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Tuesday, January 28, 2014

January 28, 1986

Welcome to this week's Tuesday Timeline...and while I will usually admit to choosing dates that are mostly linked with happy events, this date certainly is not the case.  The after effects of this events were so tragic and felt for years to come, and many people (myself included) bore witness to this horrible event.

This being said, why don't we take a look at some of the other moments that took place on this date throughout history.

On this date in...

1393 - King Charles VI is nearly killed during a masquerade ball after the costumes of several dancers caught on fire

1547 - Henry VIII passes away, leaving his nine-year-old son, Edward VI in charge

1624 - Sir Thomas Warner founds the first British colony in the Caribbean

1754 - The word "serendipity" is coined by Harold Walpole in a letter to Horace Mann

1813 - Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" is first published in the United Kingdom

1851 - Northwestern University becomes the first chartered university in Illinois

1855 - A locomotive on the Panama Canal Railway travels from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean - the first time a train has ever made that journey

1878 - The Yale Daily News becomes the first daily college newspaper to be printed in the United States

1887 - The world's largest snowflakes fall in a snowstorm in Montana, with flakes measuring fifteen inches wide and eight inches thick

1902 - The Carnegie Institution of Washington is founded

1915 - The United States Coast Guard is created by U.S. Congress

1917 - The first use of municipally-owned street cars in San Francisco, California takes place on this date

1932 - Japanese forces attack Shanghai

1935 - Iceland becomes the first country in the Western Hemisphere to legalize therapeutic abortion

1956 - Elvis Presley makes his very first television appearance

1958 - The design of the Lego building block is patented

1965 - The newly designed Canadian flag with the maple leaf design is chosen by an Act of Parliament

1977 - The first day of the Great Blizzard of 1977 begins with over ten feet of snow falling upon Upstate New York in one day

1979 - CBS Sunday Morning News debuts

1985 - "We Are The World" by USA for Africa is recorded

1996 - Superman creator Jerry Siegel (b. 1914) passes away at the age of 81

And, best birthday wishes go out to the following people; Philip Levine, Alan Alda, Cash McCall, Dick Taylor, Karen Lynn Gorney, Gregg Popovich, Barbi Benton, Chris Carter, Frank Skinner, Dave Sharp, Keith Hamilton Cobb, Sam Phillips, Dan Spitz, Lynda Boyd, Sarah McLachlan, Kathryn Morris, Mo Rocca, Anthony Hamilton, Terri Conn, Matt DeVries, Joey Fatone, Nick Carter, Elijah Wood, J. Cole, and Ariel Winter.

And now for today's date...a date that will forever be linked to great tragedy.

We're going back in time twenty-eight years to January 28, 1986.  And, most people who were around that day know just how sad a day it was.  In fact, January 28, 1986 is the date linked to one of the earliest memories that I can remember.  And, though the entire day remains fragmented (I was only four and a half, after all), and I can't remember everything that happened on that day specifically.  But I do remember one thing about it.

That was the day that I was supposed to watch my very first space shuttle launch on television.

Because I completely skipped junior kindergarten in my youth, I was home on the morning that the launch was to take place.  And I also seem to recall being really excited to watch the launch take place because at the time I really was into all things space.  I loved reading about planets and solar systems at the library, and probably could have told you the difference between Mercury and Mars even back then.  And I had missed all of the other significant space related events by several years (the moon landing for instance), and really wanted to watch something to do with space.

I don't know how I remember this little detail, but I remember that the space shuttle launch actually pre-empted "The Price is Right" on the East Coast because the launch was scheduled for just after 11:30 that morning.  And for a news event to pre-empt "The Price is Right", you knew that it was a big day.

Certainly I remember reading about how several schools brought in television sets and teachers had their students watching the launch in class.  It was certainly shaping up to be one of the biggest space launches of the 1980s.

And it was...for all the wrong reasons.

At 11:38am EST, the space shuttle launched, and I remember seeing it lifting up towards the sky, completely glued to the television screen in excitement and interest.

But then just seventy-three seconds later, this happened.

I can only speak for myself, and granted, I don't really remember what my actual reaction was on that day...but I just knew that something had gone wrong.  I couldn't comprehend the fact that there were actual people inside of that rocket and that all of the people aboard were now dead.  All I remember was seeing that gigantic explosion...and proceeding to tell everybody on the street all about it whenever I went out anywhere.  I imagine that had I known just how tragic a loss it was, I probably wouldn't have been so eager to keep talking about it.  But then again, I was only four and a half at the time.

On this date twenty-eight years ago, the space shuttle Challenger exploded, and seven astronauts lost their lives, causing the space exploration program in the United States to be postponed for nearly three years for safety purposes.

The seven astronauts who were aboard the Challenger are featured in this photo below, taken in November 1985 - just two months before the explosion.

