Where were you?
Posted by Euroranger on January 28, 2011
Twenty five years ago today I was a 19 year old college freshman. It was a Tuesday and a little before 12PM, I was walking across the open park space between Burke Science Building and Hamilton Hall on my way to University Hall at McMaster University. I was hurrying from my chemistry lab to my German lecture. I remember the day was one of those bitterly cold days you get in Canada where the sky can be clear and a bright, cerulean blue and yet you still see the odd tiny snowflake falling as it’s so cold, the temperature simply squeezes any lingering moisture from the air. I remember I was wearing my new grey Melton Mac coat that I had purchased in the bookstore, lugging my maroon bookbag over my right shoulder and thinking about heading over to the Commons Cafeteria for lunch after class. Basically, a normal moment in an unremarkable day for a new university freshman.
I recall with clarity exactly where I was the moment I heard about it. I was standing about 40 yards or so from the “left” front entrance to Hamilton Hall. Hamilton Hall had a common area in the first floor in the front of the building. Down the hall from the little student store where you could buy snacks, sodas and the like the student common area was a large room with chairs, couches, bench seating along the walls, bulletin boards for people to post all kinds of stuff and two televisions tuned to, usually by that time of day, soap operas. I remember where I was in such stark detail because a girl from my German class, Janet, had come out that left entrance door and was walking the wrong way…away from University Hall and our lecture. I remember calling out “hey Janet, wrong way” in kind of a “I’m-making-a-funny-comment” kinda way and it wasn’t until after I said that that I noticed she was crying. She said to me “you haven’t heard?” and I said “heard what?”…and then she told me.
My memory after that is somewhat less sharp. Janet had decided to walk back to her car and head home. I went inside Hamilton Hall to the common room and found it packed with people staring at the two TVs mounted up in the corners of the room flanking the big leaded glass windows. Most everyone was quieter than normal. Some folks were silent. Some were crying. All were pretty much shocked. I recall staying there for a little while and then realizing I had missed my lecture and that I wasn’t hungry anymore…so I headed back to my student house off campus on King Street.
We didn’t have a TV at the house, the internet hadn’t been introduced to the world yet, cellphones for all was way off in the future. I think I probably went home, fired up my computer and perhaps tried to play a game to take my mind off things. I know I ran into Mike and Jeff and Randy (guys I lived with at the time) later when they came back. I do remember Mike and I headed back to campus later for supper (we had the meal plan) and it was the quietest most somber meal I ever ate at “the Rat” that I can recall. It was still ridiculously cold but I also remember thinking that there’s lots worse things in life than being temporarily cold. I also remember Mike (my roommate) wore sweat pants and those leather Sperry Docksider shoes that were the fashion at the time and I asked him if he got snow in them when he walked…so there was snow on the ground. We had to cross an open area to the right of the hospital and there wasn’t a walkway so we trudged over snowbanks and across the snow. I recall the snow being hard and crunchy and it was just getting dark and there was a breeze that would cut through whatever it was you wore to try and stay warm. Mac has a couple of buildings there now, where we were walking, but back then it was just open snow covered ground. I also remember we didn’t talk about what happened that day. It’s remarkable how some events freeze a scene in your mind in such vivid detail.
I was kind of a nerd back then in that I wanted to be a scientist and, growing up in Florida, I followed the space program and as a kid had wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up. The American space program had dodged lots of bullets up to that point but had never lost an astronaut in space so you kind of got used to thinking that “yeah, space travel is hazardous but hey, we got this cause nothing’s ever happened”. When the Challenger disintigrated on January 28, 1986 just 70 some odd seconds into the launch, with most of America’s school aged kids tuned in live at their schools because we were launching Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher into space, everything about how people around the world viewed humanity’s progress in space changed. The accident grounded U.S. manned spaceflight for nearly 3 years. What had been routine shuttle launches were now entirely suspended while NASA and their various contractors went back to the drawing board to discover what had happened, how to fix it and why wasn’t it caught. Those are discussions for another blog. On that day, everyone who was aware of it, was watching the TV and thinking to themselves “God…seven people…gone just like that. Well thankfully it was quick and they probably didn’t even know what hit them”. Unfortunately, as the investigation progressed, we discovered that that too was wrong and, as science and clinical explanations have wont to do, the evidence of such is heartbreaking to hear.
