Tempus in Caelo Fugit

 

480px-Uranus2Today is the 30th anniversary of the Challenger Disaster, in which we lost an entire Space Shuttle crew during launch. It’s getting plenty of media attention, and for perfectly good reasons: It was the worst space-related disaster to that point (it’s now tied for that honor with the loss of Columbia) and it happened on live TV. But there are two other space-related anniversaries this week that deserve attention.

The first is happened only a few days before Challenger, when Voyager II made its closest approach to the planet Uranus. This 5.5-hour flyby was humanity’s first good look at what we now call an “ice giant” planet. In some ways, it was disappointing: Uranus was rather featureless at the time and — beyond discovering a few new moons — we didn’t find too many surprises (Neptune and its system would turn out to be much more interesting… and beautiful). Regardless, it was both an impressive technical achievement and a fascinating philosophical one: Up to that point, we’d been learning about things that had been studied and dreamed about since antiquity; with Uranus we were exploring something wholly modern that had only existed in our imaginations for a scant two centuries.

600px-Apollo1-Crew_01
Astronauts (left to right) Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee in front of the launch vehicle where they would die 10 days later.

Whereas the Uranus flyby is temporally connected to Challenger, the second anniversary shares its grim nature: Yesterday was the 49th (!) anniversary of the fire that destroyed the Apollo 1 capsule on its launchpad, killing astronauts Gus Grissom (the second American in space and the first to return to it), Ed White, and Roger Chaffee. The details are horrific and — to my mind — much more disturbing than what happened to Challenger. You can read the details for yourself, but the incident shows what happens when you combine an ambitious program with a number of design misjudgments in a sealed, pure-oxygen environment… atop tens of thousands of gallons of rocket fuel.* The only good news is that it’s unlikely the three of them survived for very long before they died.

It’s been speculated that, if there is no other intelligence out there, the entire universe may be Mankind’s eventual inheritance (a thought I believe our own John Walker has offered in these pages). If so, these three anniversaries — which now seem so long ago — may seem like a toddler with his whole life in front of him reminiscing on his first steps and falls.

* Correction: the Saturn 1B rocket was empty at the time of the accident, though the ground crew was concerned that a nearby solid booster might explode in the fire. No rocket fuel was involved in the incident.

There are 26 comments.

  1. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor

    The Challenger disaster, for our younger members, really was one those “everyone remembers where they were when they heard” national traumas. I was on The Ave in Seattle walking back from class and I saw it in the headlines — it really hit us all so hard that we couldn’t quite understand why, why we were so much more grief-stricken than we would have been to hear news of a fatal car accident. I think above all it was because of Krista McAuliffe.

    • #1
    • January 28, 2016, at 9:23 AM PDT
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  2. RightAngles Member

    I remember where I was too. The first thing I said was, “Oh no, that teacher.”

    • #2
    • January 28, 2016, at 9:42 AM PDT
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  3. Jon Gabriel, Ed. Chief

    I was attending Naval Nuclear Power School in Orlando, FL, and we were just about to break for lunch. An NCO walked in behind the class and said that the shuttle just blew up. Most of us laughed, since rocket launches were safe and routine by that point. Or so we thought.

    Once we realized it really had happened, we stepped out of the building and looked to the east. A slender, arced contrail rose into the air until it ended in a blossom of condensation and smoke. It hung in the air for at least 90 minutes.

    • #3
    • January 28, 2016, at 9:46 AM PDT
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  4. EJHill Podcaster

    I was one of the few that watched it live. I was helping get a new independent tv stations on the air and we had our huge c-band dish turned to NASA’s feed. The nets weren’t carrying it because it was “too routine.” Only CNN was live when “it” happened.

    • #4
    • January 28, 2016, at 10:00 AM PDT
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  5. Seawriter Member

    I was working for McDonnell Douglas at JSC that day. It was the first mission I had not been working the Navigation Console since STS-4. (That had transitioned to Rockwell and I had stayed with McDonnell Douglas.)

    I was developing requirements for the never-to-be-flown Aerobrake Flight Experiment (scheduled for the early 1990s). I had gotten to work late because I had a fender-bender on the way to work. Then, shortly after I arrived, my mother called me at work to let me know my grandmother had just died.

    I turned to the engineer who sat behind me and said, “So far today I have been in an auto accident, and my grandmother just died. They say trouble comes in threes, but I don’t know what could top what has happened already.” An hour later I found out.

    Seawriter

    • #5
    • January 28, 2016, at 10:05 AM PDT
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  6. Benjamin Glaser Member

    Like a lot of people my age I watched it happen live on tv in elementary school. They rolled in a tv into our classroom because our teacher had some connection to Krista McCauliffe and knew her.

    We didn’t realize what took place until our teacher broke down in wild tears.

    Eventually they sent our class (and only our class for some reason) home for the day.

    • #6
    • January 28, 2016, at 10:17 AM PDT
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  7. Dave L Member

    I was a flight instructor, giving an annual check ride in a UH-1H at Hunter Army Airfield. We hovered into a hot refueling point where the fuel handler, shouted over the sound of the running helicopter to our crew chief telling him of the disaster. My initial response was disbelief, the shuttle could not have just exploded.

