Apollo 11: 50 years of man’s terrestrial romance with space, what next? III, by Professor MK Othman

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Crew of Challenger STS-51L.

BreakThrough

Apollo 11 was very successful and a 3-man crew came back to the surface of the earth safely, heartily and timely.  The mission achieved the desired goal as set by President John F. Kennedy of blessed memory. Although President Kennedy did not live to witness the accomplishment of his historic goal getting but the whole World watched its fulfillment. Millions of people across the globe witnessed amazingly how Kennedy’s successor President Nixon made the legendary phone call to Armstrong who answered from the surface of the moon. Apollo 11 mission was the zenith of man’s romance with terrestrial space. The success of the Apollo 11 mission encouraged the World to go deep into space technology.

Immediately after Apollo 11, America sent another manned spacecraft to the moon. Apollo 12 was the sixth manned flight in the United States Apollo program and the second to land on the Moon. It was launched on November 14, 1969, from the Kennedy Space Center, Florida. Between 1969 and 1972, there were six Apollo missions, which brought back 382 kilograms of lunar rocks, core samples, pebbles, sand and dust from the lunar surface. Thus the total of six space missions to the moon brought 2,200 separate samples from six different exploration sites of the lunar environment. After these successful Apollo missions, other series of manned missions in the 1980s using called ‘challenger’ were performed. However, the last challenger mission in 1986 was a mortal disaster that shocked the world beyond belief.

What happened and what are the advances in space technological breakthroughs? This was the question posed in the second part of this article.

READ ALSO: Apollo 11: 50 years of man’s terrestrial romance with space, what next? II, by Professor MK Othman

Challenger (Orbiter Vehicle Designation: OV-099) was the second space shuttle craft after the Columbia popularly called Apollo. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), an independent agency of the United States America made the two shuttle-crafts for the civilian space program, as well as aeronautics and aerospace research. Rockwell International’s Space Transportation Systems Division based in Downey, California contractually built Challenger for NASA.

The Challenger’s maiden flight was made on April 4, 1983 and thereafter made nine successful flights and landings before its most shocking and terrible space’s disaster of 1986. Before the disaster, Astronauts made tremendous progress in the nine space shuttles made by Challenger over a period of three years. The missions were accomplished between 4th April 1983 when it was first launched and 30th October 1985 when the ninth mission was accomplished.

First, it was in Challenger, the first woman was sent to space, as there was no woman who participated in the Apollo mission. Sally Kristen Ride was the first American woman in space in 1983. She was the third woman in space overall, after USSR cosmonauts Valentina Tereshkova and Svetlana Savitskaya were earlier sent in 1963 and 1982, respectively. Historically, Sally remains the youngest American astronaut to have traveled to space at the age of 32. Second, Guion Bluford became the first African-American in space in the third mission of Challenger on 30th August 1983. Bluford was overall the second person of African descent to go to space. Before becoming an astronaut, he was an officer in the US Air Force assigned to NASA, rising to the rank of colonel.

Additionally, Challenger (STS-41G) carried first “two women”: Ride and Kathryn Sullivan as well as the first Canadian, Marc Garneau in 1984. Other milestones Challenger achieved included the first night launch and landing (STS-8) and the first operational Space-lab flight (STS-51B). Space-lab was a space laboratory that fit into a shuttle’s cargo bay and allowed the conduct of several experiments designed for tests in micro-gravity. Although, the laboratory was accommodated in Columbia on STS-9 for the first time, but it was in Challenger’s mission, the lab was considered working for the first time.

Similarly, there were many accomplished activities during the nine successful missions of Challenger. Spacewalk was first practiced during the Challenger mission. Spacewalk is an extravehicular walk, an activity done by astronaut outside spacecraft beyond the earth appreciable atmosphere with little gravitational force. There was also a solar maximum mission. In total within the nine missions, challenger spent 62 days, 7 hours, 56 minutes and 22 seconds in space. The number of days for each mission ranged from a minimum period of five days to 8 days from 1983 to 1985 and carried several people in space.

Those series of events accomplished during nine missions of challenger made the World to be almost used to space missions as a common phenomenon and suddenly the Challenger disaster came. It was very devastating, tragic and a major catastrophe in the history of NASA.

The tragedy happened on January 28, 1986, Challenger was undertaking tenth flight mission code named “STS-51-L” after her nine successful missions from Kennedy Space Center. At seventy-third second after launching into the flight, the Space Shuttle Challenger (OV-99) exploded, killing all the seven crew members. Among the victims were five NASA astronauts, one payload specialist, and a civilian schoolteacher.

Members of the STS-51L mission Teacher in Space Participants were Sharon “Christa” McAuliffe, Payload Specialist, Gregory Jarvis, Mission Specialist, Judy Resnik, Commander Dick Scobee. Mission Specialist, Ronald McNair, Pilot, Michael Smith and Mission Specialist, Ellison Onizuka. The teacher, Christa McAuliffe was selected on July 19, 1985, as NASA’s first educator astronaut under the agency’s Teacher in Space Project. McAuliffe, who was 37, taught social studies at Concord High School in New Hampshire. As a civilian and teacher, McAuliffe brought extra public interest to the Challenger mission. Many schoolchildren were watching the TV broadcast of the flight to cheer their teacher when the incident happened.

The spacecraft disintegrated over the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Cape Canaveral, Florida, at 16:39 GMT. The disintegration of the vehicle began after a joint in its right solid rocket booster (SRB) failed at liftoff. The failure was caused by the failure of seals used in the joint that were not designed to handle the unusually cold conditions that existed at the time of the launch. The seals’ failure caused a breach in the SRB joint, allowing pressurized burning gas from within the solid rocket motor to reach the outside and impinge upon the adjacent SRB aft field joint attachment hardware and external fuel tank. Aerodynamic forces broke up the orbiter thereby ending the challenger mission tragically and changing NASA’s space program forever.

Millions of people horribly watched the video of the challenger tragedy live through CNN as the only international cable news station that covered the mission and aired it live. The whole world was shocked seeing and listening to the commentaries of the disaster as it happened when it did. Studies indicated that approximately 17% of Americans witnessed the launch live, while 85% of Americans heard of the news within one hour of the event. What were the reasons for the disaster?

Several theories and hypothesis were advanced as reasons for the Challenger’s disaster. Certainly, explaining the reasons is beyond the scope of this column. However, Government set up a presidential commission, chaired by former Attorney General and Secretary of State William P. Rogers as well as Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon and NASA astronaut Sally Ride, among others. The commission was mandated to look into the causes of the incident. The commission report indicated technical causes of the accident, which were traced to cold weather that degraded the seal on the solid rocket boosters designed to help bring the shuttle into orbit.

It was an exceptionally cold weather that contributed to the failure of the O-ring seal, which caused an explosion from burning of the hydrogen streaming from the failed tank bottom that combined with liquid leaked oxygen from a part of the fuel tank. The report concluded it was too cold to fly a shuttle at such temperature. While the precise time of the crew’s death is unknown, some of the astronauts might have survived the initial disintegration of the spacecraft. Ultimately, however, none survived the impact of the crew cabin hitting the Atlantic Ocean. This tragedy slowed down the man’s romance with space but what are the advances, 50 years after Apollo 11 and 27 years after the challenger disaster?

Professor Othman is the Executive Director of National Agricultural Extension and Research Liaison Services (NAERLS), ABU Zaria.

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