In Episode 65 Rachel takes us to Cape Canaveral to talk about the Challenger Explosion and the psychology of groupthink. Then Emily heads to Kathmandu, Nepal the city nearest to Mount Everest and talks about what it takes to summit the world’s highest mountain. She also shares the story of Hannelore Schmatz, the fourth woman to summit Everest and the first woman to die doing so.
Story 1 – Space Shuttle Challenger
I’m going to tell you all about the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger.
Now, I only know about this story because of the explosion. But much like there were a million different Apollo missions, the Challenger did more than just traumatize Americans. The story that we all know was actually it’s 10th launch.
Originally, Challenger was going to be a testing rocket. Its construction began in November of 1975, and its testing began in April of 1978. NASA stated that there was hella testing… I’m paraphrasing. They said the little shuttle that couldn’t went through 11 months of vibration testing in a special machine that could simulate all the different stages of flight. However, NASA would later say that the computers of the time weren’t advanced enough to calculate all of the stresses that a shuttle may endure during these different phases.
In 1979, the test vehicle was transformed into a spacecraft. Apparently, this wasn’t a quick endeavor, as it took 2 years for the conversion to be complete. Wings had to be strengthened, a crew cabin had to be ready for real people in real space instead of just a simulation, and obviously a lot of other scientific things needed to happen. But by October 23, 1981, the space shuttle Challenger was supposedly mission-ready.
I’m not going to go through all of its missions, but I will give you some highlights. In the ‘80s, Challenger was the second shuttle to reach space in 1983. It completed 9 missions, totaling 62 days, 7 hours, 56 minutes, and 22 seconds in space. Challenger also carried the first American female astronaut, Sally Ride, as well as the first black astronaut, Guion (Ghee-On) Bluford into space. NASA in the ‘80s was trying to diversify. It’s a little late but we are here for it!
In April of 1984, Challenger’s mission included the first astronaut repair of a satellite that was in space, which is pretty cool. The astronaut, George Nelson, strapped himself into a jet-backpack, which had only been tested once on a previous mission, and flew over to the satellite to get it to stay still. Oh, and then the astronauts still aboard the Challenger grabbed the satellite with the space ship’s ROBOT ARM and pulled it aboard. They fixed the satellite and then launched it back into space. What kind of science fiction shenanigans are these?!?!
That brings us up to the infamous launch that most Morbid Curious know about. It was a chilly morning at Cape Canaveral – January 28, 1986. Challenger was scheduled to commence its 10th mission. This mission was meant to study Hailey’s Comet, as it got closer to earth. This particular mission was special, because along with the crew of astronauts was a teacher: Christa McAuliffe. She was to be the first teacher to go into space.
Christa was a high-school social studies teacher from Concord, New Hampshire. The previous year, she had been selected from over 11,000 applicants to become the first teacher in space, and she was planning to teach 2 lessons while in orbit. Under Ronald Reagan, NASA participated in the “Teacher in Space Project.” They wanted a teacher to communicate with their students from the shuttle, in hopes that it would increase public interest in the space program.
From what I can tell, this was NASA’s version of a fundraiser. They needed the public interest to garner financial support, and people were stoked on it.
Christa McAuliffe was honored to be chosen. She stated, “I cannot join the space program and restart my life as an astronaut, but this opportunity to connect my abilities as an educator with my interests in history and space is a unique opportunity to fulfill my early fantasies. I will never give up.”Christa McAuliffe
She, along with another finalist, had to take a year-long absence from teaching in order to train for the mission. NASA paid their salaries. Along with normal space stuff, Christa was told she would be able to conduct experiments from space, to show her students about hydroponics, magnetism, Newton’s Laws, etc. And these lessons weren’t just for her students – they were going to be broadcasted to millions of kids via CCTV. Christa was also intending to keep a journal, much like pioneer women did.
Although Christa McAuliffe was a big deal on this shuttle, I’d like to take a minute to tell you about the rest of the crew.
