It was the beginning of the 20th century – December 17, 1903, to be precise. Wilbur and Orville Wright (AKA the Wright brothers) took their first-ever flight. No man had ever flown in the air before this date. Exactly 66 years later, a man stepped foot on the moon. Blown away? Me too.
Over the last century, Mankind has seen progress like never before. We should count ourselves lucky to be born into this era of a technological boom. If at the beginning of the 20th century (or even in the mid-20th century for that matter), you had told someone that in some years, a man will step on the moon – you would have been dismissed as silly. Well, who’s laughing now?
Granted that space exploration by sending humans into outer space has benefits that are immeasurable in value, but the amount of risk that comes with it is also substantial. First, before a person can be given the green signal to go to space aboard a rocket, he or she has to go through many hours of rigorous training. This part in itself is quite demanding.
In 2017, I was able to visit NASA’s Kennedy Space Centre in Orlando and witness the exact place from where Neil Armstrong took flight. But what caught my eye was a machine that was used to simulate the extreme conditions of a space flight. We were each given a turn on the gyroscopic machine which rapidly rotated in all directions and yes, I ended up feeling sick after this.
So yeah, let’s get back to the point – the reason I spoke about the rigorous training was to give you the idea about how the real experience can be exceedingly exhilarating. And it is equally dangerous. (Of course, if you’re planning on becoming an Astronaut, don’t be afraid. With the increase in the amount of research & development in the space industry, the safety part of these missions is also getting exceedingly better).
I’ll be talking about such disasters that have taken place in the history of space exploration – SPACE SHUTTLE THAT EXPLODED! (of course, I’ll also be talking about disasters in which the rockets didn’t explode – :))
In the mid-20th century, the USA and USSR (Soviet Union) were in the middle of a race to determine who was the superpower in terms of space research and exploration.
Now let’s go to 1957. USSR was ahead of the US in this race. By this time, they had the Sputnik (world’s first satellite) in earth’s orbit. Reacting to this, on 6 December 1957 at 16:44:35 GMT, at Cape Canaveral, NACA (now NASA), launched the Vanguard.
But to the nation’s (and the world’s) surprise, merely 2 seconds after the rocket took to air, it returned onto the launchpad with a large force, causing the fuel to rupture and the rocket to explode.
The exact cause of this incident could not be found due to the limited technology back then, but it was later concluded that due to the low pressure in the fuel tank, the fuel entered the combustion chamber which caused this.
The reaction to this was, to say the least, humiliating for the states. During a UN meeting, the representative of the Soviet Union asked the US delegate if they needed aid which was reserved for the underdeveloped countries.
But the mission after this, Explorer 1, proved to be a huge success.
Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster
It was January 28, 1986. It was -3 degrees Celsius at the launch site of the Space Shuttle Challenger bound to take flight. Many Engineers warned the mission control about how the low temperature could damage the O-rings (rubber seals that separated the rocket boosters).
But the mission control didn’t want to delay the mission as it had already been delayed many times. So, the mission – including a civilian (as a part of NASA’s teach in space program) – went ahead despite the warnings.
73 seconds after the launch, the rocket started disintegrating as the boosters became unstable due to the O-rings – all this happened at the speed of sound. All the astronauts and the civilian aboard died.
After the disaster, the space shuttle missions were suspended for 32 months and a commission (Roger’s Commission) was formed to investigate the accident. One of the members was Richard Feynman.
Even to this date, 28th January 1986 is earmarked as one of the darkest days in the history of space exploration.
Space Shuttle Columbia Disaster: A tragedy tied close to our nation
If you’re an Indian, chances are that you might have heard about Kalpana Chawla – a NASA astronaut who had humble beginnings from Haryana, India. ‘KC’, as she was called by her colleagues was an extremely passionate person and her passion led her to heights we only dream about.
On 19 November 1997, Kalpana Chawla did her Nation proud by becoming the first Indian woman to go to space as a part of Space Shuttle Columbia.
Now let’s go a little bit further in time – to Chawla’s second space shuttle mission. On January 16, 2003, the space shuttle Columbia mission STS-107 took flight. During the initial lift-off, a suitcase-sized piece of foam hit one of the RCCs of the left wing, making a 20cm diameter hole. The mission control was informed about the risk involved, but they said that even if they were informed, the crew couldn’t do anything about it.
After performing more than 80 experiments on the ISS (International Space Station), the crew prepared for re-entry. But due to the damage that had happened during the lift-off, only 16 minutes before the astronauts were to reach their home, the space shuttle disintegrated. The communications up to 4 minutes before the catastrophe can be viewed here.
The debris from the explosion was spread over a large area – including parts of Texas, Illinois, and Arkansas. Many people also reported having found human body parts. To this date, the Columbia disaster is known as one of the darkest days known to mankind. All the 7 astronauts aboard the space shuttle died. This catastrophe is also linked quite closely to India as we lost Kalpana Chawla as well.
Space Travel Today: Is it safe?
Thanks to the huge amounts of Research and Development in Space Technology today, the risk factor of space missions has considerably reduced – with space tourism becoming a possibility. Of course, the lives that we’ve lost in space missions will always be mourned and will stay within our hearts. But, as they say, failures are stepping stones for success. Space Travel, although not 100% failproof, has become extremely safe today.
Companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic continue to try and make space travel safe and feasible for all. It might be that in a few years, you and I could go to space for a weekend getaway from our jobs.
Space travel has made our lives extremely convenient. How? Have a look at your room. You see the Wi-Fi router, a TV, and also your phone. Now take some time and research if you would have had all the features of these devices if humans had never dared to explore outer space. Chances are, we would have been living a dull life right now.
So, take some time to appreciate the work of space agencies and how they’ve helped you in your life. The Astronauts are aware of the amount of risk that come with choosing to explore space. But they choose to go on these missions – not for themselves, but for research that can benefit YOU.
“You must enjoy the journey. Because, whether you get there or not, you must have fun on the way”