The Challenger Disaster
NASA – STS-51L Mission Profile
The first shuttle liftoff scheduled from Pad B, STS-51L was beset by delays. Launch was originally set for 3:43 p.m. EST, Jan. 22, 1986, slipped to Jan. 23, then Jan. 24, due to delays in mission 61-C. Launch was reset for Jan. 25 because of bad weather at the transoceanic abort landing (TAL) site in Dakar, Senegal. To utilize Casablanca (not equipped for night landings) as alternate TAL site, T-zero was moved to a morning liftoff time. The launch postponed another day when launch processing was unable to meet the new morning liftoff time. Prediction of unacceptable weather at KSC led to the launch being rescheduled for 9:37 a.m. EST, Jan. 27. The launch was delayed 24 hours again when the ground servicing equipment hatch closing fixture could not be removed from the orbiter hatch. The fixture was sawed off and an attaching bolt drilled out before closeout was completed. During the delay, cross winds exceeded return-to-launch-site limits at KSC’s Shuttle Landing Facility. The launch Jan. 28, 1986, was delayed two hours when a hardware interface module in the launch processing system, which monitors the fire detection system, failed during liquid hydrogen tanking procedures.
Just after liftoff at .678 seconds into the flight, photographic data shows a strong puff of gray smoke was spurting from the vicinity of the aft field joint on the right solid rocket booster. Computer graphic analysis of the film from the pad cameras indicated the initial smoke came from the 270 to 310-degree sector of the circumference of the aft field joint of the right solid rocket booster. This area of the solid booster faces the external tank. The vaporized material streaming from the joint indicated there was not a complete sealing action within the joint.
Eight more distinctive puffs of increasingly blacker smoke were recorded between .836 and 2.500 seconds. The smoke appeared to puff upwards from the joint. While each smoke puff was being left behind by the upward flight of the shuttle, the next fresh puff could be seen near the level of the joint. The multiple smoke puffs in this sequence occurred at about four times per second, approximating the frequency of the structural load dynamics and resultant joint flexing. As the shuttle increased its upward velocity, it flew past the emerging and expanding smoke puffs. The last smoke was seen above the field joint at 2.733 seconds.
The black color and dense composition of the smoke puffs suggest that the grease, joint insulation and rubber O-rings in the joint seal were being burned and eroded by the hot propellant gases.
At approximately 37 seconds, Challenger encountered the first of several high-altitude wind shear conditions, which lasted until about 64 seconds. The wind shear created forces on the vehicle with relatively large fluctuations. These were immediately sensed and countered by the guidance, navigation and control system. The steering system (thrust vector control) of the solid rocket booster responded to all commands and wind shear effects. The wind shear caused the steering system to be more active than on any previous flight.
Both the shuttle main engines and the solid rockets operated at reduced thrust approaching and passing through the area of maximum dynamic pressure of 720 pounds per square foot. The main engines had been throttled up to 104 percent thrust and the solid rocket boosters were increasing their thrust when the first flickering flame appeared on the right solid rocket booster in the area of the aft field joint. This first very small flame was detected on image enhanced film at 58.788 seconds into the flight. It appeared to originate at about 305 degrees around the booster circumference at or near the aft field joint.
One film frame later from the same camera, the flame was visible without image enhancement. It grew into a continuous, well-defined plume at 59.262 seconds. At about the same time (60 seconds), telemetry showed a pressure differential between the chamber pressures in the right and left boosters. The right booster chamber pressure was lower, confirming the growing leak in the area of the field joint.
As the flame plume increased in size, it was deflected rearward by the aerodynamic slipstream and circumferentially by the protruding structure of the upper ring attaching the booster to the external tank. These deflections directed the flame plume onto the surface of the external tank. This sequence of flame spreading is confirmed by analysis of the recovered wreckage. The growing flame also impinged on the strut attaching the solid rocket booster to the external tank.
The first visual indication that swirling flame from the right solid rocket booster breached the external tank was at 64.660 seconds when there was an abrupt change in the shape and color of the plume. This indicated that it was mixing with leaking hydrogen from the external tank. Telemetered changes in the hydrogen tank pressurization confirmed the leak. Within 45 milliseconds of the breach of the external tank, a bright sustained glow developed on the black-tiled underside of the Challenger between it and the external tank.
