This is something I can stomach when considering the launch of an unmanned robotic mission into space. It seems obvious that there should be a “flight termination” switch, especially when considering the damage a malfunctioning rocket could do to populated areas. If mission controllers see the rocket veer off course, they can make a quick and decisive action to blow the launch vehicle, and everything on it, out of the sky. But what about Space Shuttle launches? Surely they don’t have a flight termination option too, do they? Well, yes, they do actually. Welcome to the worst job in NASA: launch safety officer.
Every time the Shuttle launches from Cape Canaveral, there is an Air Force officer overseeing events and will probably be the most nervous person in mission control for the first two minutes of the mission. So who is this officer and what does he/she do? The launch safety officer has very big responsibility, not only to the people in mission control, but to the astronauts on board the launching Shuttle and (most critically) the people on the ground in towns and cities under the flight path. Should the Shuttle spin off course, it could crash, killing hundreds or even thousands of civilians. This is why the Shuttle’s two solid rocket boosters are armed with explosives, linked to the controls at the Air Force officer’s fingertips (pictured top). Flipping one switch would arm the explosives; another switch would detonate the spaceship, killing everyone on board.
I’m sure the safety officer will breathe a long sigh of relief as the Shuttle passes the two minute mark without any problems. At this point, the rocket boosters are jettisoned, taking the explosive charges with them. However, this isn’t the end of the worry for the astronauts.
Should something go wrong after booster separation, they will have limited options to prevent crash landing in a populated area. They can either steer the Shuttle into an orbital path (if it is high enough) and fly over the Earth to line themselves up for an emergency landing at California’s Edwards Air Force Base, or they would have to ditch in the Atlantic Ocean. But that’s not the scary part. Before ditching, the astronauts would have to “bail out” at around 20,000 ft (6,000 meters) without the help of ejection seats. They would need to do it the old fashioned way. “After Challenger, we installed parachutes, survival suits and individual rafts, as well as an extendable pole used to clear the escapees from the wing when they exit the hatch [while in flight],” says Bryan O’Connor, a former shuttle commander and NASAâ€™s chief of safety and mission assurance.
You’ll be glad to hear, the upcoming Orion space vehicle will be kitted out with a special rocket-powered escape pod should the worst happen during launch emergencies.
I’m still shocked that the astronauts need an “extendable pole” to clear themselves from the shuttle as they bail out!
Source: Popular Mechanics