Category Archives: History

15 Days in January – Day 13

(NOTE: The following is a fictionalized account of the 15 days in January 1986 leading up to the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster on the 28th of that month; however, the details of weather and NASA events are based on known historical data.)

Titusville, Florida
Sunday, January 26, 1986
High Temp: 66° F Low Temp: 48° F

Launch Rats working on the hydrogen fuel line

What’s next? One of the people on the launch pad team (we’re known as ‘Launch Rats’) likes to say, “What’s next?” He rarely stops moving. Once he’s completed one task he wants to move on. That is a great philosophy to have at NASA. We are constantly facing a new task or issue as we prepare for each launch and in order to address them all we have to keep moving.

That’s also what we have done in the American space program. It was a major achievement to get to the Moon and back, but that was only one task. We started out behind the U.S.S.R. in space technology, but we now are in the pilot’s seat in determining the future of space exploration. U.S.S.R is copying our Shuttle design so they can also have a reusable space vehicle, but they are at least a decade behind us.

Our family of Orbiters have the capacity to build a massive space station, much larger than the Soviet space station that is rumored to be launched sometime this year. Once we have a platform in space we can prepare for extended missions to the Moon or Mars without the current limitation of a single rocket’s lift capabilities. That is what’s next for America’s space program.

Tomorrow, pending good weather, we will send Challenger on its way, and before they are in orbit we have a Launch Rat that will be saying, “What’s next?”

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15 Days in January – Day 12

(NOTE: The following is a fictionalized account of the 15 days in January 1986 leading up to the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster on the 28th of that month; however, the details of weather and NASA events are based on known historical data.)

Titusville, Florida
Saturday, January 25, 1986
High Temp: 73° F Low Temp: 57° F

Teacher in Zero G - Christa McAuliffe trains for STS-51L

The launch of STS-51L is now scheduled for Monday. We were scheduled for a liftoff Sunday morning, but tomorrow’s weather is predicted to be as bad or worse than today’s, which was foggy until about noon. Hopefully, we can get Challenger off the ground on the 27th and then focus on Columbia’s next launch in March.

The seven astronauts going up with Challenger on Monday include our first teacher. The Teacher in Space Project was announced by President Ronald Reagan in the Fall of 1984. Last Summer Vice President George Bush announced that Sharon Christa McAuliffe was selected as the first Teacher in Space from 11,000 applicants. Christa teaches in Concord, New Hampshire and submitted her application on the last day they were being accepted.

STS-51L crew trains for emergency evacuation from launch pad

Mrs. McAuliffe, as she is known in the classroom, has always dreamed of being part of the space program and is pleased to have the chance to take her classroom skills into space. Christa talked about the opportunity she has been given, saying:

Imagine me teaching from space, all over the world, touching so many people’s lives. That’s a teacher’s dream! I have a vision of the world as a global village, a world without boundaries. Imagine a history teacher making history!

In addition to Mrs. McAuliffe will be four members of the ‘Class of 1978.’ Commander Francis R.’Dick’ Scobee, Mission Specialists Ellison ‘El’ S. Onizuka, Judith ‘Judy’ A. Resnik, and Ronald ‘Ron’ E. McNair were all selected as astronaut candidates in January of 1978. The other two crew members are Pilot Michael J. Smith and Payload Specialist Gregory Jarvis.

Commander Dick Scobee noted the opportunity of the Teacher in Space Project when he said:

“My perception is the real significance of it, and especially a teacher, is that it will get people in this country, especially the young people, expecting to fly in space. That’s the best thing that can happen to our program. The short-term gain is a publicity gain. The long term gain is getting expectations of the young people in this country to the point where they expect to fly in space, they expect to go there, they expect this country to pursue a program that allows it to be in space permanently to work and live there, to explore the planets.”

The Teacher in Space Project is just one more part in keeping America a world leader by bringing space down to Earth. On Monday we will take the next step with the beginning of mission STS-51L…assuming the weather cooperates!