Dick Scobee was the mission commander. He was an Air Force Veteran who ended up logging 168 hours in space.
Michael Smith was the Pilot. He was a Navy Veteran who, during his service, had flown 28 different types of military and civilian aircrafts. Morbid Fact alert: Michael Smith’s was the last voice heard on the recording of the Space Shuttle Challenger. He said the words, “uh oh.”
The mission specialists were Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, and Ellison Onizuka. Judith Resnik was the second American woman in space, and only the 4th woman worldwide. She received a perfect score on her SATs and started with NASA as a mission specialist at the age of only 28. In September of 1984, aboard the Discovery, she held up a sign that said “hi dad,” and was recorded telling President Reagan, “The earth looks great.”
Ronald McNair was the second African American to go to space. As a child, in 1959, he made a name for himself by refusing to leave the segregated library before he was allowed to check out his books. The building that housed the Lake City Public Library is now named after him. Ronald was also an accomplished saxophone player, and was planning on playing his sax aboard the Challenger, which would have been the first original musical piece to have been recorded in space.
Ellison Onizuka was the first Asian American in space. He too was an Air Force Veteran. He got his masters at CU Boulder, where he also met his wife Lorna. The pair had 2 daughters.
Gregory Jarvis was a Payload Specialist, along with Christa McAuliffe. Gregory was an Air Force Veteran who planned to conduct experiments on the weightlessness of fluids from space.
Now that we know who was aboard, let’s talk about the disaster. As I mentioned, it was chilly in January. Some of Challenger’s engineers were worried, as temperatures had dipped below freezing, meaning it was possible that the integrity of the seals on the rocket boosters could have been compromised.
But NASA was all, “Meh, it’s probably fine,” and Challenger launched at 11:38am, after a 2-hour delay. The thought was, if the ice melted from the launch pad, everything would work out. This launch was broadcasted live, and millions of people tuned in to watch, as Teacher Christa McAuliffe was aboard. Tragically, 73 seconds after it launched, Challenger exploded, breaking into pieces, fully in view of the live media broadcast.
I’m not a scientist, but I’d imagine even a lay-person such as myself would have noticed pieces from the space shuttle falling from the sky and plunging into the Atlantic Ocean. A commenter from NASA stated, “Flight controllers here are looking very carefully at the situation. Obviously a major malfunction.”
Turns out, engineers were right to be worried about the weather. The failure of the rocket to launch safely into orbit was traced to an O-ring (don’t laugh), which was a rubber seal on the rocket boosters. Essentially, there were 2 rocket boosters that were supposed to provide the Challenger with enough juju to get up into space. The boosters had joints, which were sealed by the rubber O-rings. These rings were supposed to seal any gaps and prevent hot gasses from leaking out. The cold weather had degraded the O-ring, the gasses leaked out, and the space shuttle exploded. And, in our least favorite kind of disaster, this could have all been avoided had NASA rescheduled the launch to a warmer day.
Of course, there were some cultural factors that contributed to this tragedy, including that there were long-standing failures in safety protocols and a launch rate that was unsustainable. If you’ll recall, I mentioned that NASA was trying to get more funding for its programs. More launching equals more funding. I also read that social scientists blame Group Think for the launch, which is the phenomenon in which groups develop one cohesive mode of thinking – everyone goes with the grain to limit friction, and it’s almost as if a bunch of individuals end up using only one brain. A few symptoms of group think include: “overconfidence, collective rationalization, self-censorship, and the tendency to stereotype perceived outsiders.” (astronomy.com) The engineers who were nervous about the potential degradation of the O-rings due to weather were from an outside organization, lending the group to potentially see them as outsiders.
Also, there had been issues with the O-rings before, so NASA normalized them. Beginning in the late 70s, problems with the O-rings started, and were fixed. Then again, they found problems, and they were fixed. So failure and fixing were part of their routine, and the frosty O-Rings were seen by NASA as an acceptable level of risk.
