I watched a documentary on National Geographic over the weekend, looking in detail at the cause of the 1986 explosion. It was put down to a faulty O-ring on one of the solid rocket boosters, but the NatGeo documentary went into moment-by-moment detail citing the Jet Stream above the launch site as a major contributor to the explosion.
"The death of the astronauts, including teacher Christa McAuliffe, grounded the Shuttle for 3 years!"
The second Shuttle loss was of the Columbia in 2003. On launch, some insulation from the main fuel tank had fallen off and smashed into the leading edge of the Shuttle's wing. The astronauts never knew there was a problem and so on re-entry, hot plasma got inside the hole in the wing and disintegration was inevitable.
That really was the beginning of the end of this amazing and innovative space programme. Yes, the design was compromised by the requirements of the US Air Force who were originally going to have their own Shuttle for spying missions, and mistakes were made with safety and procedures, but what an amazing achievement the Space Shuttle programme was.
Watch the Space Shuttle Atlantis head to orbit!
Everyone in science knows that when a machine so complicated is pushed into orbit with so much rocket fuel, failure is going to happen eventually. Every astronaut who flew on the Space Shuttle knew the risks, but as Commander Chris Hadfield said recently, you mitigate every possible risk and you train for every possible outcome. What happened to Challenger and Columbia was beyond the control of those onboard and sadly, their deaths became part of our shared history.
"Will we ever see the likes of the Space Shuttle again?"
Doubtful. It was too flawed from the start, although the US Air Force has a lifting body design they fly for classified missions and a new (much smaller) Crew Return Vehicle along similar lines is being worked on by private industry.
But I don't think we'll ever have anything that resembles the Shuttle again until we can do 'single stage to orbit' and learn to take off and land from a terrestrial runway. That day is hopefully only a few years away thanks to the efforts of Reaction Engines.
Although we could view the Shuttle programme as a failure because of the loss of Challenger and Columbia, there were a huge number of successful missions and the legacy of the Shuttle is not just the amazing pictures that Hubble has sent back but also the massive structure called the International Space Station which is our first step toward reaching out to our neighbour planets and beyond.
RIP to all those brave souls who gave their lives for the advancement of science and space exploration! And a huge farewell to the machine that, with each launch, inspired me to learn more about the Universe around us.
I do hope that the next generation gets inspired by space exploration the way I was by that amazing, complicated and flawed machine called the Space Shuttle.