Apollo 12: Marking 60 years of man’s terrestrial romance with space (II), by Professor MK Othman


Apollo 12: Marking 60 years of man’s terrestrial romance with space (II), by Professor MK Othman

Deep Thoughts with Othman

Apollo 12 codename “challenger” completed nine missions from 1983 to 1985 and carried several people in space. Those missions made the World used to space missions as a common phenomenon and suddenly the Challenger disaster came.

It was very devastating, tragic and a major catastrophe in the history of NASA. The challenger catastrophe was very devastating to the entire humanity as the event was watched live.

The impact of the tragedy on the terrestrial space race between the two giant countries (USA and USSR) was beyond imagination. Millions of people watched the video of the challenger tragedy live, through CNN as the only international cable news station that covered the mission and aired it live. The whole world was terrified watching and listening to the commentaries of the disaster as it was unfolding. Many schoolchildren were horrified as they were among the watchers of the TV broadcast of the flight to cheer up their teacher who was among the crew when the incident happened.

The teacher, Christa McAuliffe was among the seven Challenger crew members that were selected on July 19, 1985. She was the first NASA’s educator astronaut under the agency’s Teacher in Space Project.

McAuliffe, who was 37, taught social studies at Concord High School in New Hampshire. As a civilian and teacher, McAuliffe brought extra public interest and made the Challenger mission famous globally.

An intensive salvage operation was quickly organised to retrieve the wreckage and the bodies of the crew. The force of the explosion and the altitude where the tragedy occurred complicated the task of the salvage operation. Eventually, the bodies of the seven crew members and as much of the wreckage as possible were recovered and bodies were given a befitting burial. What caused the failure of Challenger?

The disaster was caused by the failure of the two redundant O-ring seals in a joint in the Space Shuttle’s right solid rocket booster (SRB). The record-low temperatures of the launch reduced the elasticity of the rubber O-rings, reducing their ability to seal the joints. The broken seals caused a breach in the joint shortly after liftoff, which allowed pressurized gas from within the SRB to burn through the wall to the adjacent external fuel tank.

This led to the separation of the right-hand SRB’s aft attachment and the structural failure of the external tank. Following the explosion, aerodynamic forces broke up the orbiter, which included the crew compartment.

The crew compartment and many other vehicle fragments were recovered from the ocean floor after a three-month search and recovery operation. The exact timing of the deaths of the crew was unknown; several crew members were believed to have survived the initial breakup of the spacecraft.

However, by design, the orbiter had no escape system, and the impact of the crew compartment at terminal velocity with the ocean surface was too violent to be survivable. The Challenger mission was scheduled to deploy a communications satellite and study Halley Comet while they were in orbit.

Halley Comet is a short-period comet visible from Earth every 75–76 years. Halley is the only known short-period comet that is regularly visible to the naked eye from Earth, and thus, could be seen by the naked eye and can only be witnessed once by a person in a human lifetime. Halley last appeared in the inner parts of the Solar System in 1986 and will next appear in mid-2061.

The challenger mission coincided with the passage of Halley Comet and the strong desire to capture more information on Comet was perhaps one of the reasons for launching the Challenger at the time it was done.

That was the end of the Challenger shuttle but not the end of space exploration. No doubt, the challenger tragedy slowed down the progress of man’s exploration of space but did not entirely stop it. Instead of fear and jittery, space scientists went back to the drawing board and used the lessons from the Challenger tragedy to advance their course. Thus, there were several advances in space exploration or romance with space that led to the technological revolution especially in the communication industry.

Two years after the Challenger disaster, several efforts were made including the construction of NASA’s international space station, a permanent facility in the earth orbit. By the middle of August 1988, President Ronald Reagan announced that construction of a replacement shuttle orbiter, named Endeavour was to begin immediately.

When the shuttle service resumed, however, it was no longer in the business of launching satellites for flying people in space but was devoted exclusively to defence and scientific payloads. The Reagan administration had been nursing the goal of stimulating a private space launch industry, and now, with the removal of a heavily subsidized competitor from the market, three different companies stepped forward within a week to announce plans for operating commercial versions of satellite shuttles.

Nevertheless, in the last 60 years, there were some exciting efforts in space exploration ranging from “mission to mars” to the latest “mission to touch the sun”. These are additions to the several launchings of satellites for communication, agriculture and scientific advancements.

On a mission to mars, USA and USSR competed fervently in sending satellites to Mars; some made several attempts and failed before they eventually succeeded. The then USSR made multiple attempts in the 1960s to reach the Red Planet, which did NASA follow with its Mariner 3 spacecraft. Few of the failed missions can be cited. Mission “to touch the Sun” may be an interesting piece to read, which will be presented at another time.

Meanwhile, I believe that cosmos and space were divinely made beyond total human comprehension and thus, mankind should limit his study of these perfect creatures to only those that can benefit our planet, beyond this, it could be disastrous”- “kadamuje mu nemowatarigima” as famous Singer of Niger republic, Maman Gawo of blessed memory said during the Apollo Mission over 50 years ago.

Professor Othman writes from NAERLS, ABU Zaria and can be reached via email: mkothman@gmail.com.

Apollo 12: Marking 60 years of man’s terrestrial romance with space (II), by Professor MK Othman


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