Asbestos In The Space Race

Asbestos In The Space Race

We all know that asbestos is a hazardous material that has been totally banned in many countries in the world, including here in the UK where an overall ban came into force in 1999.  However, asbestos is still legal to use in the United States of America, particularly in the construction industry.  There is legislation covering the use of asbestos in industry though many consumer products can still legally contain trace amounts of the substance.

Many in the US argue that an outright ban of asbestos due to government regulation will stifle innovation and that the substance’s benefits are too important to ignore.  These people advocate finding ways of eliminating the risks involved to those who work with hazardous substances like asbestos.  One argument that they set forth as a means of furthering their cause is the Space Shuttle Challenger.

Space Shuttle Challenger was constructed by Rockwell International’s Space Transportation Systems Division in California and made its maiden flight on April 4, 1983.  It was NASA’s second Space Shuttle orbiter to be put into service (Columbia was the first and it completed 27 missions before disintegrating on re-entry on February 1, 2003 resulting in the deaths of all 7 crew members).  Challenger rapidly became the workhorse of NASA’s space shuttle fleet, flying more missions per year than Columbia which had been launched on its maiden voyage in 1981.

Challenger carried the first American woman into space, Sally Ride in June, 1983 and followed this in August of the same year with the first African American (Guion Bluford) in space.  It contributed to the first untethered space walk using the manned manoeuvring unit in 1984 and later that year was part of the first mission to carry two women to space at the same time.

For avid space memorabilia collectors, Challenger once carried 260.000 envelopes stamped to commemorate the 25th Anniversary of NASA on the first space shuttle night launch and night landing.  Space Shuttle Challenger was an important part of space history throughout the 1980s.

Then, on January 28, 1986, tragedy struck when Space Shuttle Challenger disintegrated shortly after launch killing all seven astronauts on board, including British school teacher, Christa McAulife.  This was the first space shuttle to be destroyed in an accident during a mission and the world watched the shocking news reports of the space shuttle’s destruction with bated breath.  The collected debris from the Challenger has been buried in decommissioned missile silos at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.  From time to time, more debris from the shuttle is washed up on Florida beaches.

The accident was discovered to have been caused by faulty O rings on the shuttle – rubber rings that run around the joints in each of the booster rocket’s four segments which ensure a tight fit.  During the launch procedure, flames burned through one of the rings igniting an external fuel tank which caused the Challenger to explode.  Many blamed the accident on the putty on the joints which protected the O rings.  It’s been purported that due to the Environmental Protection Agency’s ban on the use of asbestos a non-asbestos containing putty was used with did not have the same fire retardant properties of asbestos.  However, this has been denied by both NASA and the makers of the putty who claim that the putty involved did contain asbestos.  Perhaps we will never know whether this was a disaster that could have been avoided with the use of asbestos.