The Challenger Explosion
21 June 2015
The decade between 1980 and 1989 was known as the Reagan era and an era of intense violence and horrible accidents. With civil wars and attempted assassinations happening all over the world, Americans had a lot to discuss in their social and political circles. The two most destructive accidents that took place during this time were the Chernobyl nuclear power plant explosion (September 26, 1986) and the Challenger space shuttle explosion (January 28, 1986). The Challenger explosion, which killed all seven astronauts on board, was the calamity that hit home the hardest for Americans.1 Much faith had been placed in the American engineering and technology that allowed us to travel in airplanes, fly us into orbit, or put us on the moon. When that faith was shaken, like it was in the Challenger explosion, it was very hard to win it back. The Challenger explosion of 1986 was not only destructive but also left many questions on the lips of Americans.
Boom! In every state of the nation, Americans watched on live television as the Challenger space shuttle exploded in mid-air over southern Florida, killing all aboard, including a school teacher, Christa McAuliffe, who was supposed to be the first civilian in space.2 The mission’s launch had been delayed for six days, due to unusually cold Florida weather, until January 28th at 11:39am, when NASA gave the go-ahead. Challenger lifted off. It only took seventy-three seconds for the spacecraft to break apart and plunge into the ocean, thus spearheading the largest maritime salvage operation in history and halting NASA’s shuttle program for three years.3 The traumatized nation wondered what happened. What went wrong? Who was responsible? Was it the government? NASA? Who? Most importantly, how could it have been prevented?
Due to a drop in funds after the thrill of the Space Race died off and pressure from the government for “an inexpensive, efficient, reusable spacecraft”,4 NASA launched its space shuttle program to produce some of the world’s first reusable manned spacecraft. Challenger was NASA’s second space shuttle to enter service. It embarked for its maiden voyage on April 4, 1983, and made nine successful voyages up until its fatal end in 1986.5 Its final crew was composed of seven astronauts: payload specialist Gregory Jarvis; mission specialists Judith Resnik, Ellison Onizuka, and Ronald McNair; mission commander Francis Scobee; pilot Mike Smith; and school teacher Sharon Christa McAuliffe.6 McAuliffe was a 37-year-old high school social studies instructor from New Hampshire, part of NASA’s Teacher in Space Program. She trained for months and months in order to be the first ordinary American citizen to travel into space. Her goal – and the goal of the program – was to conduct several experiments and teach children two lessons from aboard the Challenger.7 Sadly, this never happened.
Engineers – and many others – did warn their superiors that the rubber O-rings that separate the sections of the rocket booster could fail at low temperatures, and that this could be a real concern considering the cold weather that Florida had been experiencing that January. But these warnings went unheeded and Challenger was given permission to launch. According to the Rogers Commission, a special commission appointed by Reagan to investigate into the cause of the disaster, it turned out that this wasn’t the first time NASA had been hearing warnings about these O-rings. The company that designed them, NASA’s primary contractor, Morton Thiokol, also ignored warnings of potential issues with their products. While NASA understood these potential issues, no one halted business in order to fix the problems. NASA managers were also aware, but they, too, didn’t take any action to prevent a catastrophe.8
These O-rings were the cause of seven deaths. Due to the frigid temperatures, the two rubber O-rings completely failed, causing a leak in one of the two solid rocket boosters. The flames broke out of the booster and ignited the main liquid fuel tank, causing the Challenger to explode.9 But the astronauts’ lives did not end at that point, contrary to what many people believe. The cabin actually detached itself from the wreckage. Since the cabin depressurized, fellow astronauts reported that the crew “possibly but not certainly lost consciousness” due to difficulty breathing at such high altitudes. “The cabin hit the surface 2 minutes and 45 seconds after the breakup, and all investigations indicate the crew was still alive until [they hit the water at a speed greater than 200mph].”10 Ships combed 150,000 square nautical miles for floating debris, determined to find the bodies of the astronauts and return them to their families. Ten weeks later, the USS Preserve identified the crew cabin on the ocean floor and all the bodies were recovered. Their semi-liquefied state made it difficult to perform accurate autopsies, so the cause of death was never determined.11 Even ten years after the tragedy, large pieces from the shuttle were washing up on Florida beaches.12
After the accident, NASA stopped all space missions in order to further assess the problems that had happened with Challenger. For close to three years, they spent time and money in recreating the space shuttle and redesigning its features to compensate for what the Challenger had been lacking: restructured boosters, a new relay satellite, and more advanced safety features to name a few.13 On September 29, 1988 the new space shuttle Discovery lifted off with a crew of five. The mission returned successfully, and NASA was back in business until another tragedy struck when Columbia disintegrated upon reentry (February 1, 2003). While missions eventually did resume, NASA decided, due to the number of accidents and the cost factors, to retire the space shuttle in 2011.14
Like with every endeavor there is bound to be some level of human error, sometimes within our control and sometimes completely out of it. The destruction of the Challenger was NASA’s first and one of its most tragic mistakes in that lives were lost and faith was shaken in a system everyone had thought infallible. As a result, hearings were conducted, evidence was gathered, people were fired, contracts were broken, and ultimately, NASA pulled itself together to take a look at what went wrong, what they needed to fix, and what they needed to do to prevent it from ever happening again. Still, neither NASA nor the public could ever forget the tragedy and the sacrifice that the crew of the Challenger made. President Regan summed it up best when he addressed the public concerning the tragedy. “[America] was built by men and women like our seven star voyagers, who answered a call beyond duty, who gave more than was expected or required and who gave it little thought of worldly reward.”15
