts and their willingness to accept a certain number off deaths because they believe in the ultimate goal, getting man into space.

That's the cynical truth behind the pretty poetry and public tears: the Shuttle astronauts are sacrificial lambs.
posted by orthogonality at 8:32 AM on January 28, 2006

I was working nights at that time. I get up and stir around and turn on the TV. Literally the first thing I see is a replay of the explosion. Just kinda sat there a while, stunned, watching replay after replay.
posted by wrapper at 8:36 AM on January 28, 2006

19 years and one day earlier: the Apollo 1 tragedy.

. . .

. . . . . . .
posted by hangashore at 8:36 AM on January 28, 2006

True orthogoality, but space travel itself is always going to be highly risky even using the best technology available. There are a million possible reasons for failure with any mission from getting hit by untracked space junk/meteorites to any simple miscalculation. The shuttle program has had a better track record than the Apollo program.
posted by JJ86 at 8:37 AM on January 28, 2006

Actually orthogonality, the next-gen design NASA has been showcasing seems to take a lot of the lessons of the shuttle program to heart. By 2015 at the latest I'd expect we'll have something as reliable as Soyuz (though a lot more capable in terms of payload).

To wit: a return to a robust Apollo-era launch vehicle configuration, in which capsule and service module are mounted atop a modified shuttle launch stack. No more side-slung crew vehicles.

For those who haven't seen it: click.
posted by killdevil at 8:38 AM on January 28, 2006

ortho: well what you are implying by using "sacrificial lamb" is that they were used on the altar of "progress" or "science" and that they paid the ultimate price of our advancement.

It could be that were exposed to risks that were predictable AND predicted , that profit from contracts sometimes took priority over their safety and that avoidable risks were not avoided because some politician needed some success for the next election. All of that is despicable.

Yet I bet they were well aware they were taking extra risks up to the risk of not being able to return to earth or explode in pieces.. and that past success didn't imply future reduction of risk. For what it was worth astronauts are to be thanked, also for helping us dream a better world.

In order NOT to make lambs of them , we should pay a lot more attention on what prices are to be paid by somebody EVEN if we're not going to pay it directly..that's becoming less irrationally selfish...that's sometimes a lot harder then space voyage.
posted by elpapacito at 8:41 AM on January 28, 2006

I was 7 and we had just moved back to the states from Australia days before. I hadn't started my new school yet, so I was watching it in the guest house where we were staying until we got to move into our new quarters. I ran into the kitchen to tell my Mom the shuttle blew up, and she smiled and told me that was just all the steam from taking off. I insisted, and she followed me back into the living room, where she promptly started to cry.

posted by Meredith at 8:42 AM on January 28, 2006

posted by trip and a half at 8:42 AM on January 28, 2006

Having watched it live, I was amazed at how different that experience was from the footage shown later on the news.

The news showed the explosion, and then the rescue/recovery boats cruising around the area of impact.

They left out what seemed like at least an hour during which the boats kept their distance and did nothing as fragments trickled down from the sky, and for quite some time after they stopped falling.

I suppose there was nothing to do really, but that long period of unheroic helplessness just seemed so weak and pathetic.
posted by StickyCarpet at 8:44 AM on January 28, 2006

posted by puke & cry at 8:44 AM on January 28, 2006 [1 favorite]

I watched it live from a rooftop in West Palm Beach FL. We didn't have a radio or TV with us, so we just watched it with the naked eye without commentary. At first, we thought it was only the booster rocket being ejected, but within 30 seconds, you could tell something was very wrong. I'll never forget how the streams of smoke hung in the air for what seemed to be an inordinate amount of time.
posted by lobstah at 8:54 AM on January 28, 2006

I thought the real problem with the Shuttle was that it was expensive and unsafe, yet LESS capable of doing stuff in outer space than the previous/Russian capsule model. I realize that there's a certain risk level with space travel, but you really ought to be doing something valuable if you're going up there.

I was in elementary school and heard about it almost immediately after it happened. I think some students were watching it live as part of a project, and of course there was all the hype about first schoolteacher in space.

Sad stuff.
posted by selfnoise at 8:58 AM on January 28, 2006


I was in school (age 15) and another teacher came into our classroom with tears in her eyes to tell us. This was in Canada and they hadn't even told us that the shuttle was taking off that day, so it came as a complete surprise.
posted by Kickstart70 at 8:58 AM on January 28, 2006

He has inspired many with his words and actions and this collection of some of his most memorable speeches is a tribute to his presidency and to the man himself.

Peggy Noonan wrote that speech, ripping off a pilot poet, dead at 19.
posted by The Jesse Helms at 9:00 AM on January 28, 2006


For those who were touched by the speech: The most recent edition of William Safire's Lend Me Your Ears includes this short speech prepared for President Nixon in case Apollo XI had ended in tragedy.
Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace. These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.

These two men are laying down their lives in mankind's most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding. They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by their nation; they will be mourned by the people of the world; they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown.

In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man.

In ancient days, men looked at stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.

Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man's search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts.