Beginning at about 72 seconds, a series of events occurred extremely rapidly that terminated the flight. Telemetered data indicated a wide variety of flight system actions that support the visual evidence of the photos as the shuttle struggled futilely against the forces that were destroying it.
At about 72.20 seconds the lower strut linking the solid rocket booster and the external tank was severed or pulled away from the weakened hydrogen tank permitting the right solid rocket booster to rotate around the upper attachment strut. This rotation is indicated by divergent yaw and pitch rates between the left and right solid rocket boosters.
At 73.124 seconds, a circumferential white vapor pattern was observed blooming from the side of the external tank bottom dome. This was the beginning of the structural failure of hydrogen tank that culminated in the entire aft dome dropping away. This released massive amounts of liquid hydrogen from the tank and created a sudden forward thrust of about 2.8 million pounds, pushing the hydrogen tank upward into the intertank structure. At about the same time, the rotating right solid rocket booster impacted the intertank structure and the lower part of the liquid oxygen tank. These structures failed at 73.137 seconds as evidenced by the white vapors appearing in the intertank region.
Within milliseconds there was massive, almost explosive, burning of the hydrogen streaming from the failed tank bottom and liquid oxygen breach in the area of the intertank.
At this point in its trajectory, while traveling at a Mach number of 1.92 at an altitude of 46,000 feet, Challenger was totally enveloped in the explosive burn. The Challenger’s reaction control system ruptured and a hypergolic burn of its propellants occurred as it exited the oxygen-hydrogen flames. The reddish brown colors of the hypergolic fuel burn are visible on the edge of the main fireball. The orbiter, under severe aerodynamic loads, broke into several large sections which emerged from the fireball. Separate sections that can be identified on film include the main engine/tail section with the engines still burning, one wing of the orbiter, and the forward fuselage trailing a mass of umbilical lines pulled loose from the payload bay.
The explosion 73 seconds after liftoff claimed crew and vehicle. The cause of explosion was determined to be an o-ring failure in the right solid rocket booster. Cold weather was determined to be a contributing factor.
Mission Highlights (Planned)
The planned orbital activities of the Challenger 51-L mission were as follows:
On Flight Day 1, after arriving into orbit, the crew was to have two periods of scheduled high activity. First they were to check the readiness of the TDRS-B satellite prior to planned deployment. After lunch they were to deploy the satellite and its Inertial Upper Stage (IUS) booster and to perform a series of separation maneuvers. The first sleep period was scheduled to be eight hours long starting about 18 hours after crew wakeup the morning of launch.
On Flight Day 2, the Comet Halley Active Monitoring Program (CHAMP) experiment was scheduled to begin. Also scheduled were the initial “teacher in space” (TISP) video taping and a firing of the orbital maneuvering engines (OMS) to place Challenger at the 152-mile orbital altitude from which the Spartan would be deployed.
On Flight Day 3, the crew was to begin pre-deployment preparations on the Spartan and then the satellite was to be deployed using the remote manipulator system (RMS) robot arm. Then the flight crew was to slowly separate from Spartan by 90 miles.
On Flight Day 4, the Challenger was to begin closing on Spartan while Gregory B. Jarvis continued fluid dynamics experiments started on day two and day 3. Live telecasts were also planned to be conducted by Christa McAuliffe.
On Flight Day 5, the crew was to rendezvous with Spartan and use the robot arm to capture the satellite and re-stow it in the payload bay.
On Flight Day 6, re-entry preparations were scheduled. This included flight control checks, test firing of maneuvering jets needed for re-entry, and cabin stowage. A crew news conferences was also scheduled following the lunch period.
On Flight Day 7, the day would have been spent preparing the Space Shuttle for deorbit and entry into the atmosphere. The Challenger was scheduled to land at the Kennedy Space Center 144 hours and 34 minutes after launch.
Flight 25 (51-L), January 28, 1986, Orbiter Challenger. The accident.
All this from the Report of the PRESIDENTIAL COMMISSION on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident
Flight of the Space Shuttle Challenger on Mission 51-L began at 11:38 a.m. Eastern Standard Time on January 28, 1986. It ended 73 seconds later in an explosive burn of hydrogen and oxygen propellants that destroyed the External Tank and exposed the Orbiter to severe aerodynamic loads that caused complete structural breakup. All seven crew members perished. The two Solid Rocket Boosters flew out of the fireball and were destroyed by the Air Force range safety officer 110 seconds after launch.
