Thursday, October 6, 2011

Space Disaster

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Space for America has always been a new and interesting frontier. The earth is a very safe place, when you put it against the unknown outer space. On January 7th 1967, the world witness firsthand how dangerous space travel can be. Then later, on January 8th 1986, the space program was hit with another disaster occurred when the space shuttle Challenger blew up seventy two seconds after liftoff. The Apollo I and Challenger space disasters occurred nearly nineteen years apart to the day, yet they shared many aspects of one another. Nearly nineteen years later, NASA was still making the same mistake, and was still dealing with the same issues of budget cuts, loss of public interest, and rising costs that had disrupted the organization about twenty years before.

When president John F. Kennedy gave his promise to the American people that he would land a man on the moon by the end of the decade, he did not even begin to comprehend what he had unleashed. After the massive success of the Gemini two man space program, NASA (National Aeronautics Space Association) thought that they could do no wrong. They had proven that man could fly in space for an extended amount of time; they had proven that two manned spacecraft could dock or “join together” in space, and that they could all return safely through the fiery reentry into the earth’s atmosphere. They were riding high; ready to beat the Russian program known to them only as Zond, to the moon, when disaster struck on pad 1 at what was to become the Kennedy Space Center.

On January 7, 1967, the Apollo program was nearly ended when a flash fire occurred in command module 01 during a ‘plugs out’ test of the Apollo space vehicle. This ship and crew were being prepared for the first piloted flight, the AS-04 mission. The plugs out test, was just as it sounds, with all the extrnal pugs out of the spacecraft, testing if it could run under it’s own power out. IT was not considered a dangerous test, there was no ignition, there was no engine testing, it just was a fake run through of the count down. Three astronauts, Lt. Col. Virgil I. Grissom, a veteran of Mercury and Gemini missions; Lt. Col. Edward H. White, the astronaut who had performed the first United States extravehicular activity during the Gemini program; and Roger B. Chaffee, an astronaut preparing for his first space flight climbed into their doomed spacecraft at about one in the afternoon on that faithful day. As soon as the test started, they knew that something was wrong. As Grissom plugged his spacesuit into the relay inside the spacecraft, he complained of a ‘sour’ smell coming into his suit. They decided to continue instead of delaying the test farther. After strapping into place, communication became a serous problem. The commander could not talk to mission control not five miles away. He was recorded saying, “How are we going to go to the moon if we can’t talk between two or three buildings.” But even this had to be repeated as static was what became the primary noise coming over the headsets of the mission controllers. A few minutes later, the word “fire” came over the radio. It was not panicked; it was just one simple word that had worked it’s way through the static. Unfortunately for the astronauts, who were in a one hundred percent oxygen environment, it was the worst and last word they heard. Approximately nine seconds after the first fire call was made, the capsule ruptured from the inside and exploded into the “white room” where the pad crew was waiting. After the fire was extinguished, it took the ground crew about five minutes to get the series of hatches of the rocket. When they finally found the crew, they were all dead, the cause being asphyxiation as well as thermal burns.

On January 8, 1986 America was shocked by the destruction of the space shuttle Challenger in mission 51-L, just seventy three seconds into the flight, and the death of its seven crewmembers. The shuttle should have lifted off days before, but had been delayed three times already. The first time, a coolent pump failed, resulting it a stop on the count. The next day, an accessory to the hatch system that is removed before liftoff became stuck in place. Again, they had to hold the count to fix the problem. Finally, on January 8th, the mission commenced, and ended almost as soon as it started. Francis R. Scobee, Commander Michael J. Smith, Judith A. Resnik , Ellison S. Onizuka, Ronald E. McNair, Gregory B. Jarvis, Sharon Christa McAuliffe were all killed when the shuttle exploded in a brilliant flash of light and fire.