    • #7
    • January 28, 2016, at 10:20 AM PDT
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  8. Benjamin Glaser Member

    Friend of mine shared this on FB.

    • #8
    • January 28, 2016, at 10:32 AM PDT
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  9. Pilli Inactive

    I was operating a Radio Shack store on Merrit Island, FL at the time. Just before launch, all the shop people in the plaza would come out into the parking lot and watch the shuttle leave. It was easy to see.

    That day, I had a police scanner tuned to the NASA audio feed. We were all listening to the shuttle communications in real time.

    We heard, “Go for throttle up” and then saw the two SRBs separate and spiral off to the sides and a large white ball of smoke followed by streams of falling smoky debris. On the radio we heard, “What the… ” and it went dead.

    The ladies from the fabric store next door were asking each other what happened. I said, “It just blew up.” We all just stood there crying.

    • #9
    • January 28, 2016, at 10:37 AM PDT
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  10. Pilli Inactive

    Benjamin Glaser:Friend of mine shared this on FB.

    There are four videos I have a very hard time watching. 1) John Kennedy’s assassination. 2) The twin towers on 9/11. 3) Columbia crashing over Texas. and 4) Challenger because I saw it in person.

    • #10
    • January 28, 2016, at 10:45 AM PDT
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  11. Dave Sussman Contributor

    Tom Meyer, Ed.: You can read the details for yourself, but the incident shows what happens when you combine an ambitious program with a number of design misjudgments in a sealed, pure-oxygen environment… atop tens of thousands of gallons of rocket fuel. The only good news is that it’s unlikely the three of them survived for very long before they died.

    One of the best books I’ve read on this incident was Moon Shot, written by Alan Shepard & Deke Slayton. It covered the entire Apollo program, but this chapter stuck with me for days.

    • #11
    • January 28, 2016, at 11:18 AM PDT
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  12. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor

    Pilli:

    Benjamin Glaser:Friend of mine shared this on FB.

    There are four videos I have a very hard time watching. 1) John Kennedy’s assassination. 2) The twin towers on 9/11. 3) Columbia crashing over Texas. and 4) Challenger because I saw it in person.

    I couldn’t watch that video. I didn’t see it in person, but it’s still just too horrifying.

    • #12
    • January 28, 2016, at 11:20 AM PDT
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  13. Dave Sussman Contributor

    P.S. Reagan’s speech that night was brilliant.

    • #13
    • January 28, 2016, at 11:20 AM PDT
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  14. Mark Wilson Member

    Jon Gabriel, Ed.: An NCO walked in behind the class and said that the shuttle just blew up. Most of us laughed, since rocket launches were safe and routine by that point.

    I’m skeptical that space travel will ever become routine. It’s so complex and so hazardous, far more so even than aviation. The fundamental barrier I see is that it can’t be made passively safe, meaning:

    In a car when you have trouble you can just pull over and stop. Most airplanes are statically stable and in many cases problems don’t result in instant death, they can glide to attempt an emergency landing. But with rockets and spacecraft, there are a scary large number of dangers that require constant, active measures to keep you safe. And if those systems fail, it’s instant death. The action happens at such high temperatures, pressures, and speeds that formerly reliable solids no longer act like solids, liquids are explosive, and cool gasses can reach volcanic temperatures in milliseconds.

    • #14
    • January 28, 2016, at 11:21 AM PDT
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  15. Mark Wilson Member

    Tom Meyer, Ed.: You can read the details for yourself, but the incident shows what happens when you combine an ambitious program with a number of design misjudgments in a sealed, pure-oxygen environment… atop tens of thousands of gallons of rocket fuel.

    Thank God that rocket fuel was not involved in the incident, or it would have been unspeakably worse.

    • #15
    • January 28, 2016, at 11:27 AM PDT
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  16. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor

    David Sussman:P.S. Reagan’s speech that night was brilliant.

    It was.

    I miss him.

    • #16
    • January 28, 2016, at 11:31 AM PDT
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  17. SWBart Member

    I was a Junior in college and worked in a parking ramp. I spent my time studying and listening to the radio, I’ve always been fascinated by the space program, and my then fiance’ was a student teacher, so I tuned in to listen to the live coverage of the launch. I didn’t see it, but I heard it described in detail live. I don’t remember much of the rest of that day, but President Regan’s address still brings tears to my eyes.

    • #17
    • January 28, 2016, at 11:52 AM PDT
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  18. Tom Meyer, Common Citizen Contributor

    Mark Wilson:

    Thank God that rocket fuel was not involved in the incident, or it would have been unspeakably worse.

    Yes.

    • #18
    • January 28, 2016, at 12:20 PM PDT
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  19. Owen Findy Member

    Thanks for the commemoration of the Challenger and Apollo 1, Tom.