The ambient air temperature at launch was 36 degrees Fahrenheit measured at ground level approximately 1,000 feet from the 51-L mission launch pad 39B. This temperature was 15 degrees colder than that of any previous launch.
The following description of the flight events is based on visual examination and image enhancement of film from NASA operated cameras and telemetry data transmitted from the Space Shuttle to ground stations. The last telemetry data from the Challenger was received 73.618 seconds after launch.
At 6.6 seconds before launch, the Challenger’s liquid fueled main engines were ignited in sequence and run up to full thrust while the entire Shuttle structure was bolted to the launch pad. Thrust of the main engines bends the Shuttle assembly forward from the bolts anchoring it to the pad. When the Shuttle assembly springs back to the vertical, the Solid Rocket Boosters’ restraining bolts are explosively released. During this prerelease “twang” motion, structural loads are stored in the assembled structure. These loads are released during the first few seconds of flight in a structural vibration mode at a frequency of about 3 cycles per second. The maximum structural loads on the aft field joints of the Solid Rocket Boosters occur during the “twang,” exceeding even those of the maximum dynamic pressure period experienced later in flight.
Just after liftoff at .678 seconds into the flight, photographic data show a strong puff of gray smoke was spurting from the vicinity of the aft field joint on the right Solid Rocket Booster. The two pad 39B cameras that would have recorded the precise location of the puff were inoperative. Computer graphic analysis of film from other cameras indicated the initial smoke came from the 270 to 310-degree sector of the circumference of the aft field joint of the right Solid Rocket Booster. This area of the solid booster faces the External Tank. The vaporized material streaming from the joint indicated there was not complete sealing action within the joint.
Eight more distinctive puffs of increasingly blacker smoke were recorded between .836 and 2.500 seconds. The smoke appeared to puff upwards from the joint. While each smoke puff was being left behind by the upward flight of the Shuttle, the next fresh puff could be seen near the level of the joint. The multiple smoke puffs in this sequence occurred at about four times per second, approximating the frequency of the structural load dynamics and resultant joint flexing. Computer graphics applied to NASA photos from a variety of cameras in this sequence again placed the smoke puffs’ origin in the 270-to 310-degree sector of the original smoke spurt.
As the Shuttle increased its upward velocity, it flew past the emerging and expanding smoke puffs. The last smoke was seen above the field joint at 2.733 seconds. At 3.375 seconds the last smoke was visible below the Solid Rocket Boosters and became indiscernible as it mixed with rocket plumes and surrounding atmosphere.
The black color and dense composition of the smoke puffs suggest that the grease, joint insulation and rubber O-rings in the joint seal were being burned and eroded by the hot propellant gases.
Launch sequence films from previous missions were examined in detail to determine if there were any prior indications of smoke of the color and composition that appeared during the first few seconds of the 51-L mission. None were found. Other vapors in this area were determined to be melting frost from the bottom of the External Tank or steam from the rocket exhaust in the pad’s sound suppression water trays.
Shuttle main engines were throttled up to 104 percent of their rated thrust level, the Challenger executed a programmed roll maneuver and the engines were throttled back to 94 percent.
At approximately 37 seconds, Challenger encountered the first of several high-altitude wind shear conditions, which lasted until about 64 seconds. The wind shear created forces on the vehicle with relatively large fluctuations. These were immediately sensed and countered by the guidance, navigation and control system. Although flight 51-L loads exceeded prior experience in both yaw and pitch planes at certain instants, the maxima had been encountered on previous flights and were within design limits.
The steering system (thrust vector control) of the Solid Rocket Booster responded to all commands and wind shear effects. The wind shear caused the steering system to be more active than on any previous flight.
At 45 seconds into the flight, three bright flashes appeared downstream of the Challenger’s right wing. Each flash lasted less than one-thirtieth of’ a second. Similar flashes have been seen on other flights. Another appearance of a separate bright spot was diagnosed by film analysis to be a reflection of main engine exhaust on the Orbital Maneuvering System pods located at the upper rear section of the Orbiter. The flashes were unrelated to the later appearance of the flame plume from the right Solid Rocket Booster.
