|The Space Shuttle Challenger and its booster system moments before they were destroyed. The plume of flame from its malfunctioning SRB is clearly visible. Image credit: NASA|
Challenger fought back as the ET began to leak liquid hydrogen fuel. It swiveled (the aerospace term is "gimballed") the three Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSMEs) in its tail as it struggled to stay on course. The plume from the SRB, meanwhile, glowed brighter as it began to burn hydrogen leaking from the ET. At the same time, the SRB began to rotate around the single strut left holding it to the ET. That strut was located not far from the Orbiter's gray nose, near the conical top of the errant SRB.
Throughout these events, Challenger's last crew remained oblivious to the technological drama taking place around them. This was just as well, since they had no way to escape what was about to happen to them.
When Challenger at last lost its struggle against its own booster stack, significant events were separated by tenths or hundredths of seconds. Immediately after the right SRB's lower strut came free, the entire Shuttle stack lurched right. Mike Smith, in Challenger's pilot seat, had time for a startled "Uh-oh" less than a second after the lurch. The ET's dome-shaped bottom then fell away, freeing all the hydrogen fuel it contained. The right SRB's pointed nose slammed into and crushed the top of the ET, freeing liquid oxygen oxidizer. The escaped hydrogen blossomed into a fireball that encompassed Orbiter, rapidly disintegrating ET, and SRBs.
Yet the Orbiter Challenger did not explode. Instead, it broke free of what was left of the ET and began a tumble. The aerodynamic pressures the Orbiter experienced as its nose pointed away from its direction of flight were more than sufficient to snap it into several large pieces: the crew cabin, the satellite payload, the wings, the SSME cluster. They emerged from the fireball more or less intact. The SRBs, still firing, flew out of the fireball, tracing random trails across the blue Florida sky until a range safety officer commanded them to self-destruct. The Orbiter's wreckage, meanwhile, plummeted into the Atlantic within sight of the Florida coast.
NASA recovered the bodies of the crew and portions of the wreckage, including the section of the right SRB that had leaked hot gas. The wreckage was turned over to accident investigators.
After Challenger, NASA and its contractors redesigned the SRB joints and seals, added crew pressure suits and a limited crew escape capability, and banned potentially unsafe practices and payloads from Shuttle missions. Yet the U.S. civilian space agency might have gone much farther when it sought to enhance Space Shuttle safety after Challenger.
Even before the accident, NASA had at its disposal redesign proposals that could have made the Shuttle stack stronger and safer. In 1982, for example, George Landwehr von Pragenau, a veteran engineer at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, filed a patent application – granted in 1984 – for a Shuttle stack design that would have made the Challenger accident impossible.
Born and educated in Austria, von Pragenau joined the von Braun rocket team in Huntsville, Alabama, in 1957. He became a U.S. citizen in 1963. He specialized in rocket stability and flight effects on rocket behavior. He had, for example, been part of the team that found the cause of the "pogo" oscillations that crippled Apollo 6, the second unmanned Saturn V-launched Apollo test mission (4 April 1968).
In the conventional Shuttle stack, von Pragenau explained, SRB thrust was transmitted through the forward SRB attachment points to a reinforced intertank ring between the ET's top-mounted liquid oxygen tank and its liquid hydrogen tank. He considered this "indirect routing" of thrust loads to be perilously complex. SSME thrust loads, for their part, passed through the Orbiter to its twin aft ET attachment points on the large fragile hydrogen tank.
By the time he filed his 1982 patent application, von Pragenau had spent almost a decade thinking about how the Shuttle stack might be rearranged to reduce weight and aerodynamic drag, increase stability, simplify paths through which the force of rocket thrust was transmitted, and provide greater structural strength. His 1984 patent was, in fact, not his first aimed at Shuttle improvement.
|Von Pragenau's 1974 alternative Shuttle stack. Image credit: U.S. Patent Office|
In 1974, von Pragenau had filed a patent – granted the following year – in which he proposed a more slender, more vertically oriented Shuttle stack; that is, one that would mimic conventional rocket designs in which stages are stacked one atop the other. He linked the twin SRBs side by side. Moving the tank for dense liquid oxygen from the ET's nose to its tail placed its concentrated mass nearer the base of the stack, improving in-flight stability. He then mounted the SRBs to the Orbiter's belly and perched the ET atop the SRB/Orbiter combination. SRB and SSME thrust loads were conveyed through struts to meet at the ET's flat, reinforced base.