For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.
posted by cribcage at 9:09 AM on January 28, 2006 [1 favorite]

I watched it live. Dan Rather didn't have a clue what was going on when it came apart. By the time he started saying things like "I think there may be something wrong" I, very much to my own surprise as I'm not very sentimental, already had tears running down my face.
posted by George_Spiggott at 9:18 AM on January 28, 2006

Wow, cribcage, I think I'd heard of that but don't recall reading it. Didn't PKD or someone say that Nixon was like a character in an SF novel?

killdevil, that launch stack looks a lot like the WVB Saturn, sans wings. Link goes to stills from the previously-linked garage film Man Conquers Space.
posted by mwhybark at 9:29 AM on January 28, 2006


Made for some great pictures though.
posted by HTuttle at 9:34 AM on January 28, 2006

From that Wikipedia article about Apollo I:

The company that produced the command module, North American Aviation, had originally suggested that the hatch open outward and be able to open with explosive bolts in case of emergency. They had also suggested that the atmosphere be an oxygen/nitrogen mixture, like on the earth's surface. NASA didn't agree, arguing that the hatch could be accidentally opened (this is what caused Liberty Bell 7 — ironically, piloted by Grissom — to sink into the ocean during splashdown recovery operations; Grissom himself argued that the hatch should be stronger, more secure, and harder to open), and that if too much nitrogen were released into the atmosphere, the astronauts would pass out and then die.

The one part of The Right Stuff that I cannot watch is the Liberty Bell sequence and its aftermath. I knew that he was lost in Apollo a few years later, but to find out that he argued against a design that could have saved his life is just horrible.
posted by maudlin at 9:42 AM on January 28, 2006

Apparantly a lot of the people that *thought* they saw it live, did *not* see it live.

"Myth #1: A nation watched as tragedy unfolded
Few people actually saw what happened live on television. The flight occurred during the early years of cable news, and although CNN was indeed carrying the launch when the shuttle was destroyed, all major broadcast stations had cut away — only to quickly return with taped relays. With Christa McAuliffe set to be the first teacher in space, NASA had arranged a satellite broadcast of the full mission into television sets in many schools, but the general public did not have access to this unless they were one of the then-few people with satellite dishes. What most people recall as a "live broadcast" was actually the taped replay broadcast soon after the event."

From the MSN "7 myths about the accident" - link here.
The elementary school I was going to here in the Bay Area did have the new cable feed, and the Mt. Diablo Unified School District was feeding the schools with cable from the nice new satellite array down the street. But being a 5th grader watching it, I don't think that the significance of it hit anyone until they started running the endless replays of the incident.
posted by drstein at 9:50 AM on January 28, 2006

mwhybark, the new launch system (unmanned cargo launcher plus the crew lifter) will be more or less functionally equivalent to a Saturn V.

Space exploration may actually become exciting again, given the dramatically enhanced launch capabilities we'll have. No more glorified space trucks hauling John Glenn 200 miles up for "experiments in zero-g geriatric physiology."

More links: high-res pics are here. Superb launch animation is here (25mb Quicktime).
posted by killdevil at 9:50 AM on January 28, 2006

Funny about memory...

Most folks say they remember watching live, but as Oberg points out here, the networks didn't carry the launch live.
posted by Marky at 9:51 AM on January 28, 2006

I watched it live. Dan Rather didn't have a clue what was going on when it came apart.

Supposedly, the only people who saw it live were those watching cnn. Every other channel had gone to commercial and came back with a slightly delayed broadcast.

(the . means whatever you want it to mean. There is no rule when it comes to the made up. For me, it will always represent a period. Period.)
posted by justgary at 9:54 AM on January 28, 2006

O.k. What marky said.
posted by justgary at 9:54 AM on January 28, 2006

That's really strange. I'm wondering if that can be right, because there was exceedingly clueless commentary by Rather for a long time after the event, before someone finally explained to him off-mike what had happened.

all major broadcast stations had cut away — only to quickly return with taped relays

He doesn't make it clear how long these delays were, or whether they were the same for all networks. Now I'm curious -- I wonder how good the networks' records of exactly what went out over the air are after 20 years.
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:01 AM on January 28, 2006

Having watched it live, I was amazed at how different that experience was from the footage shown later on the news

Yup. After the initial explosion and after they scuttled the SRBs, there was... nothing. Crap falling down out of the sky in a way that was so boring that it had to be real.

The worst part was one piece of debris that for some reason had a parachute attached.

The other big difference I remember was in style of reporting. The CNN people did their usual chatter during the early launch... and then didn't say a word for about half an hour, since the event could clearly speak for itself.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:07 AM on January 28, 2006

So if a period (.) is a moment of silence, is a hyphen (-) a moment of elongated silence? Can an asterisk (*) be considered a six-dimensional moment of silence? How about a hash (#) being a moment of silence while you quietly play tic-tac-toe? Silly people.
posted by nlindstrom at 10:08 AM on January 28, 2006 [1 favorite]

elpapacito writes "Yet I bet they were well aware they were taking extra risks"

Sorry, I thought I made that clear, when I wrote (emphasis added) "[t]he Space Shuttle is widely acknowledged, by those who flew them, to be an unsafe design ".

Yes, I think that the pilots (and probably most of the crew) knew well the risks they took, and they took those risks willingly. But that doesn't absolve the bureaucrats and politicians who looked the other way.

Too often (Space program, Iraq war, coal mining) we rely on brave people who -- for whatever reasons -- volunteer to do dangerous things, and then absolve ourselves of complicity by saying "well, they knew about the risk when they joined up."

But whether or not the women at Triangle Shirtwaist were aware of the risk, that shouldn't stop us from taking reasonable and prudent steps to minimize that risk.
posted by orthogonality at 10:15 AM on January 28, 2006

Most folks say they remember watching live, but as Oberg points out here, the networks didn't carry the launch live.

Some stations, including CTV, did. I was at home, studying for my grade 12 Chemistry final, with the TV on when I watched it happen. The camera cut to the crowd on the ground and back several times; the people on the ground were obviously confused; I could tell that they were asking each other "was that normal?" before it became obvious that there was a major problem.

In any case, I watched it live right before writing (and aceing) a big test. The whole day was more than a little surreal.
posted by solid-one-love at 10:16 AM on January 28, 2006

(Wow. This ended up long. Sorry.)