Both the Shuttle main engines and the solid rockets operated at reduced thrust approaching and passing through the area of maximum dynamic pressure of 720 pounds per square foot. Main engines had been throttled up to 104 percent thrust and the Solid Rocket Boosters were increasing their thrust when the first flickering flame appeared on the right Solid Rocket Booster in the area of the aft field joint. This first very small flame was detected on image enhanced film at 58.788 seconds into the flight. It appeared to originate at about 305 degrees around the booster circumference at or near the aft field joint.
One film frame later from the same camera, the flame was visible without image enhancement. It grew into a continuous, well-defined plume at 59.262 seconds. At about the same time (60 seconds), telemetry showed a pressure differential between the chamber pressures in the right and left boosters. The right booster chamber pressure was lower, confirming the growing leak in the area of the field joint.
As the flame plume increased in size, it was deflected rearward by the aerodynamic slipstream and circumferentially by the protruding structure of the upper ring attaching the booster to the External Tank. These deflections directed the flame plume onto the surface of the External Tank. This sequence of flame spreading is confirmed by analysis of the recovered wreckage. The growing flame also impinged on the strut attaching the Solid Rocket Booster to the External Tank.
At about 62 seconds into the flight, the control system began to react to counter the forces caused by the plume and its effects. The left Solid Rocket Booster thrust vector control moved to counter the yaw caused by reduced thrust from the leaking right Solid Rocket Booster. During the next nine seconds, Space Shuttle control systems worked to correct anomalies in pitch and yaw rates.
The first visual indication that swirling flame from the right Solid Rocket Booster breached the External Tank was at 64.660 seconds when there was an abrupt change in the shape and color of the plume. This indicated that it was mixing with leaking hydrogen from the External Tank. Telemetered changes in the hydrogen tank pressurization confirmed the leak. Within 45 milliseconds of the breach of the External Tank, a bright sustained glow developed on the black-tiled underside of the Challenger between it and the External Tank.
Beginning at about 72 seconds, a series of events occurred extremely rapidly that terminated the flight. Telemetered data indicate a wide variety of flight system actions that support the visual evidence of the photos as the Shuttle struggled futilely against the forces that were destroying it.
At about 72.20 seconds the lower strut linking the Solid Rocket Booster and the External Tank was severed or pulled away from the weakened hydrogen tank permitting the right Solid Rocket Booster to rotate around the upper attachment strut. This rotation is indicated by divergent yaw and pitch rates between the left and right Solid Rocket Boosters.
At 73.124 seconds, a circumferential white vapor pattern was observed blooming from the side of the External Tank bottom dome. This was the beginning of the structural failure of the hydrogen tank that culminated in the entire aft dome dropping away. This released massive amounts of liquid hydrogen from the tank and created a sudden forward thrust of about 2.~3 million pounds, pushing the hydrogen tank upward into the intertank structure. At about the same time, the rotating right Solid Rocket Booster impacted the intertank structure and the lower part of the liquid oxygen tank. These structures failed at 73.137 seconds as evidenced by the white vapors appearing in the intertank region.
Within milliseconds there was massive, almost explosive, burning of the hydrogen streaming from the failed tank bottom and the liquid oxygen breach in the area of the intertank.
At this point in its trajectory, while traveling at a Mach number of 1.92 at an altitude of 46,O00 feet, the Challenger was totally enveloped in the explosive burn. The Challenger’s reaction control system ruptured and a hypergolic burn of its propellants occurred as it exited the oxygen-hydrogen flames. The reddish brown colors of the hypergolic fuel burn are visible on the edge of the main fireball. The Orbiter, under severe aerodynamic loads, broke into several large sections which emerged from the fireball. Separate sections that can be identified on film include the main engine/tail section with the engines still burning, one wing of the Orbiter, and the forward fuselage trailing a mass of umbilical lines pulled loose from the payload bay.
Evidence in the recovered wreckage from the 51-L mission hardware supports this final sequence of events.
1 -Immediately after solid rocket motor ignition, dark smoke (arrows) swirled out between the right hand booster and the External Tank. The smoke’s origin, behavior and duration was approximated by visual analysis and computer enhancement of film from five camera locations. Consensus: smoke was first discernible at .678 seconds Mission Elapsed Time in the vicinity of the right booster’s aft field joint.