Von Pragenau's 1982 Shuttle stack design was in some ways a less radical departure from the existing Shuttle design than was his 1974 design. He left the SRBs, ET, and Orbiter in their normal positions relative to each other, but made other significant changes. As in his 1975 patent, he moved the liquid oxygen tank from the ET's nose to its tail and brought the SRBs closer together to improve stability. The liquid oxygen tank became skinny, cylindrical, and almost as long as the Orbiter and SRBs attached to it. The liquid hydrogen tank, fat with low-density fuel, von Pragenau mounted atop the oxygen tank, partially overhanging the Orbiter and SRBs.
The most important feature of von Pragenau's redesign was a rigid framework – a thrust structure – that would link the bottom of the SRBs just above their rocket nozzles. In addition to holding the SRBs rigidly in place, the thrust structure would transmit SRB thrust loads to the bottom of the ET oxygen tank, which would rest atop the center of the thrust structure. When the spent SRBs slid away from the Orbiter/ET stack, they would take the thrust structure with them.
|Side view of Von Pragenau's 1982 Shuttle stack concept. Image credit: U.S. Patent Office|
On 1 February 2003, the Space Shuttle claimed another crew. The oldest Orbiter, Columbia, was heavier than her sisters Atlantis, Discovery, and Endeavour, which limited the amount of cargo she could deliver to the International Space Station (ISS). For this reason, NASA largely relegated to Columbia the few remaining non-ISS missions - for example, Hubble Space Telescope servicing.
As they began Earth-atmosphere reentry at 8:44 a.m. Eastern Standard Time after a nearly 16-day life sciences mission, the seven STS-107 astronauts on board Columbia were unaware that, during ascent, a piece of ice-impregnated insulating foam nearly a meter wide had broken free from the ET and impacted their spacecraft's left wing. Ice and foam had broken free from ETs before, but the damage they caused was, after cursory examination, deemed acceptable by Shuttle Program managers. This time, however, the impact opened a hole up to 10 inches wide in the Orbiter's left wing leading edge.
Hot plasma generated during reentry entered the hole and began to destroy Columbia's left wing from the inside out. Observers along the Orbiter's flight path, which cut across the southern tier of U.S. states, reported unusual flashes. Meanwhile, members of the STS-107 crew on Columbia's Flight Deck observed and recorded on video flashes visible outside their windows. In the recovered video, the astronauts appear to realize that the flashes were unusual but show no signs of panic.
Much as Challenger had before it, Columbia fought bravely against the forces destroying it. Onboard computers took account of increased drag on the left side of the Orbiter and sought to compensate to keep it on the flight path. At 8:59 a.m. Eastern Standard Time, however, Columbia tumbled and disintegrated over northeast Texas.
Both of von Pragenau's design concepts placed all or part of the ET above the Orbiter, so one might argue that they would not have prevented a failure resembling that which killed the STS-107 crew. On the other hand, one can be forgiven for speculating that a U.S. civilian space agency provided with the means after Challenger to rebuild the Shuttle system to make it safer might also have evolved an organizational culture more prone to investigating and less prone to tolerating recurring flight anomalies.
Von Pragenau retired from NASA in 1991 after more than 30 years of service. He remained involved in engineering efforts at NASA Marshall Space Flight Center during his retirement. He died two years after the Space Shuttle's final flight (STS-135, 8-24 July 2011), on 11 July 2013, at the age of 86.
Patent No. 4,452,412, Space Shuttle with Rail System and Aft Thrust Structure Securing Solid Rocket Boosters to External Tank, George L. von Pragenau, NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, 15 September 1982 (filed), 5 June 1984 (granted)
Patent No. 3,866,863, Space Vehicle, George L. von Pragenau, NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, 21 March 1974 (filed), 18 February 1975 (granted)
Hampton Cove Funeral Home Obituaries: George Landwehr von Pragenau - http://www.hamptoncovefuneralhome.com/fh/obituaries/obituary.cfm?o_id=2150841&fh_id=13813 (accessed 27 October 2016)
NASA History: Columbia Accident Investigation Board - http://history.nasa.gov/columbia/CAIB.html (accessed 29 October 2016)
NASA History: Challenger STS 51-L Accident - https://www.hq.nasa.gov/office/pao/History/sts51l.html (accessed 29 October 2016)
What Shuttle Should Have Been: NASA's October 1977 Space Shuttle Flight Manifest
Where to Launch and Land the Space Shuttle? (1971-1972)
What if a Space Shuttle Orbiter Had to Ditch? (1975)
What If Galileo Had Fallen to Earth? (1988)
Dreaming a Different Apollo, Part Two