NASA's political agenda to build a "space truck" eclipsed safety concerns.

Nope. It was money.

NASA needed to replace Apollo, which was too expensive for the long term. It was built to get some 33 tons into lunar orbit, and six tons back on the ground -- and it started with over 3,300 tons on the pad.

So, they worked out a decent system for manned exploration and some cargo work. They ended up needing about 10 billion to make it work.

Congress said "Dream on. 5 billion, at the most."

NASA said "Well, we're out of the manned launch business then. We know we can't do it for less than 10 billion. We're still learning this, we saw the cost creep in every other manned booster. About the only thing we can do for that money is a better Gemini, and we'd be better off just building more of them."

Defense steps in. "We'll split the costs with you, but we'll need a few things. We want a cargo bay this long, and this wide. We want this much mass in this orbit. Nothing, really -- Oh, yeah -- we want to be able to launch into a polar orbit, then land back at the launch site once around."

NASA said "You're high."

DoD said "Too bad, no shuttle. Suck it, space haters."

NASA said "Fine, we'll try." With that, Defense throws its influence behind the new booster, and Congress votes the money -- but the money is really for the booster NASA had sketched out, not this new, larger booster. Not even DoD could get more for that. NASA would just have to fake it.

Thus, the Space Shuttle. Performance wise, it is amazing. At peak thrust, 34.8MN of thrust. A Saturn V's peak thrust is 33.4MN. The result puts nearly 150 tons into low earth orbit, compared to the 140 tons that the Saturn V did. Very impressive -- and half the size of the Saturn V, massing 2250 tons on the pad.

The problem with the Shuttle is that it brings 125 tons back, compared to the six that the Apollo did. Thus, the Shuttle is mass limited when flying to the ISS, but the Saturn V could loft an entire space station in one toss.

Why so much coming back? Those DoD requirements. [1]. They doubled the size of the cargo bay. This needed much more structure. Worse, the Land-Back requirement. This meant the orbital maneuvering engines needed to be huge. That meant larger, heavier engines, and even more structure, and more fuel for them, which is, of course, more structure for the tanks, and more mass in fuel. Structure is mass. Mass requires thrust to reach orbit.

All of that meant that the shuttle couldn't launch as originally built -- it was designed to fly on 5MN thrust, but this beast would need some 30MN. Oops.

So, what do you do? You need less mass, more thrust. Less mass=aluminum frame. But that makes thermal protection much harder. Ablative coatings, besides making reusable impossible, mass too much. Thus, something trick -- the thermal tiles. You can say that the shuttle should have been titanium. Alas, we weren't good with titanium then, and aren't that good now. (The Soviets were the masters.) And we'd still need tiles or carbon-carbon for certain parts of the structure.

More thrust is harder. Several things are kicked around, but really, in the end, the answer is solid fuel boosters. There was a workable design using non-reusable liquid fueled boosters, with four simplified versions of the SSMEs producing 8MN per booster, but DOD didn't accept the mass limit. Solids are problematic -- you start them, and then you ride them until they're finished, and attempts to make them in one piece don't pan out. NASA is tempted to cancel at this point, but Congress (looking at all that money being spent in various districts) says no. So, we end up with the SRBs -- the single most wicked boosters in the world, at 16MN per, and actually pretty cheap, but god help you if something goes wrong.

(Aside: The ultimate NASA nightmare was this: T-0, and only one SRB lights. What happens: The shuttle dies, the crew dies, and there's a good chance that more people die. There are five independent igniters in the SRBs, to make sure that at T-0, both of those beasts light at the same time.)

Worse now happens. More budget cuts. Now that NASA is about two billion into the design, they're told that all the careful development work they want won't be paid for. They'll just have to hope it works. Oh, and there will be hell to pay if the thing doesn't fly by 1977. (There was.)

It does work, eventually -- but the turn around time is horrible, which means the development costs never get paid off, and the space truck just isn't economical -- just as the designers predicted, when they could finally speak out about the requirements.

However, since Congress decided, as a cost saving measure, to cancel every other booster project, this is what we fly. Things are sort of OK for NASA, but the pressure to launch is tremendous. They have to get the rate up -- not only for economics, but the payload backlog is horrible. Then STS-51L happens. [2]

Other issues:

1) Why no ejector seats? First, too heavy. Second, while ejecting the pilot and commander from the top deck is easy, ejecting the four on the mid deck isn't. Worse, they only work for a small part of the flight. The crew of Columbia wouldn't have been saved, and the damage to Challenger when the SRB strut failed, combined with the tumble, probably would have made ejection lethal -- you either die in the fireball or hit something on the way out.

They looked at Cabin Ejection. Too much weight, and the two planes that used cabin ejection in production, the F-111 and B-1B, had later models changed to conventional ejector seats, because they didn't work.

2) Why no on orbit repair of the tiles? They tested this. They found that just about everything either didn't work, or made the problem worse.

3) What happened to the development costs? The biggest problem -- they happened in the 1970s. Inflation basically doubled the costs of the Shuttle. Add in the energy crisis and stagflation, and you get budget cuts (less money to spend) compounded on inflation (so that money doesn't buy as much.)

4) Finally, there's the unforgivable problem. Any accident that kills an astronaut is unacceptable. Thus, the shuttle has to do things to a level of detail that most launchers don't, because if certain things happen, everybody dies. After the accidents, the costs went up, because now NASA had to do even more things to make sure people didn't die.

It may be that reusable manned spacecraft just aren't workable, either in the 1970s or today. But the problem with the Shuttle isn't that it is reusable, it's that it has to be a reusable heavy lift craft with enormous cross range and orbital maneuver capability. Cut the cargo bay size in half, and drop the once around requirement, and building a economic shuttle becomes a much more rational exercise.