2 -Multiple smoke puffs are visible. They began at .836 seconds and continued through 2.500 seconds, occurring about 4 times a second. Upward motion of the vehicle caused the smoke to drift downward and blur into a single cloud.
3 – At 58.788 seconds, the first flicker of flame appeared. Barely visible, it grew into a large plume and began to impinge on the External Tank at about 60 seconds. Flame is pinpointed in the computer drawing between the right booster and the tank, as in the case of earlier smoke puffs. Vapor is seen escaping from the apparently breached External Tank.
4 – Camera views indicate the beginning of rupture of the liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen tanks within the External Tank. A small flash intensified rapidly, then diminished. A second flash, attributed to rupture of the liquid oxygen tank, occurred above the booster/tank forward attachment and grew in milliseconds to the maximum size indicated in the computer drawing.
5 – Structural breakup of the vehicle began at approximately 73 seconds. Fire spread very rapidly. Above, a bright flash is evident near the nose the Orbiter, suggesting spillage and ignition of the spacecraft’s reaction control system propellants. The two Solid Rocket Boosters thrust away from the fire, crisscrossing to from a “V”. The right booster- identifiable by its failure plume- now to the left of its counterpart. At right, the boosters diverge farther; the External Tank wreckage is obscured by smoke and vapor. The Orbiter engines still firing, is visible at bottom center.
6 – At about 76 seconds, unidentifiable fragments of the Shuttle vehicle can be seen tumbling against a background of fire, smoke and vaporized propellants from the External Tank. In the photo at right, the left booster soars away, still thrusting. The reddish-brown cloud envelops the disintegrating Orbiter. The color is characteristic of the nitrogen tetroxide oxidizer in the Orbiter Reaction Control System propellant.
7 – Hurtling out of the fireball at 78 seconds are the Orbiter’s left wing, the main engines and the forward fuselage.
8 – At 11:44 a.m. Eastern Standard Time, a GOES environment-monitoring satellite operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration acquired an image of the smoke and vapor cloud from the 51-L accident. The coast of Florida is outlined in red.
The Cause of the Accident
The consensus of the Commission and participating investigative agencies is that the loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger was caused by a failure in the joint between the two lower segments of the right Solid Rocket Motor. The specific failure was the destruction of the seals that are intended to prevent hot gases from leaking through the joint during the propellant burn of the rocket motor. The evidence assembled by the Commission indicates that no other element of the Space Shuttle system contributed to this failure.
In arriving at this conclusion, the Commission reviewed in detail all available data, reports and records; directed and supervised numerous tests, analyses, and experiments by NASA, civilian contractors and various government agencies; and then developed specific failure scenarios and the range of most probable causative factors. The sections that follow discuss the results of the investigation .
The Contributing Cause of The Accident.
The decision to launch the Challenger was flawed. Those who made that decision were unaware of the recent history of problems concerning the O-rings and the joint and were unaware of the initial written recommendation of the contractor advising against the launch at temperatures below 53 degrees Fahrenheit and the continuing opposition of the engineers at Thiokol after the management reversed its position. They did not have a clear understanding of Rockwell’s concern that it was not safe to launch because of ice on the pad. If the decisionmakers had known all of the facts, it is highly unlikely that they would have decided to launch 51-L on January 28, 1986.
TRANSCRIPT OF THE CHALLENGER CREW COMMENTS FROM THE OPERATIONAL RECORDER
This is a transcript of the Challenger operational recorder voice tape. It reveals the comments of Commander Francis R.Scobee, Pilot Michael J. Smith, Mission Specialist 1 Ellison S. Onizuka, and Mission Specialist 2 Judith A. Resnik for the period of T-2:05 prior to launch through approximately T+73 seconds when loss of all data occurred. The operational recorder was automatically activated at T-2:05 and normally runs throughout the mission. During the period of the prelaunch and the launch phase covered by the voice tape, Mission Specialist 3 Ronald E. McNair, Payload Specialist 1 S. Christa McAuliffe, and Payload Specialist 2 Gregory B. Jarvis were seated in the middeck and could monitor all voice activity but did not make any voice reports or comments. This transcript was released following the accident on January 28, 1986. A copy of the document is also available in the NASA Historical Reference Collection, History Office, NASA Headquarters, Washington, DC.