It took weeks to recover the pieces of the shuttle, as well as the remains of all 7 astronauts. If the remains could be identified, they were turned over to families. The unidentifiable remains were buried at Arlington National Cemetery on May 20, 1986, in a monument dedicated to the crew. Most of the pieces of the ship were buried and sealed at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
There was a bit of a silver lining here: NASA worked to improve its safety regulations and improve the culture, so there were more checks and balances in place. They resumed launches in 1988, however, civilians were not allowed aboard any missions until 2007. It was then that Barbara Morgan – Christa McAuliffe’s backup who also took a year off from teaching in the ‘80s to train as an astronaut – flew to space abord the Endeavor.
Can you even imagine? I would have been all…. “hmmmmm…. Better not.”
Other safety protocols included keeping astronauts away from duties like satellite repair.
NASA honors the victims of the Challenger explosion, along with other crews lost in the pursuit of space, on NASA Day of remembrance.
Families of Challenger’s Crew founded the Challenger Center for Space Science Education Program, which allows students to experience simulated space missions.
And PS, if we were to visit the Kennedy Space Center, we would be able to see actual debris from the Challenger’s last mission.
And that is the horrible tragedy of the Challenger Explosion.
Story 2 – Hannelore Schmatz’s Death on Everest
I have a horrible, tragic event to discuss – per usual – and because it’s the first week of March, I’m excited (excited being the wrong word, of course) to share a story about a bad bitch that met a tragic end. This is the story of Hannelore Schmatz. She was the fourth woman in the world to reach the summit of Mount Everest. She was also the first woman (and first German national) to die on Mount Everest.
Let’s travel back to the 70s and hear the tale.
So, Hannelore Schmatz was born on February 16, 1940. She was married to Gerhard Schmatz and the two were avid mountain climbers. In 1973 they successfully summited Manaslu, which is the eighth tallest mounting in the world. It is 26,781 feet above sea level and is in Kathmandu. After successfully climbing Manaslu they decided it was time. Time to start preparing for the most ambitious, most difficult climb out there: Everest.
In 1973, 28 people had died trying to climb Everest. Most died getting caught in avalanches, some died of brain hemorrhages, others fell to their deaths or had heart attacks, and others froze. Now, I didn’t really know much about what it was like to climb a mountain of this stature, so I did a little research. Because I honestly couldn’t even fathom what it would be like. So, as I talk about Hannalore’s experience I’m going to also share information about what the climb would be like.
First and foremost, you have to apply to climb. You can’t just show up and do it. So, it was 1974 when Hannelore and Gerhard submitted their request to climb Earth’s deadliest peak. I found different info about what it takes to climb from Nepal vs. Tibet. In Tibet you need four different permits. In Nepal it seems you need to apply to go to basecamp, and then also get a permit to go to the top. This permit costs $11,000 and there are about $10,000 additional fees. You also have to prove you’ve summited a mountain that was at least 21,300 ft in the past.
But, you have to show you are in good health (need a doctors note) and you have to go through a basic training session. And, you also need rescue insurance and to hire a local sherpa guide. A Sherpa guide costs about $4,000-5,000 dollars. Which, PS, Sherpas are badasses. These are native people who are experts in mountain climbing and the mountainous terrain – because they’ve lived there their whole life and their bodies have adapted to the high altitudes. So, a Sherpa usually is the one to guide the tour, carry the supplies, etc. because they can – while the foreigners have to focus on just not dying essentially.
Anywho, while Hannelore and Gerhard waited to hear about their permits, they climbed a bunch of mountains to increase their ability to adjust to high altitudes. As the years passed, the mountains they climbed got higher. They climbed Lhotse (lowtsay), which is the fourth highest mountain top in the world, in June 1977 and they finally got word that their request for Mount Everest had been approved.
This is when Hannelore, who her husband called “a genius when it came to sourcing and transporting expedition material,” started making logistical preparations for their Everest hike.