Contrary to popular perception, the Challenger didn’t “explode”…it was torn apart by the aerodynamic pressure of tumbling through the air at the speed it was going. Just over 73 seconds into the launch and at around 48,000 feet, the right side solid rocket booster malfunctioned and tore itself loose from it’s bindings to the external fuel tank that contained super chilled hydrogen and oxygen. It took around a half second for the uneven forces on the shuttle to push it into a destructive tumble. In that half second, the last lateral force was certainly felt by the crew because a half second into that final disastrous sequence pilot Mike Smith can be heard to utter “Uh oh”…and then all contact with Challenger is lost. From there the vehicle is consumed by a flash and a white ball of vapor. The fire you see inside that ball that looks like an explosion? That IS the hydrogen and oxygen finally indeed burning because they’re no longer under pressure and are rapidly warming but the vehicle had already disintegrated and was well past that fireball. Truth is, had the fuel components been able to explode, it would have vaporized the shuttle instantly which would actually have been a more humane end for the crew. You see, while the shuttle itself was designed to handle a contrary load factor of up to 3 g, the crew cabin was built to handle a much higher stress rating. So when the shuttle experienced the momentary 12 to 20 g’s NASA later estimated the breakup forces to be, the crew cabin detached in one piece…and slowly tumbled in a ballistic arc. Human beings can sustain momentary g forces in excess of 10 g’s and later estimates showed that within just 2 seconds, the g load on the crew cabin was at a survivable 4 g’s. From the breakup at 48,000 feet, the crew cabin continued on for another 25 seconds until it reached an altitude of nearly 65,000 feet…before it began it’s final 2 minute and 20 second free fall to the ocean below. Did the astronauts survive the disintegration and sudden high-g separation from their vehicle? Well, I’ll let wikipedia tell the rest of the story:
At least some of the astronauts were likely alive and briefly conscious after the breakup, as three of the four Personal Egress Air Packs (PEAPs) on the flight deck were found to have been activated. Investigators found their remaining unused air supply roughly consistent with the expected consumption during the 2 minute 45 second post-breakup trajectory.
While analyzing the wreckage, investigators discovered that several electrical system switches on Pilot Mike Smith’s right-hand panel had been moved from their usual launch positions. These switches were protected with lever locks that required them to be pulled outward against a spring force before they could be moved to a new position. Later tests established that neither force of the explosion nor the impact with the ocean could have moved them, indicating that Smith made the switch changes, presumably in a futile attempt to restore electrical power to the cockpit after the crew cabin detached from the rest of the orbiter.
Whether the astronauts remained conscious long after the breakup is unknown, and largely depends on whether the detached crew cabin maintained pressure integrity. If it did not, the time of useful consciousness at that altitude is just a few seconds; the PEAPs supplied only unpressurized air, and hence would not have helped the crew to retain consciousness. The cabin hit the ocean surface at roughly 207 mph (333 km/h), with an estimated deceleration at impact of well over 200 g, far beyond the structural limits of the crew compartment or crew survivability levels.Some experts, including one of NASA’s lead investigators Robert Overmyer, believed most if not all of the crew were alive and possibly conscious during the entire descent until impact with the ocean: “Scob fought for any and every edge to survive. He flew that ship without wings all the way down….they were alive”
So, for the advancement of human knowledge and to extend the reach of mankind to the stars, these seven men and women climbed aboard a rocket 25 years ago this morning and didn’t come back. Good did come out of it eventually. Bad processes and a flip safety culture at NASA were exposed and corrected. We lost another shuttle, Discovery, in February 2003…but the shuttle design that was formulated in the early 1970’s, originally launched in 1981 and will have had 135 launches when it’s later retired this year with but 2 accidents is a testament to the ingenuity and superior technical know-how of the United States, something that I’ll miss greatly when it’s gone and a feat and feeling I doubt we as a nation will feel again during my lifetime. I believe one day the Space Shuttle program will be considered the zenith of American spacefaring efforts. We may go farther and do more…but successfully flying a nearly 40 year old spacecraft design and getting what we have out of it is nothing short of astounding. Something to think on today.