(NOTE: The following is a fictionalized account of the 15 days in January 1986 leading up to the Challenger Space Shuttle Disaster. The character’s account is fictional; however, the details of weather and Space Shuttle events are based on known historical facts.)
Tuesday, January 21, 1986
High Temp: 64° F Low Temp: 45° F
Today we are having another day of cool, but clear weather with the wind out of the north. Challenger (OV-099) is still being prepped for a Friday launch and I’m just grateful that the original launch date was pushed back because of Columbia’s flight delays. Hopefully, it will be warmer on Friday, which will make the launch more comfortable for everyone watching.
As I said yesterday, Challenger has given us many ‘challenges.’ The fact that OV-099 was not originally intended to fly may be part of the reason she has been sometimes reluctant to leave Earth. That said, despite her temperament, Challenger has broken new ground for the program.
After her problematic maiden voyage the second flight was relatively trouble-free. Launched on June 18, 1983, Challenger STS-7 was the first mission with a planned landing at KSC, but that had to be waved off because of weather.
Challenger’s third mission (STS-8) was supposed to be in July, but because a payload issue the launch was pushed back to August 30, 1983. After a spectacular lightning show just before launch, Challenger lifted off almost on time making history as the first nighttime launch of a Space Shuttle. This feat was complimented by the first nighttime landing when Challenger returned on September 5, 1983.
1984 was a great year for Challenger. OV-099’s fourth, fifth, and sixth missions gave us the first untethered ‘space walk,’ the first Orbiter landing at KSC, the successful recovery, repair, and redeployment of an orbiting satellite, the first time seven people were launched into space, and the first time two women were in space at the same time.
The seventh mission for Challenger, and her first of 1985, was unusual because it was the only mission where the Shuttle had been delivered to the launch pad and then had to be pulled back to the Vertical Assembly Building (VAB.) Concerns about the reliability of a satellite in the payload bay of Challenger forced NASA to cancel the mission.
After a two month delay Challenger’s new STS-51B mission was finally launched on April 29, 1985, with the European Space Lab – 3 in its payload bay. The mission was a success with the only issue with the flight occurring after the Solid Rocket Boosters (SRB) were recovered. The left SRB had evidence that it leaked hot gases through a joint area and two rubber o-rings that were designed to sealed the joint were damaged. One ring had 4mm of erosion and the other had 8mm of erosion.
This leakage presents two issues. The first is the potential loss of pressure if the leak is too major and the second is the danger of hot gases that might be directed toward the External Tank (ET), the Orbiter, or the other SRB, which might damage them. Fortunately, this was not an issue during this flight.
Despite the SRB hot gases leakage issue on her seventh mission, the biggest scare Challenger would give us was on her eighth mission. I’ll talk about that tomorrow.