What a Difference Six Days Makes

By William “Doc Halliday

Actually the difference was less than 141 hours, but as they say, who’s counting?  The more important difference was not the time but the temperature.  The event was originally scheduled to take place at 14:42 on January 22, but with various delays, it did not occur until 11:38 on January 28, 140 hours and 56 minutes later. 

During that time delay a cold front that had been expected two days earlier, moved into the area.  It brought some of the coldest weather in the area’s history.  Overnight the temperature in the area plunged to 18 degrees Fahrenheit, with the wind chill hitting ten degrees below zero.  Had the event taken place when it was originally scheduled, the temperature would have been in the normal range and would not have been a factor. 

Do you know who Richard Feynman was?  Richard Phillips Feynman was a theoretical physicist.  He received the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1965, sharing it with two other individuals.  Mr. Feynman had worked on the atomic bomb during World War Two in the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos where he was a Group Leader. 

Feynman was an ardent proponent of bringing physics to the general population through both books and lectures, especially a 1959 talk on top-down nanotechnology called “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom”.   He also published his undergraduate lectures, “The Feynman Lectures on Physics” in three volumes. 

But perhaps you and most Americans know him best for the important role on the Rogers Commission.  During a televised hearing, Feynman demonstrated that the material used in certain O-rings became less resilient in cold weather.  He did this by compressing a sample of the material in a clamp and immersing it in ice-cold water. 

Or, perhaps you are more familiar with the name of Sharon Corrigan, who was born in Boston, Massachusetts almost 30 years after Mr. Feynman was born.  As she matured, Sharon began using her middle name of Christa, and when she married in 1970, she adopted her husband’s last name.  That same year she accepted her first teaching position in Maryland after graduating from college in her hometown. 

In 1984, using the name Christa McAuliffe, she applied for the Teacher in Space Project, and by 1985 had been selected as one of the ten finalists.  On July 19, 1985 she was selected to be the first teacher in space.  She would be one of seven members of the crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger scheduled to lift off at 14:42 on January 22, 1986 on the 25th Space Shuttle mission. 

With the various delays that I mentioned earlier, that liftoff did not occur until 11:38 on January 28, 1986.  The delay of almost six full days proved disastrous as the cold front rolled in to Cape Canaveral bringing freezing temperatures with it. 

That morning there were hundreds of icicles, some two feet long, over the craft, and a crew was sent out to dislodge them.  The walkways and guardrails were also covered in ice.  By 11 AM the temperature had warmed up to 36 degrees, but that was still 15 degrees colder than any previous shuttle launch. 

One minute into the flight, the shuttle – at 35-thousand feet – hit a speed of Mach-1.5. Then, seconds later, something unusual was noticed.  The contrail thickened; it seemed to balloon out a bit.  Then one, just one, solid rocket booster came corkscrewing out of the cloud.  Seconds later, a second solid rocket booster can be seen.  At 73 seconds into the flight the Space Shuttle Challenger appears to explode.  There is no chance for the astronauts to escape during the initial two minutes of flight. 

Crowds of spectators on the beaches below are stunned at what they have seen; and then they are horrified.  There is shock and disbelief in the television audiences around the country and the world; particularly in Christa McAuliffe’s high school in Concord, New Hampshire.  Debris continues to fall from the sky for an hour after the explosion. 

That night, President Ronald Reagan addressed the nation, and used words from a great poem; “High Flight” by John Gillespie Magee, Jr.  It is one of my favorites.  Those words he used were “and slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God”. 

It was more than a month before the remains of the seven astronauts were pulled from the ocean.  They were found about 15 miles northeast of Cape Canaveral and 100 feet underwater.   

Mr. Feynman was a member of the Rogers Commission which ultimately determined that the disaster of the Challenger was caused by the primary O-ring not properly sealing in unusually cold weather at Cape Canaveral in Florida. 

January 28th, is the anniversary of the Challenger disaster.  Did you watch it live on television? 

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