New book: Challenger crew likely survived explosion, died after plunging back to Earth

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While researching the life of Christa McAuliffe, one of seven passengers aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger when it exploded only 73 seconds into its flight on Jan. 28th, 1986, award-winning biographer Kevin Cook discovered something horrific.

The crew members didn’t die when the explosion was triggered. They remained alive for two minutes and 45 seconds as the shuttle dropped toward the Earth. Not til it crashed into the ocean at 207 miles per hour did they perish.

This and more stunning facts about the horrific tragedy are reportedly outlined in Cook’s latest biography, “The Burning Blue: The Untold Story of Christa McAuliffe and NASA’s Challenger Disaster.”

“[T]he capsule the crew was sitting inside did not explode. It was ejected in the explosion, and remained intact,” the New York Post reported Saturday, citing the findings from Cook’s book.

“The brave crew members — Smith, Dick Scobee, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Gregory Jarvis and Christa McAuliffe — survived the initial disaster and ‘were conscious, at least at first, and fully aware that something was wrong,'” the outlet added, quoting directly from the book.

In an interview earlier this month with NPR, Cook revealed that this was not something he’d known when he started writing the book.

“It was something that I did not know when I set out on this process. I think like most Americans, I imagined that they died instantly in the conflagration that we saw in the sky,” he said.

“The fire that we saw over Cape Canaveral on the 28th of January in ’86 was the giant external fuel tank exploding. And the crew compartment that held the seven astronauts remained intact. And the crew did not die instantly, and what killed them was striking the water at 207 miles per hour.”

The evidence, he added, is in the personal emergency packs that were found after the crash.

“Three of them, at least, were activated after the fire in the sky that we saw that left that awful pitchfork in the sky. There were switches thrown on the flight deck afterward in attempt to save the crew and the mission,” he said.

According to Cook, they shouldn’t have and wouldn’t have survived, except that something else — besides the explosion — went horribly wrong.

“There were switches thrown on the flight deck afterward in attempt to save the crew and the mission. But one thing that I was able to find about those two minutes and 45 seconds is that as the crew compartment fell, it was trailing umbilical wires that had connected the crew compartment to other parts of the ship,” he explained.

“And poignantly and bizarrely enough, those wires acted like the tail of a kite. And rather than spin, which would have put the crew members out of consciousness immediately, it flew more like a kite, more directly down, as aviators say, trimmed in flight on the way down to the impact with the Atlantic.”

Now, these findings aren’t necessarily new — though they were to Cook. As early as 2004, reports had begun to emerge about the activated emergency packs and the compartment’s bizarre motion.

Unfortunately, all the evidence was inconclusive then and is still inconclusive now.

“The forces on the Orbiter (shuttle) at breakup were probably too low to cause death or serious injury to the crew but were sufficient to separate the crew compartment from the forward fuselage, cargo bay, nose cone, and forward reaction control compartment. The cause of death of the Challenger astronauts cannot be positively determined,” NASA’s official report read.

“We’ll probably never know,” a NASA spokesperson told NBC News in 2004.

What’s known without a shadow of a doubt is that Challenger should have never been launched on Jan. 28th, 1986. The only reason it was launched, according to Cook, was for can best be described as political reasons.

“There was a great deal of pressure to get the bird in the air, as they said, on a school day preferably because teacher-in-space Christa McAuliffe was going to teach lessons from orbit. This was in part an attempt on NASA’s part to restore, rekindle interest in the shuttle program that had become a little bit routine, especially since Sally Ride made history in 1983,” he told NPR.

“When the engineers were telling them, do not launch this flight, the engineers were putting their careers at risk by saying so. And one of their bosses said, it’s time to take your engineer’s hat off and put a managerial hat on.”

McAuliffe was a famous teacher and astronaut who was selected from over 11,000 applicants in the NASA Teacher in Space Project. Had Challenger been given the time needed for a successful launch, she would have been the first teacher in space.

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Vivek Saxena

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