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.
NASAâ€™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 Gâ€™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 â€” 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 seaâ€™s surface, drilling a hollow from the surface down to the ocean floor, that it crumpled into a tangled mass.
But even if the crew cabin had survived intact, wouldnâ€™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 pilotâ€™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 â€” 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.