You can argue that NASA should have killed the program. NASA would agree. However, NASA didn't get to make that decision. Back in the Apollo days, they were give gobsmacks of money, an order to land on the moon, and told that if they really needed more, they could ask. Otherwise, Congress stayed out of the way.

After Apollo 11 (and doubly so after Apollo 13) this change. Apollos 15 and 19 were cancelled (15 was the last "H", or light lander mission, it became the first "J", or heavy lander with lunar rover mission, and 18/19 were scrubbed.) And, when NASA was told that the Saturn V was too expensive, they needed a new booster, they weren't given money and told to go figure it out. They were told that the booster would do this, with that, and fly from here and there, and so on.

It's hard enough for engineers to get this right. Add in politicians and military requirements, and it's not how well the Shuttle launches, it is that it launches at all.

I've always wanted to see the Shuttle C -- replacing the Shuttle proper with a tube with four uprated, disposable SSMEs (or, nowadays, two RD-180s). With a total boost near 40MN, you could put 170 tons into low earth orbit easy.

Congress said no. Repeatedly.

Sic Transit Gloria NASA.

[1] What those requirements really were. 'We want to be able to fly up, put up or retrieve a spy sat, and bring it back quickly." Thus, SLC-6 at Vandenburg, which was built for the Manned Orbital Labratory (which never launched) and was rebuilt for the shuttle (which never launched from there) and has now been rebuilt for the Delta IV Heavy (which has never launched from there, but acutally might, maybe, someday.) Amusingly, *all* of these costs are often counted as shuttle costs.

[2] Problem: Now, no big boosters at all. The Delta line never really died, launching stuff too small for the Shuttle, but the Keyhole Sats and other black projects that mandated that huge cargo bay aren't going up on that. Boeing and the Air Force rush the Titan back into production, with two massive solid booster (hmm, where did they get that idea) to get the 25 ton-to-orbit they need. The Titans mostly work, but are expensive, dangerous, and occasionally blow up. But that's it for years, until the EELV program gets going [3].

[3] By the time that happens, the commercial satellite market has collapsed. The Atlas V Heavy variant hasn't been launched at all. The Delta IV Heavy variant was launched once, with a dummy satellite, because DoD wanted to make sure at least one of them worked. Good idea -- a bad fuel sensor cut off the engines early, and the dummy sat didn't make the intended orbit. The reason for keeping both the Atlas and Delta programs alive is to make sure at least one works -- but now, there's nobody wanting to launch anything in that class. Both booster are doing well in their medium configuartions, but the launch rates are such that they're not very economical. Where have we heard that before?
posted by eriko at 10:18 AM on January 28, 2006 [149 favorites]

the networks didn't carry the launch live.

Yeah but satellite did. I actually taped the whole thing at a friends remote farmhouse in upstate New York, I've got it around here somewhere.
posted by StickyCarpet at 10:20 AM on January 28, 2006

CNN's 1986 video almanac includes their footage of the Challenger disaster in Quicktime format: 320x240 MOV file.
posted by brownpau at 10:27 AM on January 28, 2006

We watched the live cable feed at school. I was in sixth grade, our fifth grade teacher had been a finalist for the Teacher In Space program.

Some of the kids in my class were so upset they threw up or wet their pants. The school counselor had to bring in an expert to help her guide us through the event.

We were all just so emotionally involved in the launch, having come so close to having our own beloved teacher on that flight.

Twenty years later, I can't think of it without crying. It took years before I could appreciate the jokes about the event, and I'm a dyed-in-the-wool gallows humorist.

posted by padraigin at 10:29 AM on January 28, 2006

posted by Rothko at 10:29 AM on January 28, 2006

Great post, eriko.
posted by kjh at 10:34 AM on January 28, 2006

I walked into the obstetrician's office, around six months pregnant and noted how quiet everyone was. They were all watching the tv in the corner-the sound was turned down. I wasn't paying much attention until I noticed the astronaut's pics up...I asked the lady beside me what happened and she told me.

My husband worked third shift at the time and had been a research subject for NASA-(weightless research) the possibility existed that he knew some of these people. But our phone was turned off so he could sleep so I couldn't call him to tell him.

I came home and woke him up. He got angry that I would make such a bad joke...until I finally persuaded him to turn on the TV.

That daughter is nineteen now. I look at her and cannot believe it was so long ago.
posted by konolia at 10:35 AM on January 28, 2006

Myth #1: A nation watched as tragedy unfolded

For a lot of us who lived in Florida, it's a shared experience.

My elementary school, like so many other area schools, took the class outside to watch the launch. I was eight. One of the things about shuttle launches - the plumes tend to linger. It was awful being ushered back inside in silence with the evidence of the disaster still etched in the sky above us.

When Discovery launched after the Columbia disaster, my entire office building went out to the parking lot. Even in Orlando, we can see the launches fairly well and it's tradition among many folks to pop outside and watch.

You could tell who were the long-time natives - we were all nervously eyeing each other, as the whole thing had the spectre of Challenger about it. I'll admit to being teary-eyed when Discovery launched safely.
posted by Sangre Azul at 10:40 AM on January 28, 2006

I was 11, sick that day and home from school watching TV in my bedroom. I distinctly remember the cut away to the special news bulletin reporting what had happened. I called downstairs to my mother, saying that the shuttle had exploded. She didn't believe me.
posted by emelenjr at 10:46 AM on January 28, 2006

I was in first period chemistry class my senior year. A classmate who worked in the office walked in, told the teacher
and then repeated it to us, smiling in disbelief.

