Remembering Challenger

January 28th marked the 25th anniversary of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, when one of the rocket boosters separated from the external fuel tank after liftoff and aerodynamic forces tore the shuttle apart. Like millions of Americans, Ethan Siegel and Greg Laden watched the orbiter disintegrate live on TV. Ethan writes that while "we found and fixed the flaws that caused the accident, and returned to space 32 months later with the Space Shuttle Discovery," we "lost our eagerness for human space exploration in a way that would have been unfathomable 20 years prior." NASA shifted its priorities from manned spaceflight to scientific investigation, and we have since learned a lot from the likes of Hubble, the Mars rovers, and Cassini. But still we are called to new horizons. In honor of all the trailblazers who have lost their lives in the spirit of human exploration, we pause to remember.

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I watched that launch live. I saw the flame reach out from the side of the booster and thought "that's not right!". Then it exploded.

No, it did not separate first. A section seal was damaged by frost and failed, leading to assymetrical burn and rupture. I have ever since wondered why they did not design the geometry the other way up. As it was, the joint acted like a cup, capturing moisture sliding down, instead of like an eave, deflecting it away. Then the captured hidden moisture froze overnight, and we know what that does to rocks.

We were so optimistic. But the general public does not seem to recognize what all the astronauts do - this is a dangerous endeavour, millions of moving parts, all of which have to not fail. At all. The actual accident rate is IIRC slightly better currently than the NASA predictions from reliability data.

By GrayGaffer (not verified) on 22 Feb 2011 #permalink

it was more the lack of flexibility of the seal at low temperatures, Richard Feynmann was on the investigative panel, his description is worth reading, and their factor of safety caculation methods were incorrect