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Since our foundation annually grants to the California Science Center Foundation, we get invited to educational Lunch and Learn events during the year. Because January 28, 2016 marks the 30th anniversary of the Space Shuttle Challenger tragedy, we attended such an event held in honor of the memory of the crew and their brave dedication to space exploration. The featured speaker was Dennis R. Jenkins who worked as a contractor to NASA for more than 30 years and is now the Project Director of the Samuel Oschin Air and Space Center project at the Science Center. He is based in Florida so commutes back and forth to California. He provided an insider’s perspective on the cause of this terrible accident and explained what was learned so future flights would be improved.

Dennis Jenkins speaking about the Challenger

Mr. Jenkins showed images via a PowerPoint presentation. You might recall that the space shuttle Challenger broke apart 73 seconds after liftoff and 7 Americans died on board. He said that some parts of the Challenger were recovered from the ocean after the accident. This tragedy put the shuttle program on hold for almost three years. The Rogers Commission looked at both the films of the liftoff and the debris found and surmised that the accident was due to a field joint with a defective design. There was a leak. In addition, there was wind shear during the ascent. It was also discussed that cold may have had some effect on the o-rings. Another factor was that those managing the flight were not willing to stop the launch. The solid rocket motor was responsible for the accident and not the rocket booster. Pressure built up in the motor during the first 600 milliseconds after ignition causing joint rotation.

Schematic of the Challenger Booster

Engineers worked to develop several field joint designs from the original design that used 2 o-rings. The final design was further modified to use 3 o-rings and a design to prevent joint rotation and this solved the problem.

We came away from this event with a feeling of more in-depth knowledge about flights in space and how this will make space travel safer and allow innovation and progress in space exploration to continue.

If you have never visited Journey to Space: The Exhibition at the California Science Center, be sure to put this into your schedule to experience this fascinating display before it closes on May 8, 2016. You will learn the challenging aspects of living and working in space and how our world is preparing for bolder and more distant missions.

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