I didn't see any images on tv until my last period speech class
and it made me angry that the anchors were blandly replaying the clip of the explosion. Walter Cronkite weeping in front of the camera the day JFK was shot had so much more meaning.
posted by brujita at 10:54 AM on January 28, 2006

I know self-links aren't generally permissible, but at the risk of breahing netiquette by reposting my entry here, sans links/attribution, I'm linking it -- Challenger, In Memoriam.

I was 12 years old, sitting in an 8th grade social studies class in San Antonio, Texas, when our teacher was called into the classroom doorway and informed of the Challenger disaster. I heard the teachers discuss it moments before a solemn-voice came over the school's PA informing the entire student body and faculty of the loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger. "There are no known survivors."

I attended U.S. Space Camp in Huntsville, AL, the year after the Challenger's loss. I spent most of high school wanting to become an astronaut, but realized my complete and utter lack of skill in mathematics would curtail that. I've never lost my interest in and support for manned spaceflight, even as I cannot watch the taped coverage of that fateful morning, twenty years ago (which I had had my parents tape for me, and which I watched the moment I arrived home from school -- hoping, vainly, that everything I'd been told at school had been some cruel hoax/joke.)

posted by geekgal at 10:56 AM on January 28, 2006

I'll never forget watching it as it happened. We had cable in 1986, an oddity. I was 11 9 years old, and home sick from school.
posted by joe lisboa at 11:21 AM on January 28, 2006

geekgal: Self-links are fine as (relevant) comments, and I appreciated yours. Thanks.
posted by cribcage at 11:23 AM on January 28, 2006

posted by teferi at 11:33 AM on January 28, 2006

There were of course previous threads. My comments need not be repeated.

Every other channel had gone to commercial

Well, no. By 51-L it was already typical to have no live coverage. I do believe George that he watched Dan Rather, although it's highly plausible that he's collating memories himself; I don't know what networks sent out feeds that local affiliates did or did not cut over to. But Oberg is correct that most viewers probably didn't even have the opportunity to see it live.

I know that four hours later, when I finally got to a television myself, they were constantly re-running the "explosion" footage, and the anchors were still ashen and often confused. It's a little bit like my memory of September 11 -- I'm certain that I saw the second plane live, but my friend who I was on the phone with for about 2 hours that morning insists she didn't call me until afterward. There again, they kept re-running the footage, and it was in-studio with the live reaction, so unless you were sure sure -- e.g. by being a habitual morning-program viewer -- you really can't be sure.

In my case, I was resigned about the trip I had to make that day (I heard on the radio, moments afterward) because I would watch live if I could, and it was annoying that without cable I would rarely be able to. Very often I would have to sit through a soap with the sound turned off while listening to CBS News Radio for updates, until just before ignition, for coverage lasting usually less than five minutes.
posted by dhartung at 11:49 AM on January 28, 2006 [1 favorite]

posted by shmegegge at 11:50 AM on January 28, 2006

I was in my dorm room, roomate came in and said "The shuttle blew up." Went out to the common room, watched the footage on whateverchannel -- wasn't cable, but they were all pretty much the same.

Failed a calc exam later that day.
posted by eriko at 12:00 PM on January 28, 2006

I worked really odd shifts at the time, so I wasn't even out of bed when it actually happened. I learned about it from a reporter on the radio while taking a shower. Having effectively grown up with the space program and watched all the television coverage of the space shots from the late 60's on, it was completely surreal to hear, while washing my hair, that the space shuttle had exploded on lift off.

I'm just a little too young to have direct memories of the JFK assassination, but I think the Challenger disaster is exceeded only by that and 9/11 as thunder-bolt events for my rough age cohort.
posted by hwestiii at 12:00 PM on January 28, 2006

I remember this clearly, as a TV was wheeled into the classroom to watch it. I wasn't the only kid to smile silently while watching. I could blame Jr. High School, my pyromania, whatever. All I know is that exposion was one of the more gruesomely beautiful things I've ever seen.

It took a while for the human element to sink in. By the time it did, the most I could do was ignore/not repeat the plethora of jokes which flooded the rest of the school year.

That might have been because before it ignited, the science teacher was explaining how heavy the payload was on the vehicle, with percentages, and, well, the crew was a tiny %.

Reagan's response was masterful, and touching. Made him almost human.

I can't believe it's been two decades.
posted by Busithoth at 12:02 PM on January 28, 2006

I was 24, working at a failing typing service in downtown Austin, when Doug Yount walked in to where Karl and I were talking shop to announce, "Fellas, you'd hear about this later anyway, but the Challenger space shuttle exploded and everybody died."

BTW, my dad worked at Reaction Motors many years before it became Morton Thiokol.
posted by alumshubby at 12:27 PM on January 28, 2006

I knew her. Sounds weird to say but she wasn't my favorite teacher. I was one of the high school kids who was disgusted by the whole thing because we were sending a teacher into space at the same time Reagan was gutting the NEA budget. But I can't even begin to tell you the shock I felt when it blew up.

We were all in the cafeteria with a big tv hooked up so we could watch it. Despite what I felt about Reagan's slight of had, I was glad other kids were finally interested in the space program. When it went, there was a moment of silence, then a collective wail.

I can say that the next few days at Concord High confirmed the already piss-poor opinion I had about the media. We had to go out to the buses under supervision because all the reporters were trying to get to us. What a fucked up time.
posted by lumpenprole at 12:53 PM on January 28, 2006 [12 favorites]

(Oh, and thanks eriko for that totally kick-ass post on why the space shuttle is the way it is.)
posted by lumpenprole at 1:02 PM on January 28, 2006

I was a year old at the time, but seeing the film footage in the proceeding years has always made me feel a bit sick. It's like watching a dream being blown to smithereens. Well, I guess that's exactly what it was in most respects.

