The Challenger space disaster of the 1980s was among the most shocking calamities of the 20th century. The challenger catastrophe was devastating to the entire humanity as the event was watched live. The impact of the tragedy on the terrestrial space race between the two giant countries (USA and USSR) was beyond imagination. 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 terrified watching and listening to the commentaries of the disaster as it happened when it did. Many schoolchildren were horrified as they were among the watchers of the TV broadcast of the flight to cheer their teacher when the incident happened.
The teacher, Christa McAuliffe was among the seven Challenger crew members that was selected on July 19, 1985. She was the first NASA’s 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 and made the Challenger mission famous.
An intensive salvage operation was quickly organized to retrieve the wreckage and the bodies of the crew. The force of the explosion and altitude where the tragedy occurred complicated the task of salvage operation. Eventually, the bodies of the seven crew members and as much of the wreckage as possible were recovered and bodies were given befitting burial. That was the end of the Challenger shuttle but not the end of space exploration. No doubt, the challenger tragedy slowed down the progress of man’s exploration of space but did not entirely stop it. What were or are the advances in space exploration thereafter?
Instead of fear and jittery, space scientists went back to drawing board and used the lessons from Challenger tragedy to advance their course. Thus, there were several advances on space exploration leading to technological revolution especially in communication industry.
Two years after the Challenger disaster, several efforts were made, including construction of NASA’s international space station, a permanent facility in Earth orbit. By the middle of August 1988, President Ronald Reagan announced that construction of a replacement shuttle orbiter, named Endeavour was to begin immediately. When the shuttle service resumed, however, it was no longer in the business of launching satellites for flying people in space but was devoted exclusively to defense and scientific payloads. The Reagan administration had been nursing the goal of stimulating a private space launch industry, and now, with the removal of a heavily subsidized competitor from the market, three different companies stepped forward within a week’s time to announce plans for operating commercial versions satellite shuttles. On launching satellites for communication, this column will feature several breakthroughs made in communication satellites another time.
Nevertheless, in the last 30 years, there were some exciting efforts in space exploration ranging from “mission to mars” to the latest “mission to touch the sun”. These are an addition to the several launchings of satellites for communication, agriculture and scientific advancements. On mission to mars, USA and USSR competed fervently in sending satellites to Mars; some made several attempts and failed before they eventually succeeded. The then USSR made multiple attempts in the 1960s to reach the Red Planet, which did NASA follow with its Mariner 3 spacecraft. Few of the failed missions can be cited.
In the month of October, 1960, USSR launched two space crafts, Marsnik 1/Mars 1M No.1 (USSR) and Marsnik 2/Mars 1M No. 2 (USSR) on 10th and 14th October respectively with the intention of Mars flyby but the two space crafts were individually exploded during the launch and failed to even reach the Earth orbit. Ten days later, on Oct. 24, 1962: Sputnik 22 (USSR) was launched for another Mars flyby. The rocket that launched the spacecraft had a fatal issue and the spacecraft was destroyed soon after it achieved Earth orbit. Yet, another attempt was made six days after on November 1, 1962 when Mars 1 (USSR) was launched for an intended Mars flyby. The spacecraft made it to Earth orbit and beyond, five months later, on March 21, 1963, when the spacecraft was 106 million km away from the Earth, its radio failed and communication with the craft permanently ceased. The launch of Mars 1 was immediately followed by the launch of Sputnik 24 (USSR) on Nov. 4, 1962 for another Mars flyby. Sputnik achieved Earth orbit but had a fatal issue when it changed its trajectory toward Mars and it eventually fell back to Earth in pieces.
Similarly, NASA also experienced failed mission for an intended Mars flyby. On NASA launched Mariner 3 (US) on Nov. 5, 1964. After the launch, there was a problem, which could not be fixed, thus, the mission failed. While those first several missions didn’t reach their target, NASA’s Mariner 4 finally did. The spacecraft launched on Nov. 28, 1964, and was the first to fly by Mars on July 14, 1965. It sent 21 photos of the Red Planet back to Earth.
NASA recorded successes with launches of Mariners 6 and 7 in 1969, both of which reached Mars and sent back a few dozen photos. These successes corrected the false first impression of astronomers that Mars looked like the moon.
From the 1970s to the 2010s, there were many breakthroughs in “mission to Mars” beyond the scope of this column but the target is to accomplish manned mission to Mars by 2020s. As Scientists are busy to reach this target, there are people with “crazy” idea of not only to visit Mars but colonize it and make it a second planet to be occupied by man within the next 40 to 100 years. A leading personality in this crop of adventurers is Elon Musk, the Chief Executive Officer of SpaceX. He has an estimated net worth of US$12.7 billion, making him the 83rd wealthiest person in the world by the ranking of 2017. This column has written on this subject in 2016 and 17, via www.breakthroughwithmkothman.blogspot.com
Beyond mission to Mars, NASA launched “mission to touch the sun” on Sunday, 12 August 2018. To “touch the sun” means for the first time, a NASA spacecraft will swoop in and touch the sun. This spacecraft for the mission is named “Parker Solar Probe”. It was launched to make 24 orbits of the sun before swooping into the outermost part of the solar atmosphere, known as the corona, to study the sun up close and personal. A jacket of gases called an atmosphere surrounds our Sun. The corona is the outermost part of the Sun’s atmosphere. There is a great mystery beyond human comprehension about the corona. Although, the corona is far away (millions of kilometers) from sun but it is much hotter than the surface of the Sun. The surface of the Sun is about 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit, but the corona can be as much as a hundred times hotter with temperatures of about a million degrees. It’s the most mysterious thing; it’s like getting hotter as you walk away from the blaze. Parker Probe is expected to bring information that could assist in resolving this mystery. Parker has already spent one year in its about 3 year mission.
As I am concluding this piece, India’s spacecraft “Chandrayaan-2” launched a year ago reached moon on September 6th 2019 and attempted to drop a lander named Vikram near the lunar South Pole, but the mission controllers lost contact with the descending craft when it was just 2.1 km above the gray dirt. The mission is partially failing and is costing India about 140 million US Dollar mission.
The consistent effort of NASA and other countries on space exploration are commendable and sometimes sound bizarre, we must learn a lesson or two as Africans, we must invest more in science and technology to be able to conquer hunger, poverty, misery and bring hopes to the citizenry. It is the first thing that needs to be done before development of spacecraft technology in Africa. Well, cosmos and space were divinely made beyond total human comprehension and thus, mankind should limit his study of these perfect creatures to only those that can benefit our planet, beyond this, it could be disastrous”- “kada suje su jawo wata rigima” as famous Singer of Niger republic, Mamman Gawo of blessed memory said during the Apollo Mission 50 years ago.
Professor Othman is the Executive Director of National Agricultural Extension and Research Liaison Services (NAERLS), ABU Zaria.