    • #19
    • January 28, 2016, at 12:49 PM PDT
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  20. John Walker Contributor

    Mark Wilson:

    Tom Meyer, Ed.: You can read the details for yourself, but the incident shows what happens when you combine an ambitious program with a number of design misjudgments in a sealed, pure-oxygen environment… atop tens of thousands of gallons of rocket fuel.

    Thank God that rocket fuel was not involved in the incident, or it would have been unspeakably worse.

    The Saturn IB booster was not fueled at the time of the test during which the fire occurred, nor were the propellant tanks in the command and service modules. This was a “plugs-out” test of the electrical, life support, and communication systems, not a “countdown demonstration” test in which the booster is fueled as if for launch.

    At the time of the fire, the solid fuel launch escape system was installed atop the command module, and there were fears the heat from the fire might ignite it but, fortunately, this did not occur.

    The Saturn IB booster (AS-204) was not damaged by the fire and was later used to launch the unmanned Earth orbital test flight of the lunar module, Apollo 5.

    • #20
    • January 28, 2016, at 1:55 PM PDT
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  21. Tom Meyer, Common Citizen Contributor

    John Walker:

    Mark Wilson:

    Tom Meyer, Ed.: You can read the details for yourself, but the incident shows what happens when you combine an ambitious program with a number of design misjudgments in a sealed, pure-oxygen environment… atop tens of thousands of gallons of rocket fuel.

    Thank God that rocket fuel was not involved in the incident, or it would have been unspeakably worse.

    The Saturn IB booster was not fueled at the time of the test during which the fire occurred, nor were the propellant tanks in the command and service modules. This was a “plugs-out” test of the electrical, life support, and communication systems, not a “countdown demonstration” test in which the booster is fueled as if for launch.

    At the time of the fire, the solid fuel launch escape system was installed atop the command module, and there were fears the heat from the fire might ignite it but, fortunately, this did not occur.

    The Saturn IB booster (AS-204) was not damaged by the fire and was later used to launch the unmanned Earth orbital test flight of the lunar module, Apollo 5.

    As usual, John is correct. There was a solid booster nearby that people feared might ignite if the latter exploded. I confused this with the main rocket.

    Correction forthcoming.

    • #21
    • January 28, 2016, at 2:06 PM PDT
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  22. Pilli Inactive

    If you ever go to central Florida, to Disney World or Sea World, or Universal, or MGM or any of the million other attractions, take a day (it takes a day) to visit Kennedy Space Center.

    Go. Put your hand on the machines that went into space, that went to the moon, that Americans flew, that WE BUILT. See the giant letters USA on the side of the Saturn booster. Feel the huge pride that wells up within when you remember that it was free AMERICANS that made it all happen.

    And, if you were alive at the time, know that you were a part of it.

    • #22
    • January 28, 2016, at 2:46 PM PDT
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  23. Lady Jane Grey Inactive

    I was working at Hughes Aircraft in El Segundo, California the day Challenger was lost. I only learned of the disaster at lunch time because one of the support people had an unapproved TV set in her cubbyhole where noontime soap operas were watched; there were no soaps broadcast that day.

    The tape of the explosion kept being repeated until long after it was unbearable.

    It hit us rather hard because Payload Specialist Greg Jarvis was one of us, working in the Hughes Space & Communications Group.

    • #23
    • January 28, 2016, at 4:01 PM PDT
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  24. EJHill Podcaster

    Re: Reagan’s speech

    Read Peggy Noonan’s account of it in “What I Saw at the Revolution.” The mind numbing stupidity of some people in the White House will leave you breathless.

    • #24
    • January 28, 2016, at 4:13 PM PDT
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  25. John Walker Contributor

    Lady Jane Grey: It hit us rather hard because Payload Specialist Greg Jarvis was one of us, working in the Hughes Space & Communications Group.

    There is a particular irony to Greg Jarvis having been on that flight. In the pre-Challenger-accident days, if there was an empty seat on a Shuttle mission intended to deliver commercial satellites, NASA would often offer it to a representative of the customer to fly as a payload specialist. Shuttle mission STS-51-D launched the Anik C1 satellite for Telesat Canada, which has been built by Hughes (model HS-376), and Jarvis was offered the payload specialist seat on the flight. Subsequently, he was bumped so that Utah senator Jake Garn could take the seat for a political junket. Jarvis was re-assigned to STS-61-C which did not launch a Hughes satellite, but to fulfill the promise to fly him. He got bumped again, this time so that Florida congressman Bill Nelson could go on his junket.

    Jarvis was then re-assigned to STS-51-L, Challenger.

    • #25
    • January 28, 2016, at 4:36 PM PDT
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  26. Hartmann von Aue Member

    RightAngles:I remember where I was too. The first thing I said was, “Oh no, that teacher.”

    We- my organic chem class with whom I hung out -were coming back for lunch and when the principal intercepted the whole student body in Lunch II told us to go to the library. When told us why, I expressed blank incredulity. We all went to the library where they had set up the biggest TV in the building and were showing the live coverage on NBC. No one said anything for several minutes.

    • #26
    • January 28, 2016, at 11:52 PM PDT
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