Twenty-Two years ago, the Space Shuttle Challenger was destroyed during launch.  The date was January 28, 1986.  I was in Mr. Wilson’s Fifth Grade Class and while we were not watching the launch, a TV was brought in for us to watch the news coverage of the event.

Were I was really doesn’t matter, what does matter is that NASA got away with a cover up of what happened to the remains of the astronauts after the destruction and the decision making process that led to the launch under those circumstances in the first place.

It was a very cold day and ice had actually formed on some of the controls and parts of the shuttle, two pictures of the ice can be found here.   NASA claimed to have consulted with Morton Thiokol prior to going ahead with the launch, but NASA is the only business in town that sends people into space and if Morton Thiokol contradicted that statement it would probably put Thiokol out of business.  NASA also had many reasons to cover up their bad decision making.  If you think that they did not have bad decision making at NASA the later cover up about the Challenger should change your mind.

The basic sequence of events describing the destruction can be found here.   The launch began, the O-Rings did not seal properly and began to leak as well as vaporize from the intense heat, a little over a minute in the leak became more serious and fuel was leaking in an uncontrolled fashion causing a fire to expand, the liquid fuel tank to disintegrate and the remaining fuel to burn in a not quite explosive fashion.  The solid rocket motors ripped loose from the change in balance and the shuttle broke up in the process.

The first story from NASA is that all seven astronauts died very quickly in the original break up and would have only suffered a little.  The evidence uncovered over time shows otherwise.  A later NASA report indicates that the cause of death was not positively certain, the forces of breakup would not have been likely to cause serious injury and it was possible that the crew lost consciousness prior to the 207 mph impact with the water.  If the breakup did not cause serious injury and the people could lose consciousness because they were still alive, it is likely that the cause of death was the impact with the water.  The report is so non-committal and attempts to still color the events as innocuously as possible while avoiding the more likely difficult truth.  This page indicates that the likely cause of death was the impact with the water.  The uncomfortable question is whether the crew was awake and alert for the two and a half minute drop down to the water.

The Miami Herald daily newspaper also publishes Tropic, a weekly Sunday magazine with longer and more investigative articles.  Tropic carried an article about the cover up after the Challenger break up on November 13, 1988.  NASA prevented local medical examiners from having access to the remains of the crew.  The crew cabin showed no evidence of a rapid decompression of the type that would cause unconsciousness.  The remains of three of the crew members were driven in plastic garbage cans over several miles of highway in the back of a pick up truck to an air force base to keep them out of the jurisdiction of the medical examiner and to avoid any additional press notice.  There were many lies told and facts hidden and evidence destroyed.  Because NASA is the only space employer in town, people keep quiet to keep their jobs.  The whistle blower about the O-rings did the right thing but at the time of the printing of the article was finding it difficult to find work in the space industry.

The cover up did not work entirely, but that did not stop NASA from trying.

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