Challenger space shuttle disaster marked 30 years on

2016-01-28 22:00
Space shuttle Challenger explodes shortly after lifting off from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. (Bruce Weaver, via AP File)

Space shuttle Challenger explodes shortly after lifting off from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. (Bruce Weaver, via AP File)

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Doha - Three decades after the space shuttle Challenger exploded during lift-off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the next generation of space technology is building on changes made following the accident.

NASA's Space Shuttle was the first largely re-usable spacecraft, designed to make flying into space cheap, simple and safe.

Each shuttle was designed to complete more than 100 missions and used reusable booster rockets to lift it into space.

But 73 seconds after the space shuttle Challenger launched on January 28th 1986, a seal on one of its rocket engines failed, resulting in an explosion which destroyed the craft, killing all seven crew.

Changes were made to later missions, and despite the deaths of another seven crew members when space shuttle Columbia broke up on re-entry in 2003, the rest of the shuttle fleet continued flying until being retired in 2011.

"We shouldn't forget about the legacy of these 14 brave astronauts that gave their lives for the exploration for mankind," Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation told Al Jazeera.

"But you've got to think about the other 135 missions that were success, the work they did with the Hubble telescope and the interplanetary missions and probes that were sent off from the space shuttle, as well as building and developing the international space station."

Achievements and costs

Over thirty years (1981-2011) the space shuttle clocked up 135 flights, and carried a combined total of 1593 tons of cargo into space.

NASA's five shuttles orbited the Earth 20 830 times.

But it was the growing cost of the programme that lead to its demise: running costs of $4bn a year, a total programme costs of $209bn over 30 years.

"It was very expensive but it was a good test bed for the technology," Stallmer said. 

The shuttle disasters exposed a number of design shortcomings and problems with how the programme was being operated.

It also helped seed a commercial space transportation industry that is now developing both passenger and cargo supply spaceships.

"The shuttle was a government programme and now the government is really depending on the commercial sector to bring a lot of these reusable technologies into the mainstream," Stallmer added.

In historic first, SpaceX lands first reusable rocket

With the demise of the shuttle, NASA has increasingly looked to private companies for cheaper ways to deliver cargo and crew into space, among them SpaceX, which has been trying - not always successfully - to land its Falcon 9 booster rockets back on earth.

The company says reusable rockets will reduce launch costs from tens of millions of dollars to just a few  million, opening up space to many more companies and countries.

Earlier this week another US company, Blue Origin, made history by sending the same reusable rocket into space and landing it back on Earth for a second time.

"If you can get the cost and access to space down, it's going to open tremendous opportunities for what we can do in space," Stallmer said.

"I think we are only scratching the surface on the possibilities that can happen and the commerce that could happen in space."

Reusable rocket explodes after botched landing

The shuttle disasters have also resulted in a rethink of the way passengers are carried into orbit.

Challenger's six astronauts and a high-school teacher had no chance of escaping due to a spacecraft design decision, which is not being repeated on the passenger spaceships now under development.

These will launch on top of rockets, not alongside them, and have separate systems to fly crews to safety if a booster falters.

"Spaceflight is like any other big engineering system," Mike Leinbach, a former NASA shuttle launch director, said.

"You get smart by successes. You get smart by failures. I just hope that the new entrants into the market learn from the mistakes of the past."

Read more on:    nasa  |  spacex  |  us  |  space

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