There is no questions that space is beautiful but it also deadly. With all the radiation, debris, vacuum of space and the still many unknowns, it is a wonder why we ever dare to wander into the void. Man has the instinct to explore and to quote Star Trek, it is the final frontier. Space has many wonders and beautiful cosmic events still left to be witnessed and we want to be the ones to do it.
Space exploration doesn’t come without the hazards and deaths and on this day we remember and reflect on the space explorers who have lost their lives. Apollo 1, Challenger STS-51-L, and Columbia STS-107 are the ones people are most familiar with.
On January 27th, 1967, Apollo 1 crew was preforming a launch rehearsal test when a fire broke out sweeping through the inside of the capsule. The door hatch could not be opened due to the internal pressure of the cabin due to the fire. It took nearly five minutes to open the hatch to obtain access to the inside.
Five key points where made in the review of events and changes would be made to all following missions to prevent a disaster like this from happening again. The ignition source was from several electric arcs in the interior equipment most likely from the environmental control unit. Another point was that there was a pure oxygen atmosphere of almost five times the normal amount of oxygen found in the atmosphere which allowed normally not flammable materials to burst into flame. There were many types and classes of combustible materials found within the cabin. The primary one was Velcro which was all over the cabin was found to be flammable in 100% oxygen rich environments. The hatch was another concern that many had noted before the fire. The hatch was designed to open inwards instead of opening outwards which when in low pressure environments would have allowed the door to open. NASA had used hatches with explosive bolts in the past to allow the hatch to be opened in emergencies. They did not incorporate it into the design of Apollo 1 however over concerns the hatch would open during flight. Lastly safety procedures played an important role with rescue and medical teams not being in attendance during training and the lack of procedure to handle and prevent emergencies.
Thirty years ago today on January 28th, 1986, Challenger mission STS-51-L was set to launch. This mission was well known and publicized for the fact that it would be the first teacher in space, Christa McAuliffe. The launch occurred at 16:38:00 UTC however seventy three seconds into the flight, a catastrophic failure occurred causing the entire craft to become a fireball. This event was captured on video and still haunts many people today. The cause of the failure was in the right booster rockets primary and secondary O-ring gasket seals. The failure of the seals allowed flames to destroy the struts holding the rockets pretty much ripping the backbone of the craft off.
On February 1st, 2003 Columbia mission STS-107 burned up during the reentry. The shuttle and crew had been in space for over 15 days and were attempting reentry when reports of a fireball were seen over Texas and Louisiana. All seven crew members were killed and debris was scattered over Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas. It was determined after an investigation that a piece of the heat shield foam. This foam protects the shuttle from the heat of friction from the atmosphere when the shuttle reenters. The foam was on belly of the shuttle broke off allowing heat from the friction during reentry to burn through the shuttle eventually ripping it apart.
There have been many other deaths from training and preparing for these missions in the US and then there are many others from attempts around the wold such as Russia and China. We should remember all of these people equally because in science and especially the space exploration community we are all humans from the same planet. On this day of remembrance I look back and think of a quote I heard recently from the movie the Martian; “I’m dying for something big and beautiful and greater than me.” Space flight and exploration is about understanding the galaxy we occupy as humans and for these scientist it is for mankind not just themselves. We need space flight and exploration if the human-race is going to survive and flourish otherwise we are just stuck on this rock rotting away not wanting to advance ourselves.