As we continue our runup to the release of Orbit Path, our upcoming mobile game set in the empty void of space, we share with you 3 interesting tidbits of manned space flight history that you might not have known:

1. The night before the Challenger disaster 5 Shuttle engineers pleaded with NASA to cancel the launch

When the shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds into its 10th mission the world sat in stunned disbelief as the Shuttle disintegrate before our eyes. For 5 engineers working as contractors on the Space Shuttle the pain was all too real: they knew it was going to happen and they couldn’t stop it. On a conference call with NASA management the night before the January launch, Bob Ebeling and 4 other Thiokol engineers pleaded with NASA to cancel the launch of Challenger the following morning in frigid sub-zero temperatures. The engineers had reason to worry, they built and maintained the Shuttle’s solid rocket boosters and knew that the rubber O-ring joints that held the rocket together would crack and fail in sub-zero temperatures. Despite the engineers’ dire warnings and under the pressure of grueling launch schedule, NASA officials went ahead and launched Challenger the next morning. The investigation into the Challenger disaster revealed that the root cause of the explosion was exactly the scenario the engineers had predicted. Sadly, Bob Ebeling passed away on March 22, 2016 at the age of 89 and even until his last days he remained haunted by the guilt of not being able to stop the disaster.

Notice the dark puffs of smoke leaking out of Challenger's solid rocket booster at launch.

Notice the dark puffs of smoke leaking out of Challenger’s solid rocket booster at launch.

2. Neil Armstrong landed on the moon with a broken guidance computer and less than 30 seconds of fuel in his tanks

the apollo 11 lunar module approaches the command module

We’ve all felt the frustration of having a computer crash on you that one time you really needed it, but I bet none of us have ever felt as helpless as Neil Armstrong did when the Apollo 11 lunar module guidance computer crashed just feet before touchdown on the lunar surface.  As the Apollo 11 lunar module descended to the surface, the guidance computer did the 1969 equivalent of a MacBook beach balling as it overloaded while processing all of the inputs needed to guide the craft to a soft landing.  At this point of failure it was too late to abort the mission so in spite of his glitched computer, Armstrong took manual control of the craft and continued to descend to the surface. However the loss of the guidance computer meant that Armstrong had to eye ball his landing while making sure he didn’t run out of fuel doing so. With less than 30 seconds of fuel in the Lunar Module’s tanks, Armstrong brought the LM to a safe and historic touchdown in the Sea of Tranquility.

Apollo 11's Lunar Module Guidance computer

Apollo 11’s Lunar Module Guidance computer flashed a critical error 1202 just when it was needed most.


3. The Soviet Union stole NASA’s designs for the Space Shuttle to build Buran, the Soviet Shuttle

Buran: The Soviet Shuttle

While the 1980s saw NASA triumphantly launch the re-usable Space Shuttle and further cement itself as the clear winner of the space race, the Soviet Union in its dying days took one final swing for at space glory when it rolled-out and launched its own re-usable space shuttle:  the Buran. The Soviet Shuttle only flew once and that was a 3 hour prototype flight in November 1988. It doesn’t take a trained eye to notice the  similarities in design of the Buran and the American Shuttle, which is more than mere coincidence. Its been said that the Buran was the crowning achievement of the KGB as much of its design came directly from plans and documents stolen by the KGB from NASA. However Buran was not just some dime store knock off, it actually was fully autonomous having been launched, flown and landed with no humans on board, a feat the Space Shuttle was never able to match. Unfortunately, the Buran came too late and never entered operational service. Soon after Buran’s first launch the Soviet Union collapsed and the Buran prototype was left abandoned in a hanger. There it remained forgotten and covered in dust until 2002 when the only Soviet Shuttle every built was destroyed by fire.

NASA's Shuttle vs the Buran: the resemblance is uncanny.

NASA’s Shuttle vs the Buran: the resemblance is uncanny.


Do you like space? Do you like puzzles? Of course you do. Sign up today for the beta of Orbit Path, our upcoming space based puzzler that challenges you to harness gravity to navigate your way through the perils of the cosmos.

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