Now, apparently in the 70s, it was difficult to find adequate climbing gear in Kathmandu so whatever equipment they were going to use for their three-month expedition to Everest’s summit needed to be shipped from Europe. SO, Hannelore booked a warehouse in Nepal to store their equipment. In addition to equipment, they also needed to assemble their expedition team. Besides Hannelore and Gerhard Schmatz, there were six other experienced high-altitude climbers that joined them on Everest.
To get all this sorted, Hannelore wrote hundreds of letters and made it possible using a sponsored truck. For months, taking outside help, she packed the warehouse and in the end all the stuff they needed weighing several tons.
Finally, in July 1979, after monsoon season was over, everything was prepared and ready to go, and the group of eight began their trek along with five sherpas.
The group consisted of
- 1 Nick Banks (27, mountaineering instructor and guide from New Zealand )
- 2 Hans von Känel (38, businessman from Switzerland)
- 3 Tilman Fischbach (30, analytical chemist and medical student from West Germany)
- 4 Günter fights (46, mechanical engineer from West Germany)
- 5 Dr Hermann Warth (38, lecturer from West Germany)
- 6 Ray Genet (48, American mountaineering and hunting guide)
- 7 Hannelore Schmatz (39, Mountaineer and wife of Dr Gerhard from West Germany)
- 8 Dr Gerhard Schmatz (50, lawyer and expedition leader from West Germany)
- 1 Ang Jangbu
- 2 Sundare
- 3 Pertemba
- 4 Lhakpa
- 5 Unkown Sherpa
So, climbing Everest STARTS – yes, starts – with a 40 mile trek on foot just to get to the base of the mountain. So, there is no car ride to get there. You have to walk. And it takes about two weeks, not because you can’t walk 40 miles in a couple of days but because you do it slowly so you can acclimate to the high altitude environment. For reference, the base of the mountain is 13,800 feet (4,200 meters) above sea level. Colorado Springs is about 6,000 feet in altitude – so the very BASE of Everest is about as tall as Pikes Peak which is 14,000 feet.
So, essentially they would want you to take two weeks to climb to the top of Pikes Peak. THEN they stay for 1-2 months at Base Camp and make a bunch of smaller trips up and down to acclimatize. If you were to climb up to the top of Everest without acclimating first, the air up there would literally just crush your lungs. Consider this: the tip of Everest is JUST shy of where a massive jet airliner would fly. SO… there’s a reason they have to pressurize those plane cabins when we fly! These people summiting Everest are adjusting their bodies to be able to do it in open air.
So the first part of the climb up Everest is the Khumbu Icefall, which is essentially layers of gigantic ice blocks that are constantly shifting and creating crevasses between them. So you have to use a metal ladder to go across these cracks. This is definitely an area where a lot of people die. About 25% of the deaths are attributed here.
Anywho! After Icefall is Camp 1 – the Valley of Silence. This is basically SNOW. And the higher you go the more dangerous it is, so Camp 1 is where you camp for the first night – shocking I know. But, one person who successfully summited Everest said that even with air tanks it feels a bit like running on a treadmill and breathing through a straw. Which is so descriptive and gives me a perfect picture of what that must be like and I hate it. But they were saying that you don’t sleep much because you’ll fall asleep and then kind of jerk yourself to wake gasping for breath.
After Camp 1, Hannelore and group took about 4-7 hours to climb through this snowy area. They would have been all roped together and trudging through the snow. And when they finally reached Camp 2, they would have seen the stunning view of clouds roll in from the lower ranges of the Himalayas.
Next they reached Camp 3 which is a wall like an icy slope, essentially. The climbers had to hang off the wall on a rope tied into the wall and switch between carabiners. At this point in their climb they have reached the camp at the South Col which is a sharp-edged mountain point ridge at the lowest point between Lhotse and the summit. This is at an altitude of about 26,000 feet above ground. The group decided to set up their last high camp at the South Col on Sept. 24, 1979.
