There are a few events that get seared, seared into your mind in life. This generation, and of course every generation before it, will remember September 11, 2001. It was amazing, awe-inspiring, sickening, frightening, surreal.
The first such event for my generation was probably Challenger.
I remember it so clearly....
It was my junior year. I was walking back to the barracks after class, and everyone I passed had his head hanging low. This is highly unusual at West Point because we're taught to walk with chins up, eyes ahead, and to greet everyone we pass. After I passed a few such people, who returned my greeting with the most unimpressive and dispirited "hey", I asked someone what had happened. "The space shuttle blew up."
I ran into the dayroom in the barracks and watched the launch over and over again. When there was almost no time left until lunch formation, those of us there darted out. Lunch that day was almost silent--everyone, even the plebes, had already heard. I didn't have a class after lunch so I ran to an empty classroom and turned on a television and watch the news reports. Again and again I saw that y-shaped cloud. It wasn't real, it couldn't happen.
My next class was an elective, Physics of Modern Weapon Systems. The instructor had worked at more than one of our national laboratories and assured us that the crew had died instantaneously--the explosive power of that much of that type of fuel would have been in the kiloton range, and the shock wave would have been so powerful and fast that the end was quick and merciful for the seven astronauts. That knowledge gave me some solace.
Over the course of the next several months and years, though, information came out and contradicted that so-called fact. When I heard that the handles for the manual oxygen had been found in the "full on" position, and the only way that could have occurred was if they had been manually turned, my heart sank. I was glad when that transcript of voice recordings, which made its way onto the internet in the early 90s, was found to be a total hoax. Still, knowing that something like that could have been true wasn't pleasant. How could my instructor have been so wrong?
A few years ago I found out how.
I bought a dvd that included, among other things, the findings of the Challenger Commission. On this video are closeups of the "explosion"--in one part you can actually see one of Challenger's braking parachutes sailing through the cloud. The video shows the launch and flight close up from several different angles, and also shows where additional cameras would be mounted on later flights to give a better view of critical components. There were also detailed explanations--including how the crew survived the initial damage and probably were alive until they hit the ocean.
See, Challenger didn't explode. What you think you saw in that day, and all the times since, isn't exactly what you saw. We all remember the freezing temperatures that caused the O-rings to fail. The NASA video explains that the O-ring failure caused flames to shoot out of the side of one of the solid rocket boosters, weaking at least one of the bolts that connected one of the SRBs to the external tank (the big thing on which the shuttle sits). Eventually, that SRB started rocking back and forth since it was no longer securely held to the tank. That movement, and the stream of flame emanating from the SRB, weakend the tank. Given the aerodynamic stresses it was experiencing, the tank essentially ripped apart. The shuttle did as well. All of the fuel in the tank, much of it liquid oxygen, became a huge vapor cloud when released into the atmosphere. That, and the smoke trails from the two solid rocket boosters, is what we saw that day.
There was no explosion, no shock wave, no instantaneous death. All evidence points to the inescapable conclusion that the crew members knew that the orbiter had been destroyed and were aware of their fate--during the entire time of the fall, until the crew compartment crashed into the Atlantic.
I'll never forget the words from Shuttle Launch Control, spoken as live spectators and the whole world were seeing that sickening cloud: "Obviously a major malfunction--we have no downlink.
This post is in honor of those seven astronauts, whose names I haven't forgotten: Commander Scobee, pilot Mike Smith, Judy Resnick (who can be seen on the IMAX video To Fly on earlier missions), Ron McNair, Greg Jarvis, El Onizuka (for whom Onizuka Air Force Base, the Blue Cube, in Sunnyvale, California was named), and teacher Christa McAuliffe. Touch the face of God for me.
Update: Commenter Kevin has created a musical tribute to the Challenger and Columbia crews here. Understated, and well done. It actually brought tears to my eyes.
Update #2: From this site we get more details about how Challenger was destroyed. This explanation is clearer than what I described above:
Myth #2: Challenger exploded
The shuttle did not explode in the common definition of that word. There was no shock wave, no detonation, no "bang" — viewers on the ground just heard the roar of the (shuttle's) engines (not the solid rocket boosters) stop as the shuttle’s fuel tank tore apart, spilling liquid oxygen and hydrogen which formed a huge fireball at an altitude of 46,000 ft. (Some television documentaries later added the sound of an explosion to these images.) But both solid-fuel strap-on boosters climbed up out of the cloud, still firing and unharmed by any explosion. Challenger itself was torn apart as it was flung free of the other rocket components and turned broadside into the Mach 2 airstream. Individual propellant tanks were seen exploding — but by then, the spacecraft was already in pieces.