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15 Days in January – Day 11

(NOTE: The following is a fictionalized account of the 15 days in January 1986 leading up to the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster on the 28th of that month; however, the details of weather and NASA events are based on known historical data.)

Titusville, Florida
Friday, January 24, 1986
High Temp: 66° F Low Temp: 55° F

TDRS satellite to be launched by Challenger STS-51L

This afternoon’s launch had to be scrubbed. The weather here was cool and damp, but the real problem was the weather at one of the abort landing sites. We have an alternate abort site but they cannot handle a nighttime landing (an abort on this side of the world would be a night landing there,) so the launch was rescheduled for tomorrow morning in case we have to activate the alternate abort site. That would allow Challenger to land in daylight at the alternate site if they have to abort.

The launch was then pushed back another day because of the morning versus afternoon liftoff. The problem is that we have a set amount of work to do and it was quickly determined that we would not be ready for launch by Saturday morning. Mission Control then moved the launch to Sunday morning. 

SPARTAN 203 satellite to have its eye on Halley's Comet

Once we finally do get Challenger in orbit, the STS-51L mission has several goals. One will be to launch the TDRS-2 satellite, which is a communications relay station for analog and digital signals. These satellites are the next generation in communication technology allowing information to be transmitted around the world in seconds. Another small satellite called SPARTAN 203 is being deployed to observe Halley’s Comet, which will reach its perihelion (closest approach to the Sun) on February 9, 1986.

In addition, this mission will send our first “Teacher in Space.” More about that tomorrow. 

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15 Days in January – Day 10

(NOTE: The following is a fictionalized account of the 15 days in January 1986 leading up to the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster on the 28th of that month; however, the details of weather and NASA events are based on known historical data.)

Titusville, Florida
Thursday, January 23, 1986
High Temp: 75° F Low Temp: 53° F

Earth looking out through Challenger cargo bay

Tomorrow we should launch Challenger on its 10th mission. Temperatures were seasonal today; however, the weather is questionable as another cold front is moving through tomorrow. We won’t know if the launch is a go or not until a few hours or less before liftoff.

Beyond weather considerations, there are thousands of things that have to be perfect before a mission is given a “go for launch.” It’s a wonder we ever get a Space Shuttle off the ground. Every individual component of the Orbiter, the External Tank (ET), and the Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) is rated in one of five categories of impact on the mission, vehicle, and/or crew if the part fails. The ratings are as follows:

  • Criticality 1 (C1) – Loss of vehicle or crew if the component fails
  • Criticality 2 (C2) – Loss of mission
  • Criticality 3 (C3) – Component will not have fatal impact on crew, vehicle, or mission if it alone fails
  • Criticality 1R (C 1R) – Redundant component, but loss of vehicle or crew if both primary and redundant components fail
  • Criticality 2R (C 2R) – Redundant component, but loss of mission if both primary and redundant components fail

Any component that is not rated C3 and has a known issue not only stops the countdown, but the entire program, until resolved. When trying to put seven people and tons of cargo into Earth orbit, there are a lot of components that fall into the C1, C2, C 1R, or C 2R categories. Safety can be annoying, but it save lives.

Crew of Challenger STS-7 mission working in space

That said, it is impossible for any human, regardless of how careful, intelligent or well-educated, to be able to anticipate every possible problem. Exploration of uncharted territory comes with a price and that price is the loss of human life. Over 700 people died trying to reach the North Pole and even there we have air to breathe, water, and survivable temperatures if properly dressed. In space there is no air, no water, and a human dies if directly exposed to the vacuum of space.

Space travel is risky on the best of days. Astronauts are put in a ship that is designed to be as light-weight as possible with no significant armor or shielding around them. They are attached to two highly explosive solid rocket boosters that would flatten a small city if they exploded, connected to a massive tank filled with hydrogen and oxygen that has a nasty tendency to flash burn if it comes in contact to even a small flame or spark.

In addition, the speeds and the pressures that astronauts experience are unlike any other reality most humans can imagine. There is no doubt that human life will be lost in the pursuit of space exploration. We will do everything we can to safeguard our astronauts, but at some point we will discover what we did not anticipate. At some point an accident will occur on the ground or in flight. We will investigate, learn where we failed and moved forward again.

