Space travel

Rocket disaster: astronauts knew they were going to die

Icicles hung on the launch platform on the day of launch.


When the people of Florida wake up on Tuesday 28 January, it is cold - bitterly cold. Due to a high pressure area from the pool area, the temperature in the otherwise so moderate is Sunshine State dropped to well below freezing during the night.

That same night, the engineers at the Kennedy Space Center are busy removing all icicles from launch platform 398.

Due to the high humidity in Florida, the west and north sides of the launch tower are covered under a centimeter thick layer of ice. And even though engineers poured tens of thousands of gallons of antifreeze into the huge water tank next to the space shuttle the day before, large ice floes are floating on the surface.

Icicles hung on the launch platform on the day of launch.


Nothing is as it should be one day before the launch, but the two women and five men who go with the Challenger don't care - they would prefer to leave now.

The launch would actually take place on January 22, but due to thunderstorms and technical problems it has already been postponed twice. The crew hopes that the third time is now really ship's law.

And the same goes for their parents, spouses, children, and family members who have all come to Florida to experience the fascinating and nerve-racking moment when space shuttle leaves the earth.

Six trained astronauts and one teacher - Christa McAuliffe, in the back row with brown hair - are ready for the launch on this cold January morning. Christa's two small children follow the launch live.

# Space shuttle

- Reusable spacecraft revolutionized space travel.

The space shuttle was conceived as early as the 1930s by Austrian rocket engineer Eugen Sänger, who proposed to conquer space with a rocket-powered spacecraft. In April 1981 - exactly 20 years after the Russian Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space - Sänger's idea became reality: NASA sent Columbia into space and the era of reusable spacecraft had begun.

The reusable spacecraft shot up like a rocket, but landed like a glider. They were designed to orbit satellites orbiting astronauts and cargo from and to the space stations.

The first American space shuttle, the Columbia, floated back to Earth after its first trip on April 14, 1981. You will see the landing itself after 5.45 minutes.

Between the first flight of the Columbia and the launch of the Challenger on January 28, 1986, NASA had launched a space shuttle 24 times - all of which had landed safely again. And there was nothing to indicate that the 25th mission would end differently.

Citizen Passenger

- Teacher must become the first American citizen in space.

The launch of a space shuttle has become routine and American television channels hardly pay any attention to it. But on this day, 500 journalists and photographers are crowding each other in the public gallery of the Kennedy Space Center.

Mission STS-51-L is different from other launches: for the first time in space history, an ordinary American citizen can take it on board.

Out of more than 11,000 candidates, NASA has selected 37-year-old teacher and mother Christa McAuliffe for the Teacher in Space project, to reinvigorate interest in space travel and to interest children in training as engineers or scientists.

This is Christa McAuliffe. See how she reacted when she was selected for the space mission.

In the months before the launch, this teacher had traveled all over America and enthusiastically told about her mission - and she became more popular every day. Everyone was impressed by this sympathetic woman who wanted to leave the earth behind, despite the fact that she had two young children.

Together with their father and the family members of the other astronauts, nine-year-old Scott and six-year-old Caroline stood on the roof of the space center office building - with a perfect view of the space shuttle.

The mission

- Challenger had to launch satellite and catch a comet probe.

In the cargo hold of the Challenger was the navigation and communication satellite TDRS-2, which had to be placed in orbit around the earth during the six-day mission, and the Spartan-Halley probe.

With that first satellite, the NASA control center can stay in constant contact with the space shuttle without using stations on Earth. And Spartan-Halley must spin 20 orbits around the earth to examine Halley's comet, after which the probe is picked up again.

Observing the Halley's Comet, which was photographed here in March 1986, was part of the Challenger mission.


There are also countless scientific experiments on the program, but the average American is most looking forward to the two lessons that Christa McAuliffe will give from space.

The intention is that the teacher will talk a total of half an hour about daily life on board a space shuttle and show how weightlessness really works.

Waiting time

- Launch another hour delayed by extreme cold.

Aboard the Challenger, the astronauts try to pass the time. A little after eight they were assisted in the seats of the perpendicular space shuttle and they would be launched at 10.38 a.m.

The Franz tracked vehicle transports the space shuttle to the platform for launch. This goes at a speed of 1.6 km / h and takes five hours.


And technicians still get ice floes from the water basin next to the launch platform. This basin must dampen the enormous sound pressure that the rockets cause. A few seconds before launch, more than a million liters of water are flushed over the platform to absorb the powerful sound waves - which could damage the space shuttle, for example due to the heat shield shaking off.

And while they wait for the go-ahead, the astronauts talk about anything and everything. They point each other to a swallow flying over, but above all they talk about the ice cold weather.

Every word that is said is recorded - and while the astronaut Judith Resnik talks and laughs, Christa McAuliffe is mostly silent.

Follow the latest conversations of the astronauts in the cockpit.