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The space center was located in Florida, where the temperature rarely dropped below forty degrees. This was the temperature that all of the equipment had been designed to work in. But it had been nineteen degrees almost all night. Ice was present all over the space craft, as well on the piping underneath the Shuttle. The temperature at the lauch pad had been colder then any other before, it was just a bit more then 1 degrees F when lifoff commenced. Just after liftoff at .678 seconds into the flight, photos show a strong puff of gray smoke coming from the back joint on the right Solid Rocket Booster. Eight more hits of darker and blacker smoke were seen between 1.86 and 1.5 seconds. The smoke appeared to puff upwards. While each smoke puff was being left behind by the flight of the shuttle, the next fresh puff could be seen near the joint. The puffs occurred at about four times per second. As the shuttle increased its speed, it flew past the old puffs. The black color of the smoke suggest that the grease, insulation and rubber O-rings in the joint seal were being burned and eroded by the hot propellant gases. As it rose into the air, at about 0 seconds a flame was visible coming from the right SRB (Solid rocket booster) making its way up to the main hydrogen tank. As the flame grew in size, the shuttle picked up speed. At about MACH , the fire compromised the super structure and the bottom half of the SRB broke away and swung violently upward into the hydrogen tank, rupturing it almost instantly. As the explosion expanded, the shuttle broke into several large pieces. What is also tragic, is that the crew compartment survived the accident, only to come crashing down to earth. The people were stunned, the ground crew was in shock, and the news people were trying to gain their composure as they had to report the dreadful news across the nation. The last disaster had been Apollo I. It rocked the foundation right down to the core, as it had done years before, and now, it would happen again. Only this time, there were no excuses of it being a new spacecraft; there were no Russians that we had to beat to the moon. At this point, Russians and Americans were working together in going to outer space, it was a time of change, and it had been a long time coming.

These two accidents occurred at two very different times in history. The sixties were a time of war and death, the money had been tight, as it was needed for the war, and the mood somber at best. When Apollo 7 lifted off in 1968, the first successful mission after Apollo I, a telegram was written to the crew, from a man in Georgia. He simply put “You saved 1968.”

Challenger in 1986 was a normal space flight. After so many successful missions, without so much as a hiccup, the people had deemed the space program routine. The money had been even tighter now, as the gov’t wondered what scientests could do at high earth orbit. So cutbacks became big. NASA lost nearly half its buget about a year before. Still, they pressed on. As well as in 1961, the money was tight, the war was waging on, and some people in our great nation wondered why we were spending so much money on going to our gray neighbor. Both programs safety had suffered, Apollo, had lost much of it’s buget and the space race was waging on, and Challenger had lost about half the budget. Both had major equipment failure, that was caused by faulty workmanship, bad parts, and outrageous deadlines. The cause of the disasters were in Apollo, an arc between two wires ignited mesh at the astronauts feet in Apollo, and then twenty years later the O-Ring keeping the SRB separated into different sections, burned through on challenger. All crewmen were killed, and the space program suffered. The most amazing thing however, was what happened after the accidents. They were brought to the same storage facility, where they were reassembled piece by piece. After this was complete, they had the contractors come in and explain why the equipment had failed and what to do to prevent it from happening again. The leaders of the programs were both criticized for not keeping the program safe, Apollo’s excuse was the Russians, and basic human error. Challenger jumped on the budget. Once the capsules had been resembled with the remains, the cause was determined. The programs were both delayed for more then a year, (Apollo went unmanned until Apollo 7) and the same investigation board took a stand on what was happening. For the space shuttle program, they recommended that NASA adjust the launch rules to include tempreture, that the O-Rings be examened after every mission, and that the space shuttle should be overhauled every few years. For the Apollo program, no 100% O tests, that the wiring insolation should be redone to twice the thickness that it currently was, and that the program needed to slow down to allow quality work to occur. After the fire, they found a wrench behind a pannel, but this was found to have no importance in the fire. And both asked for a budget boost. The people of the world, were in mourning for the loss of the astronots, but they knew that the show must go on. The programs about 20 years apart had hardware problems, they had budget cutbacks, they had deadlines, and they had the people forcing them to go on. The programs 10 years apart had the same affect on people around the world, anger and sorrow. They may have been twenty years apart, but they still shared so many things, problems, people, time. Even though that they were so far apart, the programs suffered the same problem. Bad equipment, and no money. The reaction from the people was the same, they put all that was wrong in their lives aside, including the pending war. So far apart, very different people, a woman even on Challenger, but still the same problem and still the same reaction. It goes to show that the children in the sixties had learned from their parents. They could be compassionate, they could be understanding, and they could lay their hand on their neighbors when they were upset, as their parents had back in the sixties when the fire claimed the three Apollo astronauts. Finally, the programs righted themseves, and started to move on they solved the problems, and we got to the moon. And we got back into space with the shuttle. It just proves that people in the sixties and eighties could not be beat down so far that they couldn’t get up and go on farther, and go deeper into adventure, and still farther into the new frontier of space.

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