Peggy Noonan wrote that speech, ripping off a pilot poet, dead at 19.

High Flight

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds - and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of - wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up the long delirious, burning blue,
I've topped the windswept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew -
And, while with silent lifting mind I've trod
The high untresspassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.

- Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee, Jr. RCAF

posted by zarah at 1:20 PM on January 28, 2006 [3 favorites]

High Flight used to be the signoff to one of the TV channels, when I was a kid. Someone read it to musical accompaniment with appropriate video footage in the background. Most people-of my generation, anyway-recognize it.

It has the power to make me cry. Every time.
posted by konolia at 1:57 PM on January 28, 2006

I'll never forget this day.

posted by the_barbarian at 3:12 PM on January 28, 2006 [1 favorite]

I was at work in a warehouse. My office was in the middle of the building, so I couldn't even get radio reception. The guys in shipping knew I was a science geek, and we'd been talking about the shuttle launch the day before. I'd said that I should have taken the day off so I could drive up and see the launch in person.

I walked out into shipping to check something and the guys were all standing there looking at the radio. I asked what was up, and they told me the Challenger had exploded. I didn't believe them until I heard it for myself. I thought they were just screwing with me because it was my birthday.

Hell of a thing, spending every birthday remembering that tragedy.
posted by mkhall at 3:52 PM on January 28, 2006

Like lumpenprole (what up, brutha?), I was a Concord High junior at the time. I was in a typing classroom, pretty much by myself, watching on one of the many tv's that had been placed all over the school. I think it initially had CNN on, but I do recall switching over to the direct NASA feed after the accident, because it was dead silent except when the official NASA voice would come on to give updates. I spent quite some time watching bits and pieces fall, and at one point I think there were things with parachutes that gave people a glimmer of hope. Not sure what those turned out to be.

I wandered down the hall, seeing teacher after teacher in tears, then went to a friend's house to watch the news for the rest of the day.

The most amazing, touching part of the whole thing was the sheer volume of cards, letters, banners and flowers sent to the school from all over the world. They had to use one entire room of the library to store it all. And then later, Japan sent some people over to present a check for a scholarship or something.

The chorus sang "Life In A Northern Town" at the memorial assembly.
posted by schoolgirl report at 4:11 PM on January 28, 2006

Amazing post, eriko.
posted by duende at 4:19 PM on January 28, 2006

I am no great fan of Reagan, but his Cheelnger eulogy was one of the finest speeches I've ever heard.
posted by moonbird at 4:59 PM on January 28, 2006

I was off at my morning classes (8-12), and came back to the room where my roommate had the TV on, and half the wing in the room watching it. She never had the TV on during the day. I walked in the door, and she said "the shuttle blew up". We had the entire wing (15 people) stuffed into our room, watching broadcast coverage on the one channel we could get. The common rooms were packed already, and were getting more crowded as the day went on.

I went off to work (dorm receptionist), and spent most of my shift talking to people wandering by, and occasionally telling people what had happened (generally in the context of "why is the TV lounge so full?") The discussion in lit class that day was not about the text we were reading.

The next day, our SF group realised that we'd better change our snow statue. Somehow, a flattened astronaut in an alien footprint wasn't appropriate anymore. So we 'interrupted this statue for a moment of silence'. Put up a half-masted flag, made sure that the university would leave the light next to our statue on all night, built a snow pedestal and put a list of the astronauts on the pedestal. I've never seen so many people get quiet at a snow statue....
posted by jlkr at 5:38 PM on January 28, 2006

I was in High School, outside at lunch with friends. My electronics teacher called us over. His classroom had a door that opened to the outside that he monitored the lunch area from. He told us that Challenger had exploded.

I don't remember much more detail of that day. Just seeing the replays over and over.

I remember the 'Return to Flight' launch several years later. I was working at a Lechmere electronics store, and dropped everything to stand in front of the big projection TV and watch. I cheered at SRB sep. Half the customers in the store were watching, too.

posted by bitmage at 6:30 PM on January 28, 2006

How thin is the line between triumph and disaster. In Challenger's case, it was about 1/4 inch wide.

Memo from Roger Boisjoly on O-Ring Erosion, July 31, 1985:
Morton Thiokol, Inc
Wasatch Division
Interoffice Memo
SUBJECT: SRM O-Ring Erosion/Potential Failure Criticality

This letter is written to insure that management is fully aware of the seriousness of the current O-ring erosion problem in the SRM joints from an engineering standpoint.

The mistakenly accepted position on the joint problem was to fly without fear of failure and to run a series of design evaluations which would ultimately lead to a solution or at least a significant reduction of the erosion problem. This position is now drastically changed as a result of the SRM 16A nozzle joint erosion which eroded a secondary O-ring with the primary O-ring never sealing.

If the same scenario should occur in a field joint (and it could), then it is a jump ball as to the success or failure of the joint because the secondary O-ring cannot respond to the clevis opening rate and may not be capable of pressurization. The result would be a catastrophe of the highest order - loss of human life.
Roger Boisjoly on the Challenger Disaster, January 28, 1986:
It was approximately five minutes prior to the launch as I was walking past the room used to view launches when Bob Ebeling stepped out to encourage me to enter and watch the launch. At first I refused, but he finally persuaded me to watch the launch. The room was filled, so I seated myself on the floor closest to the screen and leaned against Bob's legs as he was seated in a chair. The boosters ignited, and as the vehicle cleared the tower Bob whispered to me that we had just dodged a bullet.