(The references to “NASA” indicate explanatory references NASA provided to the Presidential Commission.)
Time Crew Crew
T-2:05…………MS 2….. Would you give that back to me?
T-2:03…………MS 2….. Security blanket.
T-2:02…………MS 2….. Hmm.
T-1:58…………CDR….. Two minutes downstairs; you gotta watch running down there?
(NASA: Two minutes till launch.)
T-1:47…………PLT….. OK there goes the lox arm.
(NASA: Liquid oxygen supply arm to ET.)
T-1:46…………CDR….. Goes the beanie cap.
(NASA: Liquid oxygen vent cap.)
T-1:44…………MS 1….. Doesn’t it go the other way?
T-1:39…………MS 1….. Now I see it; I see it.
T-1:39…………PLT….. God I hope not Ellison.
T-1:38…………MS 1….. I couldn’t see it moving; it was behind the center screen.
(NASA: Obstructed view of liquid oxygen supply arm.)
T-1:33. ………MS 2….. Got your harnesses locked?
(NASA: Seat restraints.)
T-1:29…………PLT….. What for?
T-1:28…………CDR….. I won’t lock mine; I might have to reach something.
T-1:24…………PLT….. Ooh kaaaay.
T-1:04…………MS 1….. Dick’s thinking of somebody there.
T-59…………..CDR….. One minute downstairs.
(NASA: One minute till launch.)
T-52…………..MS 2….. Cabin Pressure is probably going to give us an alarm.
(NASA: Caution and warning alarm. Routine occurrence during prelaunch).
T-47…………..CDR….. OK there.
T-43…………..PLT….. Alarm looks good.
(NASA: Cabin pressure is acceptable.)
T-40…………..PLT….. Ullage pressures are up.
(NASA: External tank ullage pressure.)
T-34…………..PLT….. Right engine helium tank is just a little bit low.
(NASA: SSME supply helium pressure.)
T-32…………..CDR….. It was yesterday, too.
T-30…………..CDR….. Thirty seconds down there.
(NASA: 30 seconds till launch.)
T-25…………PLT….. Remember the red button when you make a roll call.
(NASA: Precautionary reminder for communications configuration.)
T-23…………CDR….. I won’t do that; thanks a lot.
(NASA: 15 seconds till launch.)
T-6……………CDR….. There they go guys.
(NASA: SSME Ignition.)
MS 2….. All right.
CDR….. Three at a hundred.
(NASA: SSME thrust level at 100% for all 3 engines.)
T+O……………MS 2….. Aaall riiight.
T+1……………PLT….. Here we go.
(NASA: Vehicle motion.)
T+7……………CDR………….Houston, Challenger roll program.
(NASA: Initiation of vehicle roll program.)
T+11…………..PLT….. Go you Mother.
T+14…………..MS 1….. LVLH.
(NASA: Reminder for cockpit switch configuration change. Local vertical/local horizontal).
T+15…………..MS 2….. (Expletive) hot.
T+19…………..PLT….. Looks like we’ve got a lotta wind here today.
T+22…………..CDR….. It’s a little hard to see out my window here.
T+28…………..PLT….. There’s ten thousand feet and Mach point five.
(NASA: Altitude and velocity report.)
T+35…………..CDR….. Point nine.
(NASA: Velocity report, 0.9 Mach).
T+40…………..PLT….. There’s Mach one.
(NASA: Velocity report, 1.0 Mach).
T+41…………..CDR….. Going through nineteen thousand.
(NASA: Altitude report, 19,000 ft.)
T+43…………..CDR….. OK we’re throttling down.
(NASA: Normal SSME thrust reduction during maximum dynamic pressure region.)
T+57…………..CDR….. Throttling up.
(NASA: Throttle up to 104% after maximum dynamic pressure.)
T+58…………..PLT….. Throttle up.
T+60…………..PLT….. Feel that mother go.
T+1:02…………PLT….. Thirty-five thousand going through one point five
(NASA: Altitude and velocity report, 35,000 ft., 1.5 Mach).
T+1:05…………CDR….. Reading four eighty six on mine.
