Remember the Challenger

Crockett Grabbe, Ph.D.

published in Armadillo Literary Gazaette, 3/11

Twenty-five years ago NASA launched the shuttle Challenger with 7 astronauts aboard, including the heralded teacher Christa McAuliffe who had been chosen out of a pool of over 11,000 applicants. They never made it to space, but plunged to their deaths from 10 miles altitude.

Back in the 1970's the shuttle had been made the premier program to put humans in space, despite its prospects of being much more expensive (by about a factor of 10) than non-manned flight. To help rectify the public image of this expensive program, a decision was made at NASA to restrict all the development of satellites in the United States to launching them from the space shuttle, not the ground. Missions that were already being designed for launching from their own rockets suddenly had to have their plans scrapped and redone because of the switch to launching them from not from rockets, but from the space shuttle while in orbit. All of our dynamic development of satellites was heralded as being tightly controlled through the space shuttle flights. But then NASA caused a very serious colossal error that stunned the world as it was quickly broadcast around the globe.

That serious colossal error involved personnel and contractors working with NASA for the launch of the Challenger on January 28 of 1986, in a flight whose primary mission was delivering a communication satellite into orbit (a mission that could have been done much less expensively using an unmanned launch). 73 seconds after the launch the shuttle exploded with 7 astronauts aboard. As I pointed out in a later interview on satellite radio, the astronauts were killed, not by the explosion itself, but by the impact of the shuttle hitting the ocean 10 miles down from the site of the explosion. Not only had NASA provided no safety equipment for them to escape that death plunge, but it had created that colossal error sending them plunging by repeatedly minimizing the importance of the symptoms from previous shuttle flights.

The shuttle was launched despite the repeated strong objection of engineers at Morton-Thiokol, the maker of the solid-rocket booster for the shuttle. The explosion occurred when the seal of an O-ring in that booster failed because the shuttle was launched at much lower temperatures than those at which the ring had been tested. This was despite particularly Engineer Roger Boisjoly's very strong objections, who went to great lengths to try to get NASA officials to scrub the launch because the O-ring was unsafe at these low temperatures. He had expressed objections to them before at the launch of a previous shuttle at 53° F, then strongly tried to have NASA stop the launching of Challenger at temperatures below freezing. The momentous push by NASA officials to go ahead with the mission won over the engineers' objections, and the shuttle and its 7 astronauts were tragically lost.

Because of the colossal error resulting in this momentous Challenger tragedy, no space mission was launched for the next 3 years. NASA's policy of launching all new space-missions from the space shuttle resulted in the delay of missions like the Galileo spacecraft to Jupiter by almost a decade. It was primarily responsible, for example, for the failure of Galileo's large antenna for transmission of data back to Earth. This quite-flawed policy was ended and ground-based launches were resumed in 1989.

Here is to the memory of those astronauts who met their untimely deaths 25 years ago. They were bold pioneers worthy of the highest in praise for their venture. However, it should also be remembered that in the followup investigation of the disaster, Nobel-prize winning physicist Richard Feynman showed how easy it was to expose the O-ring flaw by dipping it into a bucket of icewater (the seal showed a large obvious gap at 32° F). A physics student could have verified the engineers' claims that Challenger was unsafe to launch.

But NASA never really learned the lessons from that colossal error. That was dramatically portrayed 17 years later.

[NEXT MONTH: Challenger's Shadow Hits Columbia]