For centuries humans sailed near the coastline because no one knew what lie out across the sea. Staying close to shore taught us how to sail, while minimizing the risk. Even then ships sank and people died. The Space Shuttle program is our way of sailing near the coastline. We send people up into low Earth orbit and learn how to ‘sail’ in space. After a few decades we will be ready to go out into open space, just as ships were ready to cross open seas.

There are some who ask why should we reach out into space. That is probably what some people asked sailors who went off to explore the new world. But those brave men sailed off into uncharted waters and everything we now enjoy in the United States of America is due to those who took the risks to leave behind the safety of ‘the known’ in order to explore the unknown.

The answer to those people who want to know ‘why’ is simply this: we don’t know why…YET. After we get there we will know why it was so important we went. That is the way it has always been when exploring the unknown. That is the way it will always be.

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15 Days in January – Day 9

(NOTE: The following is a fictionalized account of the 15 days in January 1986 leading up to the Challenger Space Shuttle Disaster; however, the details of weather and NASA events are based on known historical data.)

Titusville, Florida
Wednesday, January 22, 1986
High Temp: 72° F Low Temp: 46° F

Challenger main engines during STS-51F abort

It’s too bad the launch of our 25th mission was moved from today. The weather was good for most of the day. We are still go for the launch of Challenger on Friday. After Challenger we have a break until March 6th, when Columbia is scheduled to launch again.

As I’ve said, this will be Challenger’s 10th mission; however, the most problematic mission we’ve ever had in the program was her 8th mission. She was scheduled for launch on July 12, 1985 and the countdown was proceeding as planned. At 6 seconds the Orbiter’s main engines (SSMEs) began their firing sequence; however, just before the Solid Rocket Boosters (SRB) were fired the computers detected a problem with one of the engines and aborted the launch. While it is a safe procedure, any abort makes everyone’s heart beat a little faster.

Launch of STS-51F - Before one Main Engine failure

Once again the Challenger had her main engines replaced while at the launch pad, which took us two weeks. Problem solved…or at least we thought.

Challenger was then rescheduled for a liftoff on July 29th. After a technical issue delayed the launch by 97 minutes Challenger finally left pad 39A on her way to orbit. Less than six minutes into the flight one of Challenger’s main engines shutdown and another engine was reaching a potential automatic shutdown, which would have caused a serious high-risk abort issue. Quick work by Mission Control and the crew overrode the computer and kept the remaining two engines burning. Unfortunately, the Orbiter could not make its planned orbit; however, the crew was able to fulfill the mission in a lower orbit.

The launch of a Space Shuttle is never routine, but by the end of this year we will be showing the world how close space can be to those who reach for it

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15 Days in January – Day 8

(NOTE: The following is a fictionalized account of the 15 days in January 1986 leading up to the Challenger Space Shuttle Disaster. The character’s account is fictional; however, the details of weather and Space Shuttle events are based on known historical facts.)

Titusville, Florida
Tuesday, January 21, 1986
High Temp: 64° F Low Temp: 45° F

Challenger rolls out to Launch Pad 39A

Today we are having another day of cool, but clear weather with the wind out of the north. Challenger (OV-099) is still being prepped for a Friday launch and I’m just grateful that the original launch date was pushed back because of Columbia’s flight delays. Hopefully, it will be warmer on Friday, which will make the launch more comfortable for everyone watching. 

Challenger STS-6, her maiden voyage

As I said yesterday, Challenger has given us many ‘challenges.’ The fact that OV-099 was not originally intended to fly may be part of the reason she has been sometimes reluctant to leave Earth. That said, despite her temperament, Challenger  has broken new ground for the program.

After her problematic maiden voyage the second flight was relatively trouble-free. Launched on June 18, 1983, Challenger STS-7 was the first mission with a planned landing at KSC, but that had to be waved off because of weather.