Burros, Terry, et al. The Visual History of the Modern World
. London: Carlton Books Limited
, 2007. Print. See page 441
2 Burros, Terry. See page 456
3 Gladwell, Malcolm. What the Dog Saw. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2009. Print See page 281.
Schlegel, Kip & Weisburd, David. White-Collar Crime Reconsidered
. York: The Maple Press Company
, 1992. Print. See pages 218 & 220.
5 History.com Staff. “Challenger Disaster.” History.com A&E Television Networks, 2010. Web. 8 June 2015.
6 NASA Administrator. “Remembering the Challenger Crew.” Nasa.gov. NASA, 4 Apr. 2015. Web. 8 June 2015.
7 History.com Staff.
United States. Cong. Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident. Report to the President
. Cong. Rept. Washington, D.C.: Presidential Commission, 1986. Print. See pages 40-43 and 51
9 United States. Cong. See pages 57-62.
Oberg, James. “7 Myths about the Challenger Shuttle Disaster.” Msnbc.com
. NBC News
, 26 Jan. 2011. Web. 8 June 2015.
12 Gladwell, Malcolm.
13 Jensen, Claus. See page 358.
14 History.com Staff.
United States. Cong. See In Memoriam
Burrows, Terry, et al. The Visual History of the Modern World. London: Carlton Books Limited, 2007. Print. See pages 441 and 456. This source gave a general overview of the 1980’s and helped me put into context the issues the world was facing at the time. It also presented a brief overview of the Challenger disaster – a perfect starting point for research.
Gladwell, Malcolm. What the Dog Saw. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2009. Print See page 281. I specifically looked at the chapter “Blowup: Who Can Be Blamed for a Disaster like the Challenger Explosion?” It offered many details about the cause of the explosion and its aftermath – who was guilty and who wasn’t.
History.com Staff. “Challenger Disaster.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, 2010. Web. 8 June 2015. I found most of my general information regarding the Challenger from this source, using it as an overview of the entire situation. I also watched the videos and was first introduced to the Rogers Commission here.
Jensen, Claus. No Downlink: A Dramatic Narrative About the Challenger Accident and Our Time. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996. See pages 351 and 352. This source went into great detail about the Challenger tragedy, but I mostly focused on the maritime salvage, the recovering of the bodies, and what was done to correct the design of the space shuttle so that this accident could be avoided in the future.
NASA Administrator. “Remembering the Challenger Crew.” Nasa.gov. NASA, 4 Apr. 2015. Web. 8 June 2015. I used this source to learn more about the Challenger’s crew and what they were supposed to contribute to the mission.
Oberg, James. “7 Myths about the Challenger Shuttle Disaster.” Msnbc.com. NBC News, 26 Jan. 2011. Web. 8 June 2015. This source was very interesting because it really brought to light some of the truths behind the disaster. I mostly focused on what happened to the crew and made sure that what I was reading about the cause of the accident did match up with the myth buster.
Schlegel, Kip & Weisburd, David. White-Collar Crime Reconsidered. York: The Maple Press Company, 1992. Print. See pages 218 & 220. This source used the Challenger explosion as a case study of state-corporate crime. Though rather difficult to decipher, I used this source to gain some background on NASA’s shuttle program and its dealings with different corporations, among them Morton Thiokol.
United States. Cong. Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident. Report to the President. Cong. Rept. Washington, D.C.: Presidential Commission, 1986. Print. See In Memoriam and pages 40-43, 51, 57-62. I used this document as my primary source of information as it had letters, reports, pictures, and sketches of the disaster. This book was the result of the study conducted by the Rogers Commission. With this source, I mostly focused on what went wrong with the O-rings – mainly, what caused the disaster.