The death of the Challenger and the birth of commercial space

On January 28, 1986, at 11:39 EST, the space shuttle Challenger lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center. Her crew consisted of six NASA astronauts, Commander Francis R. Scobee, Pilot Michael J. Smith, mission specialists Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik and Gregory Jarvis, and teacher Christa McAuliffe, who had been chosen to become the first American civilian to go into space. No one cheering when the Challenger cleared the tower knew, but both shuttle and her gallant company were doomed.

Space shuttles at the time consisted of an orbiter, two solid rocket boosters and an external fuel tank. The SRBs and the fuel tank were designed to be discarded in flight while the shuttle flew on to orbit. When a shuttle mission was completed, it would reenter the Earth’s atmosphere and land much like an aircraft.

Seventy-three seconds into the flight of the Challenger, hot gasses from one of the SRBs broke through an O ring that had been made brittle by the cold air of that winter morning. The hot gasses ignited the fuel tank and transformed the shuttle into a fireball. The SRBs careened into the sky on their own, and the orbiter broke up from the aerodynamic pressures. The crew compartment, largely intact, hit the Atlantic Ocean. The exact timing of the crew’s deaths will never be known, but some are surmised to have lived long enough to have died on impact.

The Challenger disaster led to shock and no little amount of soul-searching. A presidential-appointed investigation panel soon discovered the problem with the O-rings. But behind that immediate cause was a culture of negligence. NASA managers knew about the O-ring problem but failed to fix it until it was too late.

But the real act of hubris surrounding the space shuttle program came at its very beginning. NASA and its political masters justified the shuttle because it would constitute a government space line. Because it would be reusable, it could deploy anything anyone cared to take into space. NASA, military and commercial payloads could be transported at a lower cost than with expendable rockets.

Reality proved to be short of expectations. While the shuttle was (mostly) reusable, the orbiters cost too much and required too much turn-around time between missions. NASA struggled to get the flight rates high enough for those promised cost savings to materialize. That struggle and the corner cutting that ensued led directly to the Challenger accident.

NASA eventually solved the O-ring problem, and the space shuttle returned to service in late 1988. But President Reagan signed an executive order that ended the shuttle program as a government space line. Henceforth, the military and commercial companies would be free to seek other space launchers to put their payloads into orbit. The shuttle would be used for NASA payloads and others that needed its ability to fly into orbit and then return. Thus, commercial space, moribund since the shuttle had started to fly, was born.

The shuttle fleet went on to do magnificent work. It deployed and then serviced the Hubble Space Telescope. The shuttles did most of the work of launching and assembling the International Space Station. They flew numerous space lab missions and visited the Russian space station Mir after the Cold War ended.

But only after the second accident that destroyed a space shuttle and its crew, when Columbia broke up in the skies over Texas, did the United States take the next step. The George W. Bush administration decided that the shuttle fleet would be retired honorably when the International Space Station was completed. Commercially developed and operated spacecraft would take cargo and eventually crews to and from the ISS. Bush also announced an initiative to go back to the moon and on to Mars.

President Obama cancelled the Bush moon/Mars initiative but doubled down on the commercial space project. It has fallen to President Trump to finish the development of commercial spacecraft. Sometime this year, the first Americans will fly into space from American soil on American spacecraft since 2011. These will not be spacecraft owned by NASA, but by SpaceX and Boeing. Trump has also restarted the moon/Mars initiative, but with commercial partners, especially in the building and operation of lunar landers.

The crew of the Challenger gave their lives for the exploration of space. Their sacrifice also led to the new era of commercial spaceflight and, it is hoped, a more sustainable opening of the high frontier.

Mark R. Whittington, who writes frequently about space and politics, has published a political study of space exploration entitled “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?” as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond.” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner. 

Tags Boeing Criticism of the Space Shuttle program Donald Trump Kennedy Space Center NASA NASA Private spaceflight Space Shuttle Challenger disaster Space Shuttle program Spacecraft SpaceX

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