February 11, 2010

The Challenger- Astronauts May have Lived Longer Than We Thought

I was a junior in high school when the Challenger exploded. I was sitting my A.P. History class when we got the news. I remember it well. I remember President Reagan's address:
The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and "slipped the surly bonds of earth" to "touch the face of God.
I remember being told that the astronauts probably died immediately. Tonight I read an article that suggests otherwise.

"But they were wrong.

NASA’s intensive, meticulous studies of every facet of that explosion, comparing what happened to other blowups of aircraft and spacecraft, and the knowledge of the forces of the blast and the excellent shape and construction of the crew cabin, finally led some investigators to a mind-numbing conclusion.

They were alive all the way down.

The explosive release of fuel that dismembered the wings and other parts of the shuttle were not that great to cause immediate death, or even serious injury to the crew. Challenger was designed to withstand a wing-loading force of 3 G’s (three times gravity), with another 1.5 G safety factor built in. When the external tank exploded and separated the two solid boosters, rapid-fire events, so swift they all seemed of the same instant, took place. In a moment, all fuel was gone from the big tank.

The computers still functioned and, right on design plan, dutifully noted the lack of fuel and shut down the engines. It was a supreme exercise in futility, because by then Challenger was no longer a spacecraft.

One solid booster broke free, its huge flame a cutting torch across Challenger, separating a wing. Enormous G-loads snapped free the other wing. Challenger came apart — but the crew cabin remained essentially intact, able to sustain its occupants.

The explosive force sheared metal assemblies, but was almost precisely the force needed to separate the still-intact crew compartment from the expanding cloud of flaming debris and smoke. What the best data tell the experts is that the Challenger broke up 48,000 feet above the Atlantic. The undamaged crew compartment, impelled by the speed already achieved, soared to a peak altitude of 65,000 feet before beginning its curve earthward.

The crew cabin, reinforced aluminum, stayed solid, riding its own velocity in a great curving ballistic arc, reached the top of its curve, and then began the dive toward the ocean.

It was only when the compartment smashed, like a speeding bullet, into the sea’s surface, drilling a hollow from the surface down to the ocean floor, that it crumpled into a tangled mass.

Mercifully unconscious?

But even if the crew cabin had survived intact, wouldn’t the violent pitching and yawing of the cabin as it descended toward the ocean created G-forces so strong as to render the astronauts unconscious?

That may have once been believed. But that was before the investigation turned up the key piece of evidence that led to the inescapable conclusion that they were alive: On the trip down, the commander and pilot’s reserved oxygen packs had been turned on by astronaut Judy Resnik, seated directly behind them. Furthermore, the pictures, which showed the cabin riding its own velocity in a ballistic arc, did not support an erratic, spinning motion. And even if there were G-forces, commander Dick Scobee was an experienced test pilot, habituated to them.

The evidence led experts to conclude the seven astronauts lived. They worked frantically to save themselves through the plummeting arc that would take them 2 minutes and 45 seconds to smash into the ocean.

That is when they died — after an eternity of descent."

I don't have words for this. Almost three minutes. That is easily long enough to understand that the Shuttle has suffered a catastrophic injury. Long enough to begin contemplating the consequences. Horrifying.

If this is how it went then I hope that they were able to get lost in their training. That somehow it kept them occupied on the task at hand and that they didn't suffer. I guess that we'll never know for certain.

8 comments:

shavuatov said...

3 minutes is a long, long time. I was in a small prop-plane that had to make an emergency landing once - we spent 10 minutes jettisoning fuel off the coast of Scotland. I have no words for that either.

I also remember seeing this on TV when I got home from school. Me and my Mom just sat on the sofa and stared.

rachel

Kelly said...

I don't know if I wanted to know this. Most people in our generation can tell you where they were when the shuttle exploded, but the solace was always that no one suffered. So sad!

Eric said...

Very interesting and very sad.

It was a good read though.

Thanks.

V-Grrrl @ Compost Studios said...

If I've shared this before, I'm sorry for the repeat. Christa McAuliffe, the teacher onboard, was married to an alum of Virginia Military Institute, a military academy my husband graduated from as well. VMI has many traditions, one of which is the creation of a unique ring for each class. It's presented to cadets at an event that's the culmination of a weekend of activities. Very. Big. Deal.

Christa had her husband Steve's ring with her when she went into space...Steve's class raised funds to have it replaced, an exact replica made of the large and ornate original. I thought it was the perfect gesture to show solidarity in grief, to remind him he was not alone.

feefifoto said...

I'll never forget that day. I heard the news on the radio I played in my office as I watched construction of a tower across the street instead of practicing law. I sat frozen in my chair for 45 minutes listening to the news unfold. I prefer to believe the astronauts were killed instantly, because the alternative is just too hard and sad to accept.

Jack said...

I was in a small prop-plane that had to make an emergency landing once - we spent 10 minutes jettisoning fuel off the coast of Scotland. I have no words for that either.

That doesn't sound like any fun either. Had to be very frightening.

Kelly,

That is what I was thinking. IT was horrible enough that they died, but to think that it wasn't immediate...

Hi Eric,

Very sad. Hard to believe so many years have passed.

V-Grrrl-

I don't remember hearing that before. It sounds like an incredible tribute.

Debbie(single;complicated) said...

WOW!! So very sad! I think we all tend to believe what we need to! We believe in merciful deaths and painless endings because we have to! because the opposite is so horrifying we cannot go there! As sad as it was it was an interesting and thought provoking article and I am glad that you shared it! thankyou!

Jack said...

I prefer to believe the astronauts were killed instantly, because the alternative is just too hard and sad to accept.

I understand. I have been thinking about it a lot. I hope that they were so engrossed in trying to fix things that they were unable to focus on the impending doom.

Hi Debbie,

I think it is important to look at these things and gain a greater understanding of what happened.

But you are right, we prefer to believe in certain fictions because they are more pleasant than the truth.