The crash of the space shuttle Challenger in January 1986 shocked the nation after the previous successes of NASA’s space shuttle program. Mechanical failures and imperfect management revealed that the previously preeminent NASA was falling into disarray (1). Current NASA leaders claim this accident led to significant setbacks, and that the loss of life and morale resulting from this event still resonates with Americans and has eroded support for the American space program.
The idea of a space shuttle, or “reusable launch system,” for space vehicles was introduced in the 1960s in hopes of more frequent and affordable space travel (2). The space shuttle was part of a larger space station project delayed by the Nixon administration (2). The space shuttle was a two-part vehicle, with a large shuttle returning to Earth after releasing an orbiter into space. The orbiter, the size of a mid-range airplane, would later return to Earth alone (2). The shuttle generated the thrust needed for liftoff through its rocket boosters, which used liquid hydrogen and oxygen fuel carried in the external tank (2).
Challenger, originally built as a test vehicle and called STA-099, was converted into the space worthy orbiter OV-099 between 1979 to 1982 (3). Challenger’s historical achievements include the space shuttle program’s first space walk, the first launch of an American woman into space, and the first space shuttle landing at Kennedy Space Center (3). On January 28, 1986, Challenger launched on mission STS 51-L. The seven member crew included Commander Francis R. Scobee; Pilot Michael J. Smith; Mission Specialists Judith A. Resnick, Ellison S. Onizuka, and Ronald E. McNair; and Payload Specialists Gregory B. Jarvis and Sharon Christa McAuliffe, who was selected for the “teacher in space” program (TISP) (4). This mission was intended to include the TDRS-B satellite deployment, the Comet Halley Active Monitoring Program (CHAMP) experiment, a TISP broadcast, fluid dynamics experiments, and an in-space news conference (4). Liftoff on January 22 was delayed to January 28 because of inclement weather and necessary equipment repair. 73 seconds after liftoff, Challenger exploded, killing the astronauts inside (4).
Video footage showed the right solid rocket booster emitting smoke, caused by the burning of rubber O-rings in the booster, just seconds after liftoff (4). Within a minute, flames appeared on the right booster and then spread to the external tank and the underside of the orbiter. The burning tank was thrust upward and the resulting hydrogen stream created an explosion that engulfed Challenger (4).
The Presidential Committee on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident ruled the cause of the explosion as O-ring failure in the solid rocket (2). NASA decision makers were apparently “unaware” that the O-rings were failing pre-launch tests, that a contractor recommended delaying launch because of weather, and that engineers at Morton Thiokol, makers of the solid rocket boosters, advised against the launch (2). The Committee noted that NASA, desiring to launch missions more quickly, did not maintain the rigor of its Safety, Reliability, and Quality Assurance Program (2).
To heighten safety measures, the Committee recommended improving the designs of the solid rocket motor joints and making testing procedures more rigorous (2). It also sought to address risk factors for similar accidents in the future. Astronauts who understood the complexities of pre-flight conditions were to fill NASA management positions when possible. Reviews of safety hazards were to be made mandatory and audited (2). Shortly after the crash, NASA halted the space shuttle program for 32 months, lowered shuttle operations goals, and began an exhaustive review of procedures. The space station that was already on hold was delayed further (1). Recovery would be slow, and NASA’s confidence in the wake of such tragedy would never be the same.
- E. Thomas, Painful Legacies of a Lost Mission. Time. (1986). Available at http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1075046,00.html (2 February 2013).
- “Report of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident,” Washington, D.C., 1986). Available at http://history.nasa.gov/rogersrep/51lcover.htm (2 February 2013).
- J. Ryba, Space Shuttle Overview: Challenger (OV-099). NASA.2013, 1 (2008). Available at http://www.nasa.gov/centers/kennedy/shuttleoperations/orbiters/challenger-info.html (2 February 2013).
- J. Ryba, STS-51L Challenger Mission Profile. NASA.2013, 1 (2007). Available at http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/shuttle/shuttlemissions/archives/sts-51L.html(2 February 2013).