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NASA shuttle crew likely survived first seconds after explosion, book claims

The tragic crew of NASA’s Challenger space shuttle likely survived the devastating explosion before the capsule crashed into the Atlantic, a new book claims.

Crew members Michael Smith, Francis ‘Dick’ Scobee, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Gregory Jarvis and Christa McAuliffe were ejected into the fireball 73 seconds after the launch in Florida in 1986.

But they were almost certainly initially alive as the vessel’s heat-resistant silicon tiles, designed to withstand re-entry, were not burned up, according to author Kevin Cook.

The Burning Blue: The Untold Story of Christa McAuliffe and NASA’s Challenger sees the writer claim the crew “were conscious, at least at first, and fully aware that something was wrong” following the explosion.

The capsule was thrust into the sky at 20Gs of force, far greater than the three Gs the astronauts had been trained to withstand – but still survivable, an investigation later found.

Crewmembers were (left to right, front row) astronauts Michael J. Smith, Francis R. (Dick) Scobee and Ronald E. McNair; and Ellison S. Onizuka, Sharon Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis and Judith A. Resnik

The probe also concluded there was no sign of sudden depressurisation, meaning the passengers were conscious, while three of their emergency supplies had been switched on.

It is further believed Mr Smith attempted to restore power to the shuttle, due to switches on his control panel having been moved.

The capsule then dropped 12 miles reaching terminal velocity of over 200mph and lasting two minutes before crashing down into the ocean.

The space shuttle Challenger (STS-51L) takes off from the Kennedy Space Centre
Engineers had warned against the launch due to overnight frost

Cold weather had caused the rubber O-rings holding the booster sections in place, and which contained explosive hydrogen fuel, to stiffen and not fully expand.

This meant a gap less than a millimetre allowed a few grams of the fuel to burn through.

NASA had vetoed engineers’ warnings against going ahead with the launch due to an unexpected overnight frost.

Mr Cook’s book focuses on Mrs McAuliffe, a social studies teacher who beat 11,000 candidates to win NASA’s Teacher in Space competition and secure a seat on the doomed shuttle.

The 37-year-old’s inclusion as a payload specialist garnered major media coverage with her set to become the first civilian in space.

The mum-of-two had spotted a newspaper article explaining how President Ronald Reagan wanted to send a teacher into space in 1984.

She underwent months of rigorous training before the launch was hit with multiple delays, including a scrapped takeoff due to rain and another when techs failed to fix a hatch malfunction in the days before the actual takeoff.

The Challenger disaster resulted in a near three-year lapse in NASA’s shuttle programme before Discovery launched in September 1988.

The programme was scrapped altogether in 2011 and remaining vessels retired with US astronauts hitching multimillion dollar rides to the International Space Station on Russian Soyuz capsules ever since.



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