Challenger crew ‘survived blast and fell 12 miles to deaths fully conscious’

The Challenger space shuttle crew likely survived the first few seconds after the craft's devastating explosion, a new book has claimed.

It was an unusually cold morning at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on January 28, 1986 and as the seconds counted down to the Space Shuttle Challenger’s launch, millions were glued to their TV screens.

As the shuttle rocketed into the skies, the launch initially seemed a success, until the Challenger erupted above the Atlantic Ocean 73 seconds into its flight.

The capsule carrying crew members Michael Smith, Francis (Dick) Scobee, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Gregory Jarvis and Christa McAuliffe was ejected intact into the fireball, according to author Kevin Cook.

His new book 'The Burning Blue: The Untold Story of Christa McAuliffe and NASA's Challenger' claims that the crew “were conscious, at least at first, and fully aware that something was wrong” in the immediate moments after the explosion, the Daily Mail reports.

A subsequent investigation revealed that the disaster had been caused by the failure of the O-ring seals, which were not designed to handle the unusually cold conditions.

The cold meant that the rings failed to fully expand, leaving a gap between booster sections, allowing a few grams of superheated fuel to burn through.

However, the interior of the crew cabin was protected with heat-resistant silicon tiles and as a result did not burn up.

Instead, the crew cabin shot through the sky, subjecting passengers to 17 more Gs of force than their training had accustomed them to.

An investigation later found the increase in G-force had been survivable, with the probability of injury 'low', Mr Cook wrote.

It also showed no sign of sudden depressurisation which would have knocked the passengers unconscious.

A further examination of the wreckage also found that three of the astronauts' emergency air supplies had been switched on, showing that a number of crew members had survived the initial explosion.

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It is even believed that Mr Smith tried to restore power to their shuttle, as switches on his control panel had been moved.

It took two minutes for the cabin compartment to fall the 12 miles to the sea, reaching a terminal velocity of more than 200 miles per hour.

This means several of the shuttle's passengers were likely fully aware they were falling to their deaths, spending their last moments alive in terrible fear.

The crew compartment and many other vehicle fragments were eventually recovered from the ocean floor after a lengthy search and recovery operation.

Mr Cook's book focuses on Christa McAuliffe, 37, who was to become the first teacher in space.

Mrs McAuliffe beat 11,000 other candidates to become NASA's Teacher in Space contest, earning a seat on the shuttle.

There was huge media attention surrounding Mrs McAuliffe and the flight as she would have been the first civilian in space.

Mrs McAuliffe was married with two children and teaching social studies at Concord High School when she saw a headline reading 'Reagan wants teacher in space’ in August 1984.

In the months before the flight, Mrs McAuliffe went through rigorous training, but the flight was hit with several delays, including an attempt on January 26 which was scrapped due to rain and another attempt the following day which saw a hatch malfunction.

The fatal shuttle lifted off the following day, despite concerns over the cold weather.

Mrs McAuliffe was buried in Concord in an unmarked grave, as her husband feared that tourists would come to the site.

Then-president Ronald Regan subsequently ordered an investigation into the Challenger disaster, which found that NASA had breached its own safety rules.

NASA managers had known of a potentially catastrophic flaw in the O-rings for years, but had failed to address the issue properly.

They also disregarded warnings from engineers about the dangers of launching during cold weather.

The disaster resulted in a 32-month hiatus in the Space Shuttle program, with the next shuttle, Discovery, taking off on September 29, 1988.

NASA ended the shuttle program in 2011 and retired the remaining vessels.

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