In the front row are Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee, and Ron McNair.  In the back row, Ellison S. Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, Greg Jarvis, and Judy Resnik.

The deaths of all seven astronauts was tragic enough, but it should be noted that Christa McAuliffe's death was especially reported on.  Had the launch been successful, McAuliffe would have become the first teacher (and civilian) to go into outer space.  It also explains why so many school children watched the event live on television because of the excitement surrounding the launch.  McAuliffe herself was selected from a pool of over 11,000 applicants who applied for the launch, and was expected to conduct experiments and teach a couple of lessons while up in space.

She never got the chance.

When the disaster happened, it was estimated that within an hour of the explosion, some 85% of the American population had heard about it by watching it on television, hearing the news on the radio, or just simply from word of mouth.  When you stop and think about it, that's actually more impressive than you'd think, given that the Internet was not readily accessible in 1986.

But it took a lot of investigating before a cause could be found as to why the Challenger broke apart seventy-three seconds into its launch.  And these investigations revealed not only what caused the disintegration of the shuttle, but also revealed that some of the astronauts may have been still alive when the shuttle crashed into the Atlantic Ocean.
You see, the Challenger wasn't exactly a brand new space shuttle.  The first voyage took place in 1983.  The mission that was being performed on January 28, 1986 was the tenth mission that featured the Challenger.  And, because the craft had been used in several missions before, it probably would have been a good idea to make sure that the craft was in perfect working order before launching it into space.

However, there were several things that didn't seem right.

The first thing that the investigation noted was that when the design of the solid rocket boosters within the space shuttle was flawed from the very beginning, since contractor Morton Thiokol brought forth his design some nine years before the disaster.  The design featured a potentially catastrophic flaw in the O-rings...and that flaw was exposed as a result of extremely low temperatures in the air that morning.

Now, had the launch been held later on in the year, perhaps everything would have gone according to plan.  But then again, the launch was planned from Cape Canaveral on January 28, 1986 (after being postponed several times due to inclement weather), and because Cape Canaveral is in Florida, it was expected that the temperature would be high enough for the launch to take place.

The weather report for the early morning hours of January 28, 1986?  Cold.  I'm talking below freezing at twenty-eight degrees Fahrenheit (-2 Celsius).  It was so cold that day that ice was actually forming on the shuttle itself as well as the launch tower.  And, that made everybody very concerned.  Prior to that day, the coldest that the temperature was when a space shuttle was launched was fifty-three degrees Fahrenheit...some twenty-five degrees warmer than it was on that morning.  Certainly the engineers at Rockwell headquarters were absolutely horrified at the amount of ice that coated the launch site as they felt that the breaking ice could cause major damage to the craft upon launch.  Rockwell actually warned against launching the shuttle that day, but the launch was never cancelled.  It was actually postponed by one hour while crews worked on melting the ice so that the craft would pass inspection by the Ice Team.  By the time the shuttle was cleared for launch, the ice had melted enough to go ahead with the mission as planned.

However, the mission was doomed from the start regardless of the ice that was outside of the shuttle.  Because as it turned out, that fatal flaw involving the O-rings?  The flaw was temperature related.  According to several sources, the O-rings were never tested in temperatures that were below fifty degrees (of which the temperature that day was significantly lower).  And, it was also reported that there was also a flaw in how the rings were built.  When the space shuttle was in launch, the O-ring joints in the solid rocket boosters were to close tightly due to forces generated during ignition, but when pressurized water was used to simulate the effects of booster combustion, the metal parts actually bent away from each other, which allowed a gap to open up which could cause gases to leak through causing the air pressure to drop.  This caused the combustion gases to erode the O-rings, which could have feasibly caused a catastrophic disaster.

And, that's exactly how the Challenger plummeted out of the sky.  The erosion of the O-ring caused a breach in the solid rocket booster, sending pressurized hot gas from within the solid rocket motor to reach the outside, causing structural failure and making the rocket break apart in mid-air.

Now, what made the situation even more tragic was the revelation that many of the shuttle's crew were still conscious when it crashed into the Atlantic Ocean...but because it was hypothesized that they were unconscious when the shuttle hit the water, and because there were no emergency exits built inside the shuttle, the surviving astronauts ended up drowning inside the shuttle.

And so marked the end of the lives of seven astronauts who hoped to go into outer space...and so marked the end of the space exploration program until 1989.

And, thus the date of January 28, 1986 will forever live on in history.

This blog is dedicated in memory of the seven astronauts who died that day.

Gregory Bruce Jarvis (1944-1986)
Sharon Christa McAuliffe (1948-1986)
Ronald Ervin McNair (1951-1986)
Ellison Shoji Onizuka (1946-1986)
Judith Arlene Resnik (1949-1986)

Francis Richard Scobee (1939-1986)

Michael John Smith (1945-1986)

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