Unfortunately, a several-day blizzard forced the entire camp to descend back to down to Camp III base camp. There they waited, trying to decide when conditions were right to move on. Finally, they try again to get back to the South Col point, this time splitting into large groups of two. Husband and wife are divided — Hannelore Schmatz is in one group with other climbers and two sherpas, while the rest are with her husband Gerhard in the other.
Now, Gerhard’s group makes the climb back to the South Col first and arrives after a three-day climb before stopping to set up camp for the night.
Reaching the South Col point meant that the group — which had been traveling the harsh mountain-scape in groups of three — were about to embark on the final phase of their ascent toward the peak of Everest.
As Hannelore Schmatz’s group was still making their way back to the South Col, Gerhard’s group continued their hike toward Everest’s peak early morning on Oct. 1, 1979.
Gerhard’s group reached the south summit of Mount Everest at about 2 p.m., and Gerhard Schmatz becomes the oldest person to summit the world’s highest mountain top at 50 years old. While the group celebrates, Gerhard notes the hazardous conditions from the southern summit to the peak, describing the team’s difficulties on his website:
“Due to the steepness and the bad snow conditions, the kicks break out again and again. The snow is too soft to reach reasonably reliable levels and too deep to find ice for the crampons. How fatal that is, can then be measured, if you know that this place is probably one of the most dizzying in the world.”
Gerhard’s group quickly makes their way back down, encountering the same difficulties they had during their climb.
When they arrive safely back at the South Col camp at 7 p.m. that night, his wife’s group — arriving there about the same time Gerhard had reached Everest’s peak — had already set up camp to get ready for Hannelore’s group’s own ascent to the summit.
Gerhard and his group members warn Hannelore and the others about the bad snow and ice conditions, and try to persuade them not to go. But Hannelore was indignant, her husband’s words not mine; she didn’t want to be shown up – she wanted to conquer Everest, too!
Now, I want to pipe in here a comment from another summiteer to remind us all of the strain that these people are under. As this summiteer said, mountaineering is a very unique sport because while typical athletes are building up to game day — they’re mentally tougher and bodies stronger and more energized, by summit day your muscles are atrophied, you have insomnia, and you’re exhausted. This summiteer was saying how important it is to just be really in tuned to your body and be able to tell when you have small shifts that may alert you to danger. So, basically, I would die immediately because I am SO BAD at being in tune. I’m the type who is like “I don’t know why my stomach hurts so bad this week and why I’m so exhausted” and only days later realize it’s because I’ve eaten nothing but pizza and wings for a week. SO… yeah, this is not for me.
But, Hannelore Schmatz was determined to go, so her group began their climb from the South Col to reach Mount Everest’s summit at around 5 AM. While Hannelore made her way toward the top, her husband, Gerhard, made the descent back down to the base of Camp III as weather conditions began to rapidly deteriorate.
At about 6 p.m., Gerhard receives news over the expedition’s walkie talkie communications that his wife has made it to the summit with the rest of the group. Hannelore Schmatz was officially the fourth woman mountaineer in the world to reach Everest’s peak.
Unfortunately, Hannelore’s journey back down was riddled with danger. Hannelore and the American climber Ray Genet — both strong climbers — became too exhausted to continue. They wanted to stop and set up a bivouac camp (a sheltered outcropping) before continuing their descent.
Sherpas Sungdare and Ang Jangbu, who were with Hannelore and Genet, warned against the climbers’ decision. They were in the middle of something called…. The Death Zone, where conditions are so dangerous that climbers are most vulnerable to death there. The sherpas advised the climbers to forge on so that they could make it back to the base camp further down the mountain.
