A “Terrible Responsibility”

The June issue of Popular Mechanics has a brief article on one of NASA’s safety features for the Space Shuttle program.  Apparently, should the Shuttle malfunction during a launch, NASA has the ability to destroy the vessel and its crew by remotely detonating charges in each of the Shuttle’s solid fuel boosters (the smaller white rockets on each side of the Shuttle during a launch).  This “terrible responsibility” falls to a flight safety officer sitting at the “flight termination” panel. 

The explosive system is officially known as the Range Safety System (RSS).  It was last used during the January 1986 launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger.  But although NASA ordered the activation of the Challenger’s RSS 110 seconds after liftoff, the charges likely did no damage becuase the Shuttle and its rocket boosters had already disintegrated.

The article includes a map of the official “launch corridor” showing the dangers involved in a malfunctioning Shuttle launch.  As the Shuttle blasts off, it ascends into orbit over the Atlantic Ocean.  But if the vessel begins to malfunction and veer off course, it only has a short time before it comes over land again, creating the possibility for significant casualties on the ground should the Shuttle and its massive quantities of fuel strike a populated area.  Click here or on the picture above to go to the full map.

The map shows two lines–one solid and one dotted.  Under no circumstances can the Shuttle cross the solid line until it is safely in orbit, and it cannot cross the dotted line unless it is functioning normally.  These lines follow the North American coastline from Nova Scotia down to the bottom of the Lesser Antilles, protecting coastal cities from the threat of a Shuttle crash.  If the Shuttle crosses the solid line before reaching orbit, or if it crosses the dotted line while malfunctioning, the safety offer is required to flip the switch to detonate the charges in the boosters.


2 Responses to “A “Terrible Responsibility””

  1. 1 Jen May 15, 2008 at 10:28 am

    Growing up in Florida, it was always fun to go into the backyard and watch the shuttles take off or to see all the kitchen cabinets simultaneously open and close themselves with the sonic boom. Somehow, I never thought about the ship crashing to earth and killing everyone around.


  2. 2 Frank May 16, 2008 at 7:24 pm

    I should have guessed there was a procedure like this on in place. What a responsibiilty to have. The only saving grace is that the crew would be totally aware of the situation and it would be a pre-acknowledged and shared decision by all. I hope we never have to see it implemented with a live crew on board.
    Thanks for the info.

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Cartographia is a blog about how we use maps to represent the world around us, and how people interpret maps today and throughout history. Please feel free to send any questions, comments, or recommendations directly to me at cartographia.blog@gmail.com.

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