Space Shuttles Challenger and Columbia

Another Space Shuttle is gone.

I was a senior in high school when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded on January 28, 1986. The news came during the five minutes between classes as I headed to Ms. Wendell’s chemistry class. I distinctly remember hearing the news as I crossed the Los Gatos High School basketball courts heading towards the small flight of stairs leading up to the science wing. A student, nameless in memory, he or she leaning against the upper wooden railing, shouted down the awful news to the scurrying masses.

Similar to September 11th (although lesser in magnitude), the reaction by the student body and everyone I knew at the time was one of abject horror and grief, another one of life’s tragic experiences that you are never prepared for, that had never been experienced by anyone before, and that you never fully forget throughout your lifetime.

Space Shuttle History

Space Shuttle Challenger (OV-099)
Photo courtesy of NASA

The first shuttle was a Main Propulsion Test Article (MPTA-098) called Pathfinder. Its purpose was to test out the procedures for moving and handling the orbiters. Designated in honorarium as OV-098, it was made of wood and steel, and was not capable of flight. Enterprise, the second shuttle, was used for suborbital approach and landing tests and did not fly in space.

The next shuttle to undergo construction, Challenger, began assembly by Rockwell International in November 1975, as a Structural Test Article (STA-099), and was created to run real-life intensive vibration tests to simulate the expected stresses of launch, ascent, reentry and landing. Construction was completed in February 1978, and in November 1979, the process of retrofitting Challenger began, with Rockwell contracted to convert it from a Structural Test Article into a fully rated Orbital Vehicle (OV-099).

Reengineering completed in July 1982, the shuttle eventually had its inaugural flight on April 4, 1983.

Construction on the fourth shuttle, Columbia (OV-102), also began in November 1975, arriving at Kennedy Space Center on March 25, 1979 to begin preparations for its first mission, eventually launching from Edwards Air Force Base on April 12, 1981, making Space Shuttle Columbia the first to fly into orbit.

Similarity of the Shuttles

At 73.124 seconds into Challenger’s tenth mission (51-L), the onset of the structural failure of the hydrogen tank led to a sudden thrust, pushing the hydrogen tank upward with 2.8 million pounds of force. The rest was history, caught on tape and broadcast on every television station for days on end, forever embedded into our unconscious — paralleling the visual impact that the more recent incident of passenger planes crashing into the World Trade Center on September 11th had.

Today, 15 days and 22 hours into the flight, while traveling at 12,500 miles per hour at approximately 200,000 feet over Central Texas (not the 200,000 miles as originally reported by CNN), Columbia also earned the dubious distinction of being the first landing casualty in 48 years of space flight history. Unfortunately for the memories of the latest seven astronauts lost in today’s diaster, the impact on our lives will be much smaller than that of the Challenger. The only visible evidence of this recent accident was streaming contrails of unidentifiable debris burning up in reentry, not shocking enough for today’s hardened viewing audience to evoke any long-lasting impressions.

None of the astronauts died in the initial explosions. In Challenger’s case, the crew were all alive and probably conscious until the culmination of the 165-second, 4.5-mile plunge into the water at 207 MPH. Columbia’s crew survived the initial break-up only to have their crew module break up a minute later.

The entire summary of mission STS-107 is currently succinctly and stoically summarized by NASA as “Crew and Vehicle lost during landing”.

My apologies, regrets, and well wishes go out to the families of astronauts Husband, McCool, Anderson, Chawla, Brown, Clark, and Ramon.

Author’s Note: Looking back (during a 2012 revision), it is interesting that many others continued to indicate that Columbia exploded “200,000 miles over Texas”, including Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee, Associated Press.

One Response to “Space Shuttles Challenger and Columbia”

  1. Sean

    I was working when Challenger blew. It was the first time I experienced one of those “You’ll always remember where you were when it happened” events. The TV was on in the office down the hall and I wandered over to watch the launch. I remember trying to think what it was like for Christa McCauliffe (spelling looks wrong?) finally getting to go, imagining it from her point of view. It made the more shocking when it blew up. For this one, I watched a few minutes of news. But the only real question (What happened?) won’t be answered for ages and I really have no patience for the efforts to fill air time by interviewing every Tom, Dìçk and Harriet who felt some bit of tremor yesterday morning. I’ll watch the news when they have some news.


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