Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee died from carbon monoxide poisoning and would have survived the burns if they could have gotten out. NASA had demanded North American, The Command Module Primary Contractor, provide an inward opening egress hatch because of an issue with Grissom's Liberty Bell 7 Mercury Flight when explosive bolts malfunctioned and the capsule sank while Grissom escaped.
I could spend hours telling you what we did wrong. The Command Module was a disaster at this time. Necessary design changes made it impossible for the Simulators to be kept up to date which meant the Astronauts were training in something they would not fly in. This is never a good thing. The real culprit in the end was the pure oxygen atmosphere in the Capsule at 16.7 PSI which is above earth standard, the location of the venting mechanism to enable the hatch to be opened, and flammable Velcro material that had been put back "into" the capsule after being ordered out.
The worst part is some of us unfortunately watched them die on television. They tried to get out but not even King Kong could have opened the inner hatch and there was no means of emergency egress. Grissom was so worried about the Command Module, at this time, he called it a lemon and took a picture with the capsule and a lemon.
Above is a staged photo by Grissom when he told NASA he was going to ask for help from a higher power.
The irony is we were rushing because we thought the Russians would beat us to the moon. There Chief Engineer Sergei Korolev was responsible for the design of all there equipment and was a brilliant Engineer. We did not know he had died on January 14, 1966 from a botched surgery and many of us consider him the true father of practical astronautics. With his death the Russian program was dead because political hacks took over. I guess political quackery is universal because we had our share.
There was plenty of blame to go around on this one
Challenger was at the minimum manslaughter. 7 NASA Astronauts died on a cold Florida morning when the external fuel tank exploded because of an o-ring on a solid fuel booster that leaked. Morton Thiokol was the contractor that provide the solid booster with its supposedly flawed o-rings. Morton Thiokol was bent over and required to take one for the program by accepting blame for the disaster when it was not their fault. There was not a single thing wrong with the o-ring design. The true flaw was NASA and its arrogance and over aggressive launch schedule despite known restrictions in there own flight manual.
Now for the truth.
On launch day for our "teacher in space" it dawned bitterly cold in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Temperatures were in the upper 20's and icicles were hanging off the shuttle, its external boosters, and external tank. NASA's flight manual required all launches with air temperatures below 48 F to be held until the temperature was reached or canceled otherwise. Challenger was launched at 42 F in direct violation of there own manual.
Kennedy is a warm weather launch site and this plays into how certain components are designed. Morton Thiokol designed the o-rings for the Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) for a warm weather launch at the specified minimum temperature of 48 F and this plays directly into the disaster.
On the far right hand side of this photo one can see a puff of gray smoke just after the solids were lit and the Shuttle was lifting off for STS-51-L. That was the first sign hot gases were leaking, but not the first time there had been a leak. That is a well kept secret maintained closely by NASA. On multiple previous "cold" launches below 48 F there had been an issue with the o-ring leakage and NASA was well aware of this.
Thiokol Engineers were so worried about the cold weather launches they told NASA there would be a catastrophic o-ring failure and the Shuttle would blow up. Thiokol engineers led by Roger Boisjoly and four colleagues fought to stop the launch from Utah with Thiokol Management supporting them. Armed with the knowledge that Astronauts could die they fought with NASA and got the following response.
"I am appalled," said NASA's George Hardy, according to Boisjoly and our other source in the room. "I am appalled by your recommendation."
Another shuttle program manager, Lawrence Mulloy, didn't hide his disdain. "My God, Thiokol," he said. "When do you want me to launch — next April?"More information can be found here.
Eventually NASA forced Thiokol Management to buckle and rescind the recommendation the the launch be scrubbed. Now for the truth about the o-ring design.
The o-ring design worked as long as launch parameters were maintained. The o-ring compound was a type of elasticized rubber and the compound design had to account for a wide range of temperatures and the minimum launch temperature was 48 F. Any launch below that temperature could be troublesome because like all rubber compounds the o-ring compound expanded and contracted based on its starting temperature "after" the solids were like and the hot gases were present. The o-ring was redesigned after the accident but the compound still required a launch at a specific temperature or above despite the new design.
Essentially the NASA launch director at Kennedy threw his own book out the window and knowingly launched in a high risk scenario which was something NASA should never do. First rule of manned space flight is Astronaut safety first and that means no out of parameter launches. In my humble opinion the launch director was at the minimum guilty of manslaughter but the first thing you learn in NASA is the blame game and NASA will only accept it when it is forced to, so Thiokol bent over, pulled down its pants, and took one in the booty for the program.
The other horrific part of the story they have been mum about was the death of the Astronauts. The Shuttle was built in 3 sections which included, Shuttle Engine plus Elevator and Rudder, Cargo Bay, and Crew Section. The explosion did not kill the Astronauts. The Shock wave from the explosion separated the Crew Section from the Shuttle intact and most if not all the Astronauts died when the Crew Compartment slammed into the ocean.
The really sad part is NASA knew from day one what had happened but tried to place blame on both Thiokol and Martin Marietta who built the External tank. The Rogers Commission that investigated the disaster was as incompetent as NASA in its own way. Seven Astronauts died on that day 27 years ago and it should not have happened.
The Columbia disaster, in my humble opinion, is the most egregious of the 3. NASA knew they had damage to the Shuttle Wing and knows full well and structural flaw is exacerbated on reentry. The examined the Shuttle from afar yet never sent any of the qualified Astronauts on an EVA to examine possible wing damage. All NASA Shuttle flights carry the equipment and the qualified Astronauts for an EVA on every single flight. It is a requirement for every mission.
Reentry is the most dangerous time for an mission into space. The vehicle slams into the upper atmosphere at 17,000 mph and the effect on what little atmosphere there is is spectacular. As the heat builds up the atmosphere liquefies into a molten plasma that literally flows off the surface of the vehicle not unlike molten lava flows. It is under immense pressure because of its size and surface area. The Shuttle reenters at well over 100 tons in mass at 17,000 mph and it is using the limited atmosphere to slow it down and it is very vulnerable. The ionization creates a radio blackout which makes everyone blind.
Plasma seeped into the wing and weakened the Shuttle structurally. They were dead the minute they started reentry and never had a chance. It was like playing Russian Roulette with a 38 and all 6 chambers loaded.
Rather than muck with the schedules of other Shuttle missions they decided to gamble and per usual the lives they lost were not their own but those willing to take the risk. One NASA official spokesman had the gall to say on both the NASA network and National TV that NASA did not worry about reentry and did not considered it dangerous. I really think that sums it all up but then I think about the wreckage.
There were people picking up pieces of the Columbia wreckage and it took NASA days to wake up to the simple fact a lot of it was extremely toxic because of the hypergolic fuels used for the RCS systems and starting the main Shuttle Engine plus other materials and liquids people should stay away from. Thankfully, to the best of my knowledge nobody was harmed by any wreckage but they could have. There was a reason NASA people wore Hazmat suits around found wreckage.
I am a proponent and supporter of manned space flight but I an not sure I trust NASA to manage it. They have never seen a budget they could not bloat nor have they missed many chances to be stupid like deciding they would not repair Hubble just because they did not want to and suddenly it was a risk. It was a money grab. I would rather let the geeks at JPL run things but then that is a geek believing in other geeks.
Today is a day to remember all the heroes who died in both ours and the Russian Space Program. May their souls be at peace and may they all be remembered for being the bravest of the brave and the best sons and daughters of our planet Earth.
God bless them and their families.