Monday, January 24, 2011

Challenger's Enduring Mission: 25 years strong

Challenger's crew twenty days before their launch. (NASA)

The loss of the space shuttle Challenger and her crew of seven a quarter century ago this Friday marked not just a significant place in American history, but helped capture the imagination of the country and it's youth.

As Challenger sat poised to begin the twenty-fifth space shuttle mission, students around the United States and select countries around the world tuned in to CNN to watch the launch as it happened. Cable News Network was the only network to carry the launch live. In fact, the White House staff was tuned to the Atlanta-based network to watch the lift-off.

This flight attracted both the youth of the nation and their teachers. After all, one of their own was on board -- Teachernaut Sharon Christa McAuliffe.

McAuliffe, along with Barbara Morgan as her back-up, were chosen by NASA in July 1985 for the Teacher in Space project, and it was McAuliffe's excitement for science and space which created a media likeness toward her.

As the launch neared on that January morning, television sets clicked on in classrooms and student halls.

This reporter was one of those students, and my school's choral room was one of those rooms.

Challenger's crew of seven included commander Richard Dick Scobee, pilot Michael Smith, mission specialists Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair and payload specialists McAuliffe and Gregory Jarvis.

As an early-teen, I developed a strong respect for several astronauts in the corps. including Dr. Resnik. During 1985, I was able to place several phone calls to her office, including a few letters. She offered a lot of information about training, strength and the choices you make in your life.

A beautiful, personally signed portrait and a few items from Dr. Resnik remains in my possession to this day.

Tuesday, January 28, 1986 was extremely cold. Ice coated the launch tower where Challenger waited passively following a one day delay due to a stuck hatch handle.

I can recall the days leading up to the launch as if it occurred only twenty-five months ago.

Challenger's STS-51L mission, or STS-33 as the technicians handling Challenger's prelaunch payloads knew it, was originally targeted for Jan. 24 at 3:43 pm. The delays of the launch of Columbia weeks earlier forced a three day delay.

Much of America watched the Chicago Bears win in Super Bowl XX, but for the crew of Challenger and the launch support teams it was bedtime before halftime of the game the night before launch.

Recalling that morning before school, I had CNN on watching the smiles on the crew as they left the Operations and Checkout building. I remember thinking, "there (Dr. Resnik) goes."

The freezing temperatures forecast for launch morning did cause concern with key managers and their support personal, however almost everyone concluded late into the night that it would be safe fly.

The concern was the rubber O-ring seals on the solid rocket boosters which help trap hot gases from leaking out of the several sections which stack up the booster.

Recalling that morning before school, I had CNN on watching the crew walk out and their smiles as they left the Operations and Checkout building. I remember thinking, "there (Dr. Resnik) goes."

The space shuttle Challenger lifted-off into the blue skies over Cape Canaveral following a delay to allow for outside temperatures to warm up at 11:38:00 am EST.

"And, lift-off. Lift-off of the twenty-fifth space shuttle mission, and it has cleared the tower," launch commentator Hugh Harris announced.

It was the first space shuttle launch from pad 39-B.

It was to be an exciting mission as McAulliffe planned to make two 15 minute lessons from space from her classroom on the middeck; and collect data on other space news of the month, comet Halley's return.

A science satellite called Spartan-Halley would be deployed by Dr. Resnik using the ship robotic arm for forty hours of comet Halley observations. Experiments on Spartan would look into the ultraviolet regions of the comet.

Two seconds after the boosters ignited and Challenger began to rise, around eight puffs of black smoke shot out of the right hand booster and then stopped.

The tenth mission of Challenger was underway, and her crew of seven soared toward super sonic speeds.

In classrooms, teachers and school children cheered the space shuttle as it sailed out over the Atlantic Ocean.

Then it was over in a flash.

As Challenger passed through a region of strong winds, pressures from Challenger's speed and the crosswinds from a recent jet stream forced the same o-ring seal which had puffed smoke earlier to allow flame to burn through the seal and lick the lower back section of the external fuel tank.

The flame burned the booster's lower attach point to the tank, causing the forward nose of the booster to veer into the upper section of the external tank and puncturing it.

The entire vehicle disintegrated. And, the force of the disintegration broke apart Challenger. The orbiter itself did not explode.

Challenger's crew cabin was thrown free and traveled upward for a few seconds prior to falling into the ocean.

It's hard for most to put into words their memories of that day. I never have wanted to write about this for fear of... I guess I want to keep my memories to myself, many I will not write about here.

Moments after the tragedy, I finished a math exam and literally ran to the school's front office to call my mother.

I went home and mourned for weeks. Not just for the space program and the crew, but for an innocence lost. I grew up a bit and I vowed to improve myself and aim high.

I think a lot of students of all ages learned from the loss of Challenger, and made personal commitments to achieve higher goals.

In the years that followed, the families of the crew began the Challenger Center for space science education. Today, there are 48 learning centers across America, Canada and the United Kingdom teaching the science involved here on earth and in space. They're making math and science fun for young students, and that's important.

We all have our heroes, those who inspire us deep down to stay strong and strive further to meet our dreams. My father who taught me to fly planes, fish and work a computer at an early age, and Dr. Resnik are sincerely those two heroes who have reached out and touched the face of God.

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