The day before the Challenger launch disaster, senior NASA official James Beggs made an urgent phone call to the agency’s chief engineer.
On January 27, 1986, Beggs was on temporary leave from his NASA Administrator position due to a brief legal matter related to his agency’s work. While watching pre-launch television coverage of Challenger, Beggs (and many others) saw icicles on the launch tower. But neither Beggs nor engineer Milt Silveira could get hold of the Launch Decision team to stop the countdown.
“He’s calling the Cape, begging them to stop the count,” Bill Nelson, the current NASA administrator, said of Beggs during a televised NASA town hall today (Jan. 24). “And they wouldn’t pick up his phone, because he’s not the administrator. There he was.” [instead] An acting administrator.” (That person was William Graham.)
Beggs, who died in 2020 at age 94, said only in his 2002 NASA oral history (opens in new tab) When recalling that incident the launching team was “sequestered” and unresponsive to calls. Regardless, the launch decision was fraught: after spending the night in freezing temperatures, the shuttle Challenger exploded the next morning with seven people on board due to a cold-induced mechanical failure.
Nelson, who completed space shuttle mission STS-61-C on Columbia just 10 days before Challenger’s launch, said she was “on her knees” when she heard about the explosion and the loss of the newly launched crew. Fell”.
Connected: Lessons learned from deadly Challenger shuttle disaster resonate at NASA 35 years later
NASA remembered all those killed in the Challenger and spaceflight quests at a town hall held two days before the agency’s annual Day of Remembrance, which discusses spaceflight safety and remembers people from all countries who lost their lives. who have lost their lives during spaceflight or in training. Or testing to get there.
have more than 20 names (opens in new tab) at the Space Mirror Memorial (opens in new tab) NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Visitor Center complex near Orlando, Florida, contains most of the astronauts who died while serving in the space agencies or during private space flights. Most Recent Name, Virgin Galactic Spaceship Two Co-Pilot Michael Ellsbury (opens in new tab)was added in 2020 (opens in new tab),
NASA’s Day of Remembrance occurs each year around the close of three significant failures in space flight: the loss of Challenger on January 28, 1986; the fatal fire that killed three members of the Apollo 1 crew on January 27, 1967; and the breakup of the shuttle Columbia on February 1, 2003 with seven crew members on board. This year will mark the 20th anniversary of mission STS-107 aboard Columbia, as well as the 37th anniversary and 56th anniversary of mission STS-51L aboard Challenger. Apollo 1 launch pad fire.
Each of these incidents resulted from a complex intersection of human and technical error, and NASA officials acknowledged at the town hall that Remembrance Day is not only delicate, but relevant. The lessons learned are especially to the fore, agency officials stressed, as NASA flies new human-rated vehicles that are relatively untested in spaceflight.
Connected: Do astronauts really understand the risk they are taking?
Orion made it around the Moon last year and again during Artemis 1, but only with mannequins in the crew seats. Boeing’s Starliner also docks with the International Space Station in 2022, but with no astronauts on board yet.
Meanwhile, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon has flown eight times with people on board: twice for private ventures and a half-dozen times for NASA. They’re still a relatively small number compared to the Space Shuttle or Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft, which have passed 130 flights each, but Dragon’s flight rate is comparable to older NASA programs like Mercury or Gemini.
To be sure, even older programs can suffer from safety issues, but young spacecraft are subject to big unknowns due to their lack of flight knowledge. NASA plans to include additional safety briefings this year on top of its monthly safety panel discussions as a step to keep engineers informed, agency officials said.
“We all know that when we’re trying something new, we’re never going to be 100 percent safe because there are things we can’t predict that might happen,” said NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy, a former shuttle astronaut, told attendees at the town hall. “But each of us must remember that it can happen to us.”
Nelson, Melroy and Associate Administrator Bob Cabana, who have all flown on the Space Shuttle, repeatedly emphasized that spaceflight safety is the responsibility of everyone, including management. After standing on the landing runway at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in vain waiting for the return of STS-107, Cabana personally told the families of the Columbia astronauts about their deaths.
“I knew it was preventable. I knew we could do something,” Cabana said of the fatal breakup that killed seven astronauts 20 years ago. “It’s so hard. I was the one who had to tell the families they weren’t coming home. I never want to do that again.”
Elizabeth Howell is the co-author of “why am i tall (opens in new tab)?” (ECW Press, 2022; with Canadian astronaut Dave Williams), a book about space medicine. Follow him on Twitter @howlspace (opens in new tab), Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in new tab) either Facebook (opens in new tab),