It has been just over thirty years since the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded, killing all seven members of the crew, just minutes after it lifted off the launch pad at Cape Canaveral, late on the morning of 28 January, 1986.
I remember seeing the explosion, the two streams of white smoke, and realizing there was no shuttle in the middle. I remember thinking specifically: Wait, that doesn’t look right. I remember hearing cameras clicking. I remember one of our beloved teachers standing up on the cafeteria table and shouting, “Everybody shut up. Shut the hell up. Something’s wrong.” We respected him so much that when he did that, we got really scared, because he was scared.
About two minutes into the flight, the SRBs [Solid Rocket Boosters] would burn out and then be jettisoned. The SSMEs [Space Shuttle Main Engines] would continue to burn fuel from the ET [External Tank] until about eight and a half minutes after liftoff. For missions with a particularly heavy payload, the two Orbital Maneuvering System (OMS) engines could be fired during ascent to help the shuttle aloft. The OMS engines were also used later to adjust the shuttle’s orbit, including the deorbit burn that brought it home at the end of the mission. After Main Engine Cutoff (MECO), the shuttle would jettison the empty ET, which would disintegrate as it tumbled back to Earth. That’s all there was to it. What could possibly go wrong?
While mission controllers knew that the Space Shuttle Columbia would probably break up on its return to Earth in February 2003, they decided not to tell the crew of the danger, reasoning that there was little they could do to save them.
It seems though a rescue mission, using the Space Shuttle Atlantis, was “considered challenging but feasible”, though it depended on preparing Atlantis in enough time to reach Columbia, before the spaceborne craft’s life support systems failed.
One problem confronting mission controllers trying to plan a rescue was not a shortage of oxygen or water as such, but rather the build-up of carbon dioxide that would ensue, in the keeping of Columbia in a low powered orbit until Atlantis could reach it:
How long those 69 canisters would last proved difficult to estimate, though, because there isn’t a lot of hard data on how much carbon dioxide the human body can tolerate in microgravity. Standard mission operation rules dictate that the mission be aborted if CO2 levels rise above a partial pressure of 15 mmHg (about two percent of the cabin air’s volume), and mission planners believed they could stretch Columbia‘s LiOH canister supply to cover a total of 30 days of mission time without breaking that CO2 threshold. However, doing so would require the crew to spend 12 hours of each day doing as little as possible – sleeping, resting, and doing everything they could to keep their metabolic rates low.
The plane crash, of course, will cause a colossal amount of chaos, especially so close to the Shuttle. Police and air traffic controllers and all available officials will be focused on the crashed plane, giving the Swiss their opening. When the chaos is at its climax, a fleet of 10 Sikorsky CH-53E heavy lift helicopters wearing NASA Emergency Rescue livery will show up, and heroically inform everyone that they’re here to take the Shuttle to a more secure location, away from the fire, and all that, back at LAX. In these circumstances, who’s going to question ten official-looking choppers? The workers will help secure the tow lines to the Shuttle, and they’ll watch the choppers take the precious spacecraft off to safety.
Footage of the final flight of the decommissioned Space Shuttle Endeavour, atop its Boeing 747 transporter aircraft, as it flies over Los Angeles and Hollywood, among other places, on its way to the California Science Center, where it will eventually go on display.
Check out the landing at Los Angeles International Airport though… I’m thinking a pilot would need nerves of steel to land a double-decker aircraft like that.
While living and working in space was a tremendous experience, it also presented us with many challenges. Some of which aren’t so obvious. Photographically speaking, there were a number of hurdles. The dynamic range of the subject was potentially huge. The darkest darks you can imagine along with the brightest highlights. With no atmosphere, there is probably another stop or two of light on bright subjects. I would guess that the dynamic range of some scenes approaches 16 or 17 stops.
His write up also offers some candid insights into living and working aboard both a Space Shuttle and the International Space Station. Nothing at all like the orbiting Hilton hotel from 2001: A Space Odyssey, though no less exhilarating I’m sure.
Loads of photos and videos of the Space Shuttle Enterprise on its flight, atop a 747, from Washington, D.C. to New York a few days ago have emerged, but this video, filmed at Vimeo HQ, is the one I liked the most.
Photos of the Space Shuttles in various stages of decommissioning. It still seems odd that there’ll no more scheduled Space Shuttle launches any more. Even though they weren’t taking us all that far into space, it still felt as if there was some progress was being made.
Starting next month, NASA will begin delivering its four Space Shuttle orbiters to their final destinations. After an extensive decommissioning process, the fleet – which includes three former working spacecraft and one test orbiter – is nearly ready for public display. On April 17, the shuttle Discovery will be attached to a modified 747 Jumbo Jet for transport to the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Virginia. Endeavour will go to Los Angeles in mid-September, and in early 2013, Atlantis will take its place on permanent display at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center. Test orbiter Enterprise will fly to New York City next month.
Cameras mounted to one of the rocket boosters of a Space Shuttle record segments of its round trip from Earth, first during the launch, then its separate return to the surface, and splash down in the ocean.
And since I was bound to make a 2001: A Space Odyssey reference sooner or later, the re-entry phase somehow brought to mind the film’s star gate sequence… minus much of the psychedelia of course.