Now, the Death Zone, is a point where the pressure of oxygen is insufficient to sustain human life for an extended time span. The human body functions best at sea level where the atmospheric pressure is approximately 101,325 pascals. At the top of Everest you’re at about 35,600 pascals. So, 1/3 of what you need. This makes sleep difficult, digestion impossible, and you become extremely susceptible to high altitude pulmonary edema or cerebral edema. This will result in loss of consciousness, deterioration of body functions. People who have properly acclimated to climbing can be in the death zone for several hours, but even those people have to leave within 15-20 hours. Any longer and the human body just cannot exist there.
One currently living Sherpa, Lhakpa, who has reached the summit more times than any other woman, said that climbers can suffer from an oxygen-starved delirium in the death zone. She said that it is her duty as a sherpa to stop them from staying in this zone. “Their life is in our hands and we must protect them from their own insanity,” she said.
But despite having been up at the summit for some time, Genet and Hannalore had reached their breaking point. Genet, the American, sat down at died from hypothermia. Which, PS, I didn’t mention this before. The summit of Mount Everest in the summer is about -10 degrees C or 14 degrees F. But the windchill is less than -30 C (aka -22 F), which puts Facial Frostbite Time at about 20 minutes.
This of course shook Hannelore and the two other sherpas with her so they started their trek down. But it was too late — Hannelore’s body had begun to succumb to the devastating climate. I read a lot about why this happens. Why you couldn’t just keep going or get carried down the mountain, but this is apparently the biggest risk for people who summit Everest. They don’t realize how much effort it will take to get back DOWN the mountain, so they push themselves just to get to the top and then have nothing left in the tank and can’t get back down.
According to the sherpa who was with her, Hannelore sat down to rest, leaning up against her backpack. She then spoke her last words: “Water, water,” and died. She was the fourth woman to summit Everest and sadly the first German woman to die on the slopes.
Tragically, after Hannelore’s death, one of the sherpas that was with her stayed with her body, resulting in the loss of a finger and some toes to frostbite.
Now, something about Everest that you may know is that the corpses of dead summiteers are scattered around the mountain. It’s so cold that they are perfectly preserved and kind of serve not only as warnings to anyone who attempts the climb but also sometimes people use them as markers. Which is very macabre but I also get it. Instead of “turn left at the Quick Trip, it’s turn left at Hannelore’s corpse”.
Creepily, Hannelore’s eyes were still open and she looks very peaceful. She’s just wearing her climbing gear and clothing, leaned up against her backpack, her hair fluttering in the wind. Other climbers refer to her as the “German Woman.”
One Norwegian mountaineer and expedition leader Arne Næss, Jr., who successfully summited Everest in 1985, described his encounter with her corpse:
I can’t escape the sinister guard. Approximately 100 meters above Camp IV she sits leaning against her pack, as if taking a short break. A woman with her eyes wide open and her hair waving in each gust of wind. It’s the corpse of Hannelore Schmatz, the wife of the leader of a 1979 German expedition. She summited but died descending. Yet it feels as if she follows me with her eyes as I pass by. Her presence reminds me that we are here on the conditions of the mountain.
Sadly, in 1984, a sherpa and a Nepalese police inspector tried to recover her body, but both men fell to their deaths. Since that attempt, the mountain eventually took Hannelore Schmatz. A gust of wind pushed her body and it tumbled over the side of a cliff, never to be seen again, lost forever to the elements.
An estimated 280 people have died on Everest over the years. Until 2007, one out of every ten people who dared to climb the world’s highest peak didn’t live to tell the tale. The death rate actually increased and worsened since 2007 because of more frequent trips to the top.
Following her tragic death on Mount Everest at age 39, her husband Gerhard wrote, “Nevertheless, the team came home. But I alone without my beloved Hannelore.”
And that is the story of Hannelore Schmatz, the fourth woman to summit Mount Everest and the first woman to die doing so.
Good afternoon ladies.
I was listening to your podcast about the challenger. I was born on that exact day. My mom was in the hospital watching it live on tv. Also my dad went to the high school Christa taught at. Extremely sad event. I have a bittersweet birthday every year.