At approximately T+60 seconds Bob told me that he had just completed a prayer of thanks to the Lord for a successful launch. Just 13 seconds later we both saw the horror of destruction as the vehicle exploded. We all sat in stunned silence for a short time, then I got up and left the room and went directly to my office, where I remained the rest of the day. Two of my seal task-team colleages inquired at my office to see if I was okay, but I was unable to speak to them and hold back my emotions so I just nodded yes to them and they left after a short silent stay.
Or about the thickness of a sheet of paper...
posted by cenoxo at 7:11 PM on January 28, 2006 [1 favorite]

Thanks, all.

Must correct myself -- a Shuttle derived cargo launcher wouldn't used the RP-1 fueled R-170, it would use the LH2 fueled RS-68, currently used on the Delta IV (and the most powerful LH2 powered engine in the world. )

Two of things that were lost by the abandoned development time and monies. First is simple -- more time might have perfected the thermal tiles. If they don't fall off, a big part of the turnaround time goes away.

The other was the engines. The Space Shuttle Main Engines are pretty amazing beasts, with a specific impluse of 453 in vacuum. This is an amazingly high number for a bipropellant engine. (The winner was a tripropellant -- lithium, liquid hydrogen, and liquid fluorine. Theoretically, this could be topped by replacing the lithium with beryllium. This is cited as the Worst Rocket Exhaust Ever. These won't be used, ever, for lots of reasons.)

The problem, though is that the engine burns from surface to orbit. The SSME spends most of that burn time in low pressure or vacumn, so the engine nozzle is optimized for that. At sea level, though, the nozzle is too wide, and there is a marked drop in thrust -- 1.8MN at sea level, but 2.2MN in vacuum.

One of the planned development items was expanding nozzles for the SSME. This would allow them to start narrow, to fight off the backpressure of sea-level atmosphere, and expand as the flight progressed, allowing the engine to produce 2.2MN of thrust at full power from start to finish (the engines are throttled back for aerodynamic reasons during part of the flight.) This would have made a very big difference in the Shuttle's performance, and might have made the liquid fueled boosters workable.

Another was to use RP-1 (basically, very clean kerosene) for the first minute of flight, then hydrogen for the rest. Kerosene makes much sense for the lower atmosphere, where the density of kerosene means much smaller tanks, thus much lower air drag. The Saturn V used RP-1 in the first stage for this reason, with LH2, the stage would have been vastly taller (read, unbuildable.)

The numbers looked amazing -- it almost doubled the payload fraction of the shuttle, while reducing the size of the external tank by 30%. Amazing win, but NASA was never given the money to fund development. The Soviets, in the last days, built an engine that used this trick, the RD-710, there were bugs, but the performance was very promising, and Energomash is trying to find funding to perfect the engine. (The trick, it turned out, was not trying to switch from RP-1 to LH2, it's burning both at launch, and tapering off the kerosene, tuning the engines performance for the ambient pressure, until you run out of RP, then you burn as a pure LH2 fueled rocket, carrying a small extra weight (the RP pumps) and much less tankage space, because of the density of kerosene over liquid hydrogen. Math says that single stage to orbit is possible with such an engine.

As an aside, the Russians became very, very good at engines in the last years of the USSR and the first years after the fall. The RD-170 is the most powerful liquid engine in the world, and the little brother, the RD-180, is so good that it became the primary engine on the US Atlas III and V boosters.
posted by eriko at 7:22 PM on January 28, 2006 [1 favorite]

I concur with previous posters regarding the quality of eriko's posts. Very informative. Are you a rocket scientist? Not poking fun at all -- a serious question. At any rate, intriguing entries even for me (someone who knows a bit more than the average person about the STS, but only in basic terms rather than scientific-how'd-they-do-that terms.) Your posts have helped bridge some of my large mental gaps between the two.
posted by geekgal at 8:05 PM on January 28, 2006

Let's have this thread every year. That would be really great.
posted by jjg at 9:41 PM on January 28, 2006

I came home and woke him up. He got angry that I would make such a bad joke...until I finally persuaded him to turn on the TV.

This happened to me, too. A friend came by my house and pounded on my bedroom door with the news. I angrily refused to believe him and accused him of making it up in order to provoke me, which caused him to burst out in helpless laughter on the other side of the door.
posted by mwhybark at 10:20 PM on January 28, 2006

You don't commemorate birthdays, anniversaries or historically significant dates, eh, jjg?

Happy Un-Birthday!
posted by geekgal at 8:07 AM on January 29, 2006

Thanks for the insights, eriko.

I'm always amazed by how the tremendous sophistication and promise of the shuttle is combined with, and ruined by, the stubborn stupidity of NASA's Congress handlers, who freeze its development plans and mandate ridiculous employment obligations. For the money spent on mitigating the shuttle's operational shortcomings every flight, NASA could have produced several new generations with tremendous improvements in safety and capability, and Thiokol's SRB expertise could be used in the first stage of an unmanned booster exceeding the Saturn's specs.

Instead I see a shuttle program collapsing under its own waste, and NASA abandoning reusability almost entirely. I can only hope for a breakthrough in the next generation, 10 or 20 years from now. A fully reusable, massive, no-turnaround SSTO winged craft is one of the most beautiful things I can imagine.
posted by azazello at 8:36 AM on January 29, 2006

Eriko - more, more!
posted by bshort at 9:21 PM on January 29, 2006



There really isn't more to say about this topic. Well, maybe some things...

Are you a rocket scientist?

No, just a fan, but a geek, so I understand the basic science. I'm no Henry Spencer, hell, I've never even corrected him about spacecraft. (Bikes, yes. Space travel, no -- he's good.)