(NASA: Routine airspeed indicator check.)
T+1:07…………PLT….. Yep, that’s what I’ve got, too.
T+1:10…………CDR….. Roger, go at throttle up.
(NASA: SSME at 104 percent.)
T+1:13…………………..LOSS OF ALL DATA.
The Crew of the Challenger Shuttle Mission in 1986
The Challenger shuttle crew, of seven astronauts–including the specialties of pilot, aerospace engineers, and scientists– died tragically in the explosion of their spacecraft during the launch of STS-51-L from the Kennedy Space Center about 11:40 a.m., EST, on January 28, 1986. The explosion occurred 73 seconds into the flight as a result of a leak in one of two Solid Rocket Boosters that ignited the main liquid fuel tank. The crewmembers of theChallenger represented a cross-section of the American population in terms of race, gender, geography, background, and religion. The explosion became one of the most significant events of the 1980s, as billions around the world saw the accident on television and empathized with any one of the several crewmembers killed.
The spacecraft commander was Francis R. (Dick) Scobee, the son of Mr. and Mrs. Francis W. Scobee. He was born on May 19, 1939, in Cle Elum, Washington, and graduated from the public high school in Auburn, Washington, in 1957. He then enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, training as a reciprocating engine mechanic but longing to fly. He took night courses and in 1965 completed a B.S. degree in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Arizona. This made it possible for Scobee to receive an officer’s commission and enter the Air Force pilot training program. He received his pilot’s wings in 1966 and began a series of flying assignments with the Air Force, including a combat tour in Vietnam. Scobee also married June Kent of San Antonio, Texas, and they had two children, Kathie R. and Richard W., in the early 1960s. He attended the USAF Aerospace Research Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base, California, in 1972 and thereafter was involved in several test programs. As an Air Force test pilot Scobee flew more than 45 types of aircraft, logging more than 6,500 hours of flight time.
In 1978 Scobee entered NASA’s astronaut corps and was the pilot of STS-41-C, the fifth orbital flight of the Challenger spacecraft, launching from Kennedy Space Center, Florida, on April 6, 1984. During this seven-day mission the crew successfully retrieved and repaired the ailing Solar Maximum Satellite and returned it to orbit. This was an enormously important mission, because it demonstrated the capability that NASA had long said existed with the Space Shuttle to repair satellites in orbit.
The pilot for the fatal 1986 Challenger mission was Michael J. Smith, born on April 30, 1945 in Beaufort, North Carolina. At the time of the Challenger accident a commander in the U.S. Navy, Smith had been educated at the U.S. Naval Academy, class of 1967, and received an M.S. in Aeronautical Engineering from the Naval Postgraduate School in 1968. From there he underwent aviator training at Kingsville, Texas, and received his wings in May 1969. After a tour as an instructor at the Navy’s Advanced Jet Training Command between 1969 and 1971, Smith flew A- 6 “Intruders” from the USS Kitty Hawk in Southeast Asia. Later he worked as a test pilot for the Navy, flying 28 different types of aircraft and logging more than 4,300 hours of flying time. Smith was selected as a NASA astronaut in May 1980, and a year later, after completing further training, he received an assignment as a Space Shuttle pilot, the position he occupied aboard Challenger. This mission was his first space flight.
Judith A. Resnik was one of three mission specialists on Challenger. Born on April 5, 1949 at Akron, Ohio, the daughter of Dr. Marvin Resnik, a respected Akron optometrist, and Sarah Resnik. Brought up in the Jewish religion, Resnik was educated in public schools before attending Carnegie-Mellon University, where she received a B.S. in electrical engineering in 1970, and the University of Maryland, where she took at Ph.D. in the same field in 1977. Resnik worked in a variety of professional positions with the RCA corporation in the early 1970s and as a staff fellow with the Laboratory of Neurophysiology at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, between 1974 and 1977.
