27 years ago today, one of the most tragic events in the history of the United States space program occurred. The Space Shuttle Challenger, on what would have been its 10th mission to space, broke apart 73 seconds after takeoff, ending the mission and the lives of all 7 crew members aboard. But what exactly caused the space shuttle to explode?
The Challenger Space Shuttle (NASA Orbiter Vehicle Designation OV-099) went on nine successful space flight missions before the disaster that occurred on January 28, 1986. A little over one minute after takeoff, the shuttle began breaking apart. The issues compounded, and eventually the spacecraft reached complete structural failure and crashed.
While several variables ultimately led to the disaster, the originating cause is believed to be due to an o-ring on the right solid-fuel booster. Such o-rings are used to form seals between the various fuel compartments on the boosters. The failure of such an o-ring and the volatility of the fuels surrounding it caused fire to erupt at incorrect places, causing more failures on the Challenger. More fires erupted and explosions occurred, eventually causing the spacecraft to change course in its upward flight. At mach 1.92, it is essential that the space shuttle fly at the proper angle to handle the aerodynamic forces being undertaken. Unfortunately, the correct angle was eventually lost, causing the Challenger to ultimately and catastrophically break apart.
Image Credit: NASA