I do know a number of them, including the guy who drove DS-1 and Deep Impact, a guy working on MER, and a couple of other engineers working on various boosters and payloads.

A fully reusable, massive, no-turnaround SSTO winged craft is one of the most beautiful things I can imagine.

That'll be the only place you'd see that.

See, the core problem with the Shuttle is that it is massive. Mass is everything in earth lauch -- you pay, in fuel, for every gram that files, for every mile of altitiude you gain. That's why staging works -- once you're done with the big fuel and oxidizer tanks, you toss them overboard.

SSTO means you have to haul everything all the way up, and all the way back. Max energy penatly for every gram. "Massive" is the exact wrong answer here, you want the exact opposite, because every gram you carry makes the craft that much harder to loft.

That's why a large cargo carrying SSTO or reuseable craft doesn't really work. Now, a smaller, crew only SSTO starts to enter the realm of feasability, but what we really need is better engines. Getting expanding nozzels, plug nozzels or aerospikes working would help, switching style tripropellant would help as well. Right now, you just can't build an SSTO with current engines, even ones as efficent as the SSME and RL-10.

Stage-and-a-half (where you toss a couple of engines during the fight -- which isn't a new idea, the Mercury-Atlas used this) and SSTO with tossaway boosters (like the SRBs on the Shuttle, but smaller) make it easier.

We're not going to get anything by onboard fuels -- RP-1/LOX and LH2/LOX is about as good as it gets, anything better comes at a horrid cost. Yes, liquid fluorine is a better oxidizer, but what comes out of the rocket ends up being nasty -- an LH2/LF2 rocket exhausts hydrofluoric acid.

The real answer, I suspect, is laser propulsion, which gets around the mass problem by leaving much of the engines and power sources on the ground. You only carry reaction mass. We're a long way from that, though.
posted by eriko at 5:23 AM on January 30, 2006 [2 favorites]

eriko, I can always dream :)

I'm sure there will be propulsion technology breakthroughs in this century which will allow it. Until then... some compromises are better than others.
posted by azazello at 6:08 AM on January 30, 2006

Hey eriko, fantastic post, saw via the highlight sidebar.

Just one nitpick:

The Delta IV Heavy variant was launched once, with a dummy satellite, because DoD wanted to make sure at least one of them worked. Good idea -- a bad fuel sensor cut off the engines early, and the dummy sat didn't make the intended orbit.

It wasn't a bad fuel sensor -- it was cavitation in the fuel lines running past the sensor. They were pulling fuel faster (and more G's of acceleration) with this "heavy" configuration then they ever had before and it caused the fuel sensor to see bubbles, causing it to think that the tank was running dry, thus triggering the engine shutdown. More here.

Otherwise, really, fantastic post.
posted by intermod at 6:26 PM on February 1, 2006

Intermod: Thanks -- and yeah, I can see that happening -- they had similar problems with the first uprated F-1 and J-2 engines.

Thankfully, when you're firing five of them, you can lose one and still make something close to your orbit (you burn longer with the other four engines, using the fuel the now-off fifth engine would have consumed.) Related was pogo -- surging of the engine caused by pressure changes. If pogo match resonance of the booster frame, bad things can happen. The S-II stage on Apollo 13 started a bad pogo, which could have torn the booster apart, but the computer detected the surging engine (the center one) and shut it down, and the booster stack made it's orbit on the remaining 4 engines.

(SpaceX has a policy that there is no safe booster with 2 or 3 engines in a stage. Thus, they offer one, which minimizes the chance of an engine failure, or more four, which means you can lose an engine and still make orbit.)

The Soviets were also fans of the "lots of smaller engines" for many years, but they had trouble making them all run at the same time. NASA generally reduced the number of engines as they became more reliable, thus, the 5 F-1s of the Saturn V became 3 SSMEs on the shuttle, and most of the other boosters have one engine (The Atlas looks like it has two, but it's one engine with two nozzles fed by one set of pumps. Once again, that's the Russian influence -- they had trouble building large nozzles, so they grouped smallers ones onto one set of pumps.)

Cavitation, for those not reading the links, is what happens when liquids move too fast through constrictions or around obstacles. You get a drop of pressure, some of the liquid vaporizes, and you get a bubble. Subs hate this, because the bubbles pop when they escape the low pressure region, and this makes noise. [1]

In fuel flow, suddenly, you get vapor instead of liquid. This is bad, esp. when your sensors say "Hey, gas. Must be out of LOX!" (To be pedantic intermod, it wasn't fuel, it was the LOX oxidizer line that had the problem, so I was doubly wrong.)

[1] Thus, in sub movies, when you hear the skipper order "Cavitate!". Standing orders on most subs, esp. SSBNs, is that you never, ever, turn the screws fast enough to cause cavitation, which announces "Here I am!". However, there are times when that's not as important as being elsewhere quickly, so the order to "Emergency Ahead. Cavitate" is "Put all possible power to propulsion, even beyond normal safety levels, and the order to not cavitate is overridden."

The rotational speed that the sub wil cavitate at depends on lots of factors, but the one that the sub can control is the water pressure around the screw. The deeper the sub, the higher the pressure, and the harder it is for the screws to cavitate, so they can go faster. One of the many reasons sub captians like it deep. (Stop it, you, Ghugle, you've the mind of a third grader.)
posted by eriko at 5:54 AM on February 3, 2006 [1 favorite]

Actually, eriko, it's great to read you going on about these unrelated areas, because you clearly understand (or at least have comprehensive circumstantial knowledge of) vast swaths of ME and various associated engineering sciences on a whole different level beyond most of us. Tapping into your knowledge is great :)
posted by azazello at 9:49 AM on February 13, 2006

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