Photo of Challenger Launch (Flawed Solid Rocket Seam Emitting Fire in NASA Photo.)

JSC Engineer Remembers Challenger Tragedy (Part 2)

by Jerry Woodfill

The Spirit of Heaviness

The heaviness descended seconds before launch. Breathing became slightly restricted with an accompanying confusion flooding my mind. It could be likened to an episode of depression and despair. At a lost for an explanation, silently, I prayed for a safe launch of Challenger. This, the 25th journey into space for the space shuttle, was designated STS-51L. A small tape recorder in the crew compartment would collect experimental data about Challengerís movements. As the Orbiter Experiment Data Manager, I would be responsible for having the data removed from Challenger, transported to the data lab I managed, and processed. An adjacent conference room television gave me an opportunity to view the launch. I stood among a dozen NASA employees awaiting liftoff.

Years later, I participated in a spacecraft fatality study. We determined that once every thirty-three flights there would be loss of the vehicle. The lionís share of the fatal probability was ascribed to launch. In my view, NASA had already had two fatal missions though neither exactly fit the study criteria. The January 27th, 1967 launch pad accident might as well have been a space fatality. It was during a plugs-out test, a simulation of space flight just days before launch. Of course, Apollo 13 was a loss as well, which, but for prayer, ingenuity, and courage should have resulted in the deaths of the crew. In respect to the chance of disaster, a space shuttle fatality was certainly a possibility. Americans had launched into space 56 times. Another disaster among the next 44 missions would yield the .033 failure estimate. Others had the view that there had yet to be a fatal manned mission. Based on their thinking, a major malfunction was long overdue.

The Explosion

Such thoughts would seem to impact the men and women who journey into space. Discussing our findings with an astronaut friend who flew four times into space, I was surprised when he agreed with the statistics. He remarked, "We know there is risk and accept it."

At 10:38 AM Central Standard Time, January 28th, 1986, Challengerís Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) ignited. The four and one half million pound shuttle system lifted heavenward on its journey. Seventy-two seconds into the flight, the television screen showed the sorrowful explosion. A Y-shaped plume of rocket exhaust smoke appeared as the NASA Public Affairs Officer voiced the words "A Major Malfunction."

The Cause?

At rest on the ocean floor among the remains of Challengerís crew was the data recorder. It seemed fruitless to expect any part of Challenger to remain intact. The fiery explosion of tons of rocket fuel caused most to believe an instantaneous death came mercifully to the crew. Nevertheless, a very real need was apparent. Enough of Challenger must be recovered to analyze the explosion. Without sufficient evidence of cause, there could be no corrective action. For this reason, a group gathered for prayer the night following the Memorial Service. The specific petition was to recover the data recorder with a playable tape. As I joined in the prayer, the thought came, "If the recorder is found so must the crewís bodies be recovered." The recorder was stowed in the crew compartment. While the recorderís housing was space qualified, there was no special sealing or shock proofing for an airplane-like crash. Yet, the device was very much like a crash recorder. It would remember vehicle acceleration, velocity, and displacement during those brief 72 seconds of flight.

Orbiter Experiment Data Lab Manager (JSC 1986)

Weeks after the accident, the call came, "The OEX recorderís data tape is ready for you." Of the four on board recorders, only the one we had prayed for initially yielded playable data. Seawater had severely degraded the remaining tapes. After signing for the tape, I brought it to the data lab and mounted the reel on the tape drive. As the spinning mechanism ascended to the prescribed speed, I watched the sync-light change from red to green. God had responded to our earlier prayer. Not only was the data recovered, its quality was among the best we had collected.

The data played out through ink-fed pens onto a strip-chart graph. The setup resembled an electrocardiogram. Each penís movement represented motion of Challenger. The characteristic shuttle rollover at 8 seconds was apparent. At forty seconds, I noted additional activity. This correlated with Challenger compensating for a substantial wind shear. Passing fifty seconds, all seemed serene.

At 58 seconds, I knew the lower right solid rocket boosterís lower seam opened. Of course, the crew could not have seen the extra plume of hot exhaust. Through 65 seconds, the pens remained calm distributing linear paths of ink on the chart. In a moment, I knew the burn-through would sever the right SRBís attachment strut.

I recalled watching the scene in the conference room weeks before. At 65 seconds, all looked so perfect, so tranquil. Slowly, the pens began to oscillate as Challenger compensated for the thrust blasting from the seamís ever growing wound. Abruptly, the gradual wavelike motion became a violent whip-like full-scale-up-down scribbling of ink. A chilling feeling swept over those watching. At 73 seconds, Challenger flat-lined. All knew - no resuscitation could restart Challengerís electrocardiogram. (To continue click here.)

Copyright JRWIV INTERESTS, 2000