- Rubber rings to ensure that the 3000 ° C hot gases do not escape.

The entire installation consisted of the space shuttle itself, a main tank and two 45-meter high propulsion rockets. When a space shuttle is launched, it is stuck on the main tank while the two thrusters together with the three main engines on the back of the space shuttle cause the vessel to take off.

The main engines use a liquid fuel, but the thrusters use a solid fuel that looks a bit like an eraser. This consists of powdered aluminum, mixed with the oxidizing agent ammonium perchlorate.

The Challenger consists of three parts. The astronauts are in the space shuttle. The main tank contains liquid fuel for the three main engines. And two propulsion rockets with solid fuel provide lift during the launch.


The rockets that use solid fuel cannot be turned off, but stay on until the fuel runs out. With space shuttles this happens at a height of approximately 45 kilometers, after which the thrusters are disconnected.

The thrusters consisted of different parts. And there was a rubber ring in the joint between each part, a so-called O-ring. He had to make sure that the parts fit well together, so that the approximately 3000 degrees hot gases could not escape, but remained inside the rocket.

The seams of the thrusters were sealed with O-rings.



- Astronauts are fired into space at 3000 km / h.

In the stands, tens of thousands of spectators sit nickel-plated in the bitter cold. A few school classes have come to see how their teacher goes into space. Among the spectators are also the parents of McAuliffe and her sister Betsy.

They are surrounded by press photographers who are ready to perpetuate every smile and nerve pull on their faces.

At 11.38 am the rockets ignite, and as the Challenger slowly rises above the launch pad, surrounded by an immense sea of ​​fire, photographers take one photo after the other. These pictures show how the months of tension and anxiety give way to an unprecedented sense of relief at the McAuliffes, who see the spacecraft take off - higher and higher.

AFTER 31 SECONDS: At over 3 kilometers, the Challenger is on its way to the Atlantic Ocean. So far everything seems to be going according to plan.


On board the vibrating and trembling Challenger, the mood is great. The crew members are pushed back in their seats - a great feeling that allows them to leave their role as objective experts.

"Go, you mother," shouts Michael Smith. "Allriiiiight," Judith Resnik screams.

In the background, the earth disappears into a sea of ​​fire and noise and they soon reach a speed of more than 3000 km / h.

The spectators on earth applaud and congratulate each other. According to the control center, the launch went perfectly. All standard procedures have been followed and the measurements look good.


- NASA ignored advice to postpone launch.

Even before this mission, the O-rings had repeatedly caused problems. The first time was in November 1981, when the rubber rings of the thrusters were burned by the gas in the rocket. And also during a launch in 1983, the O-rings were burned by the extreme heat.

But the NASA management saw no reason to intervene - those defective rubber rings were categorized as an "unwanted but acceptable risk." And thanks to all the successful launches, the space agency was convinced that the O-rings were not a real safety risk.

The O-rings that had to close the sections of the thrusters did not work properly due to the cold. Glowing hot gases went straight through the rocket and entered the fuel tank.


The manufacturer, the rocket company Morton Thiokol, however, noticed that O-rings were mainly damaged during launches in relatively cold weather - which means in Florida: a temperature below 18 ºC. These low temperatures made the rings stiffer and less elastic, and in the hours before the launch, the company's engineers desperately tried to persuade the NASA people to postpone the launch until the weather warmed up.

At the launch site it was only a few degrees above zero, which was at least nine degrees colder than in all 24 launches that preceded. And that while the engineers strongly advised against using the thrusters at a temperature lower than 11 ºC.

But despite these warnings, NASA decided to let go of the launch - a decision that would later prove fatal.


- The Challenger turns into a giant ball of fire, ash and smoke.

Normally, a space shuttle takes eight and a half minutes to reach the space. But the Challenger didn't get that far.

Exactly 73 seconds after the launch, the control center hears a "uh-oh" from pilot Michael Smith. A fraction of a second later, the spacecraft explodes at an altitude of 14.5 kilometers in an elongated, erratic cloud against the blue sky.

14.5 kilometers above the sea, the Challenger mission tragically ended prematurely when the main tank exploded with liquid oxygen and hydrogen.


The spectators in the stands look desperately upwards. Some of them are still holding their thumbs up, trying to understand what has just happened before their eyes.

Parents hug their children and try to prevent them from experiencing this terrible spectacle.

"The vessel has exploded," a shocked NASA employee tells McAuliffe's parents. "The vessel has exploded," the mother repeats, leaving the father pale.

Thousands of spectators look at the long, capricious cloud of smoke in horror.


Teacher Christa McAuliffe's parents saw the accident happen from the stands at the Kennedy Space Center.


The worst disaster in NASA's history is a fact, and while the space agency gathers the shocked relatives, condolences are pouring in from around the world.

At 5 p.m. a clearly excited President Ronald Reagan will make a television speech in which he expresses his condolences.