Challenger in lightning storm just prior to liftoff

Challenger’s third mission (STS-8) was supposed to be in July, but because a payload issue the launch was pushed back to August 30, 1983. After a spectacular lightning show just before launch, Challenger lifted off almost on time making history as the first nighttime launch of a Space Shuttle. This feat was complimented by the first nighttime landing when Challenger returned on September 5, 1983.

1984 was a great year for Challenger. OV-099’s fourth, fifth, and sixth missions gave us the first untethered ‘space walk,’ the first Orbiter landing at KSC, the successful recovery, repair, and redeployment of an orbiting satellite, the first time seven people were launched into space, and the first time two women were in space at the same time.

Bruce McCandless II became first human satellite on STS-41B

The seventh mission for Challenger, and her first of 1985, was unusual because it was the only mission where the Shuttle had been delivered to the launch pad and then had to be pulled back to the Vertical Assembly Building (VAB.) Concerns about the reliability of a satellite in the payload bay of Challenger forced NASA to cancel the mission.

After a two month delay Challenger’s new STS-51B mission was finally launched on April 29, 1985, with the European Space Lab – 3 in its payload bay. The mission was a success with the only issue with the flight occurring after the Solid Rocket Boosters (SRB) were recovered. The left SRB had evidence that it leaked hot gases through a joint area and two rubber o-rings that were designed to sealed the joint were damaged. One ring had 4mm of erosion and the other had 8mm of erosion.

This leakage presents two issues. The first is the potential loss of pressure if the leak is too major and the second is the danger of hot gases that might be directed toward the External Tank (ET), the Orbiter, or the other SRB, which might damage them. Fortunately, this was not an issue during this flight.

Despite the SRB hot gases leakage issue on her seventh mission, the biggest scare Challenger would give us was on her eighth mission. I’ll talk about that tomorrow. 

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15 Days in January – Day 7

(NOTE: The following is a fictionalized account of the 15 days in January 1986 leading up to the Challenger Space Shuttle Disaster. The character’s account is fictional; however, the details of weather and Space Shuttle events are based on known historical facts.)

Titusville, Florida
Monday, January 20, 1986
High Temp: 66° F Low Temp: 48° F

Challenger atop the Boeing 747 on April 18, 1983

We are now four days from the launch of Challenger on the STS mission 51L. The decision was made to push back the date to Friday the 24th. I think that will be a great way to end our week. 

Challenger is our second space-qualified Orbiter. Columbia was the first. Challenger has been responsible for nine of 24 completed missions, and at times Challenger has been challenging.

Challenger rolls out to Launch Pad 39A for maiden voyage (8 DEC 1982)

While most civilians know Challenger by its name, we know it as OV-099 (technically:  Orbiter Vehicle-099;) however, that was not its original designation because initially it was not intended to fly.

Because of the lack of computer simulations, STA-099 (Structural Test Vehicle-099) was built to be a full-scale test model to determine if the design would meet stress expectations without failing. The contract to build it was awarded on July 26, 1972, but construction didn’t begin until November 21, 1975. After a year of testing was decided that it would be quicker and less expensive to refit STA-099 for space flight rather than rebuild the original air-flight test vehicle we know as Enterprise (OV-101.) The conversion of STA-099 to OV-099 began on January 28, 1979, which, in eight days, will be exactly seven years ago.

Repairing/replacing Challenger's main engines before its maiden flight

Challenger rolled out of the Palmdale assembly facility on June 30, 1982 and arrived at KSC on July 5th. Challenger was prepped for its first flight, which was scheduled for January 20, 1983, but while it sat on Launch Pad 39A testing revealed a hydrogen leak in one of the main engines. Subsequently, Challenger had to have her main engines removed for repairs while sitting on the launch pad. One of the engines had to be completely replaced.

Challenger problems did not end with the engines. A severe storm contaminated the payload while she sat on the pad. The payload had to be decontaminated. Challenger finally was successfully launched on her maiden flight on April 4, 1983, 51 months after the conversion began.

More on this ship’s history tomorrow.

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