Challenger Disaster Summary
Challenger Disaster Summary : Flashback to 1986, more specifically to January 28th, which marked the launch of space shuttle Challenger on behalf of the United States Space Program.
Sadly, this launch was short-lived: 73 seconds into the flight, the ship broke apart and killed all of its eight passengers. What started as a hopeful and exciting moment for the world’s first partially reusable launch vehicle at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral led to a great tragedy – people across the world watched the broadcast of what should have been a historic day.
The solid-rocket boosters were made up of four individual hull segments filled with fuel and oxidizer. Once the shuttle arrived at the launch site, the four segments were assembled and sealed with O-ring seals. However, the seals had never been tested in the extreme cold. Because of this, the segments were incredibly vulnerable and the rubber failed to seal the joint. After takeoff, one of the seals broke enough to let the exhaust leak out, and hot gas heated the liquid oxygen and hydrogen inside until they ruptured and the ship was torn apart. Two boosters continued their ascent until they were brought back in range by remote control, while the crew component ascended until it eventually fell into the Atlantic Ocean (Space.com).
The shuttle should have never taken off that morning, as it was too cold. It was later revealed that Allan McDonald (Director of the Space Shuttle Solid Rocket Motor Project) refused to sign off a launch recommendation – a correct judgement in hindsight.
Thiokol had repeatedly warned Lucas and NASA of the dangers of using the O-ring during cold weather. On previous shuttle missions, there had been evidence of massive fatigue and near failure of the O-ring. The disaster only occurred because warnings were continuously ignored by a NASA bureaucracy stubbornly trying to maintain an overly ambitious shuttle launch schedule. NASA had sold the program to the US Congress on the idea that they could use the shuttle every other week. Realistically however, the Challenger was a highly fragile ship that could barely be relied on for 1 mission per month.
Nobel Prize winner and physicist Richard Feynman demonstrated on national television during the Challenger investigation the inability of the O-ring to keep its elasticity after exposure to cold weather. Without his testimony NASA might have been successful in covering up their mismanagement.
The only other time the shuttle took off at colder than the ideal temperature was in January of 1986 when it was 53 degrees Fahrenheit. The O-ring suffered significant damage or changes to its elasticity due to the low temperature. Challenger took off in below freezing temperatures. After the disaster, the space shuttle program was grounded for years.
The next space flight, Discovery, which was in 1988, was a resounding success and a precursor to many later missions. However, in 2003, another disaster occured, the Columbia. While we have not been completely without error since the Challenger, it taught us great lessons in regards to listening to experts, making the tough decisions to face the facts of reality, and to not move forward for the sake of meeting a deadline (Philadelphia Business Journal).
William R. Lucas was the fourth Director of the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center and served from June 15, 1974, to July 3, 1986. Lucas was considered by many to be the NASA official most at fault because he had ignored the worries of multiple rocket engineers from Thiokol, the government contractor that had been tasked with building the sturdy rocket.
We remember the deceased of the Challenger: Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnik, Dick Scobee, Ronald McNair, Mike Smith, and lastly, Ellison Onizuka – may they never be forgotten.
Challenger Disaster Summary