Watch the Challenger go up in flames after only 73 seconds and how McAuliffe's parents react. Please note: the images can be experienced as shocking.

NASA comes with a statement by the end of the afternoon. A few seconds after the explosion, a reporter noted that a construction error had apparently occurred, but Jesse Moore, head of the space department, now says it's too early to make a statement about the possible cause.

Until the explosion, everything seemed normal and no alarms had been triggered in the spacecraft, Moore said. He also says that NASA has already set up a commission of investigation that is busy collecting and analyzing all data.

An emotional Ronald Reagan appears on American television to pay tribute to the seven deceased astronauts, their courage and their will to investigate the universe.

Video proof

- The Challenger could not be saved even after 0.668 seconds.

The research committee consisted of, among others, Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, and the famous physicist Richard Feynman. They were given the virtually impossible task of finding out the cause of the Challenger disaster.

The designers of the space shuttle were interviewed, all building plans were analyzed, suppliers were questioned and endless amounts of data, films and photos of the launch were investigated.

Eventually the photographic evidence would put the researchers on the right track: video recordings show that the first irregularities were already visible after exactly 0.668 seconds. A fraction of a second after the launch, a dark gray cloud of smoke comes out of one of the joints of the right thrust rocket.

After just 73 seconds it goes completely wrong with the Challenger space shuttle and the seven astronauts on board.

Cold becomes Challenger fatal

Due to the extreme cold in Florida, the rubber rings that connect the different parts of the thrust rockets lose their flexibility - with disastrous consequences.

  • 0.678 seconds

    A dark gray cloud of smoke comes out of an opening in one of the joints of the right thrust rocket. This opening was created because the rubber ring, an O-ring that must seal the joints in the thrust rocket, became less elastic in the bitter cold and therefore closed less well.

  • 58.788 seconds

    A small, flickering flame comes from the right thrust rocket. The fire spreads further along the side of the rocket.

  • 64.66 seconds

    The fire penetrates the orange main tank and the fuel catches fire.

  • 73.162 seconds

    Main tank with liquid oxygen and hydrogen explodes. The Challenger is falling apart.

  • 110.225 seconds

    The thrusters, which fire like firecrackers through the air after the launch, are destroyed with the push of a button in the control center.

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Storage room

- Astronauts are still stuck in their seats.

The Challenger crew module is found on March 7, 1986, just a month and a half after the disastrous launch. At a depth of approximately 30 meters, some 29 kilometers off the coast, divers find the crew module, where a number of deceased astronauts are still stuck in their seats.

The corpses are salvaged and during a ceremony at the Kennedy Space Center in April 1986 the chests are released to the relatives.

Most of them want to bury their loved ones in a military cemetery, but Christa McAuliffe gets her final resting place in the Blossom Hill cemetery, on a hill near the school in New Hampshire where she once taught.

Her tombstone states that she was "the first ordinary American citizen who dared to go into space."

The crew module of the Challenger (in the circle) was intact.

Astronauterne var i live

After the disaster, everyone wondered the same thing: did the astronauts know they were in danger? Yes, the terrible answer was.

Forensic investigation shows that the crew members survived the explosion themselves, but that they lost consciousness a little later and received nothing from the three to four minute long fall to earth.

The oxygen supply was interrupted by the explosion, but the astronauts had emergency provisions with them. Four oxygen bottles were salvaged in the sea and technical research shows that three out of four have been used. This means that some crew members were alive and immediately activated the emergency facilities after the explosion.

According to experts, the cabin was so broken that the astronauts must have lost consciousness after about 20 seconds due to the pressure loss. None of them has probably noticed that they crashed into the sea - with a destructive power of 200 g.

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The aftermath

- Space shuttle program 32 months non-active.

The report of the commission of inquiry into the Challenger accident is published on June 9, 1986. The space shuttle was killed by an error in the joint between the two lower parts of the right thrust rocket. The O-ring, which was designed to ensure that warm gases could not go outside, had lost its flexibility due to the cold and was therefore unable to properly seal the joint.

The report also concluded that this technical defect did not stand alone: ​​that the accident could have happened at all, was also due to the diseased work atmosphere within NASA.

Experts had pointed out for years that the O-rings were unreliable, but NASA had done nothing to correct this. In fact, they had just let the launch go ahead, while engineers from the thrust rocket manufacturer strongly advised against this.

To determine the cause of the accident, the debris pieces of the Challenger were laid out like a huge puzzle.


NASA subsequently canceled all space shuttle missions. The organization was reorganized and improved its safety procedures. The O-rings were replaced by less temperature-sensitive gaskets.

Only after two and a half years, on September 28, 1988, a new, improved space shuttle was launched, when the Discovery went into space. This time, however, the spectators waited with clapping until it was clear that the spacecraft had achieved a safe orbit around the Earth.

Video: Shocking Facts You Never Knew About The Challenger Shuttle Disaster (November 2019).

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