Selected as a NASA astronaut in January 1978, the first cadre containing women, Resnik underwent the training program for Shuttle mission specialists during the next year. Thereafter, she filled a number of positions within NASA at the Johnson Space Center, working on aspects of the Shuttle program. Resnik became the second American woman in orbit during the maiden flight of Discovery, STS-41-D, between August 30 and September 5, 1984. During this mission she helped to deploy three satellites into orbit; she was also involved in biomedical research during the mission. Afterward, she began intensive training for the STS-51- L mission on which she was killed. Ronald E. McNair was the second of three mission specialists aboard Challenger. Born on October 21, 1950 in Lake City, South Carolina, McNair was the son of Carl C. McNair, Sr., and Pearl M. McNair. He achieved early success in the segregated public schools he attended as both a student and an athlete. Valedictorian of his high school class, he attended North Carolina A&T State University where in 1971 he received a B.S. degree in physics. He went on to study physics at MIT, where he specialized in quantum electronics and laser technology, completing his Ph.D. in 1977. As a student he performed some of the earliest work on chemical HF/DF and high pressure CO lasers, publishing pathbreaking scientific papers on the subject.
McNair was also a physical fitness advocate and pursued athletic training from an early age. He was a leader in track and football at his high school. He also became a black belt in Karate, and while in graduate school began offering classes at St. Paul’s AME Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He also participated in several Karate tournaments, taking more than 30 trophies in these competitions. While involved in these activities McNair met and married Cheryl B. Moore of Brooklyn, New York, and they later had two children. After completing his Ph.D. he began working as a physicist at the Optical Physics Department of Hughes Research Laboratories in Malibu, California, and conducted research on electro-optic laser modulation for satellite-to-satellite space communications.
This research led McNair into close contact with the space program for the first time, and when the opportunity presented itself he applied for astronaut training. In January 1978 NASA selected him to enter the astronaut cadre, one of the first three Black Americans selected. McNair became the second Black American in space between Febrary 3 and 11, 1984, by flying on the Challenger Shuttle mission STS-41-B. During this mission McNair operated the maneuverable arm built by Canada used to move payloads in space. The 1986 mission on which he was killed was his second Shuttle flight.
Ellison S. Onizuka, was the last of the three mission specialists. He had been born in Kealakekua, Kona, Hawaii, on June 24, 1946, of Japanese-American parents. He attended the University of Colorado, receiving B.S. and M.S. degrees in engineering in June and December 1969, respectively. While at the university he married Lorna Leido Yoshida of Hawaii, and the couple eventually had two children. He also participated in the Air Force R.O.T.C. program, leading to a commission in January 1970. Onizuka served on active duty with the Air Force until January 1978 when he was selected as a NASA astronaut. With the Air Force in the early 1970s he was an aerospace flight test engineer at the Sacramento Air Logistics Center. After July 1975 he was assigned to the Air Force Flight Test Center at Edwards Air Force Base, California, as squadron flight test officer and later as chief of the engineering support section.
When Onizuka was selected for the astronaut corps he entered into a one year training program and then became eligible for assignment as a mission specialist on future Space Shuttle flights. He worked on orbiter test and checkout teams and launch support crews at the Kennedy Space Center for the first two Shuttle missions. Since he was an Air Force officer on detached duty with NASA, Onizuka was a logical choice to serve on the first dedicated Department of Defense classified mission. He was a mission specialist on STS-51-C, taking place 24-27 Jan. 1985 on the Discovery orbiter. The Challenger flight was his second Shuttle mission.
The last two members of the Challenger crew were not officially Federal government employees. Gregory B. Jarvis, a payload specialist, worked for the Hughes Aircraft Corp.’s Space and Communications Group in Los Angeles, California, and had been made available for the Challenger flight by his company. Jarvis had been born on August 24, 1944, in Detroit, Michigan. He had been educated at the State University of New York at Buffalo, receiving a B.S. in electrical engineering (1967); at Northeastern University, Boston, where he received an M.S. degree in the same field (1969); and at West Coast University, Los Angeles, where he completed coursework for an M.S. in management science (1973). Jarvis began work at Hughes in 1973 and served in a variety of technical positions until 1984 when he was accepted into the astronaut program under Hughes’ sponsorship after competing against 600 other Hughes employees for the opportunity. Jarvis’ duties on the Challenger flight had revolved around gathering new information on the design of liquid-fueled rockets.
The last member of the crew was Sharon Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher to fly in space. Selected from among more than 11,000 applicants from the education profession for entrance into the astronaut ranks, McAuliffe had been born on September 2, 1948, the oldest child of Edward and Grace Corrigan. Her father was at that time completing his sophomore year at Boston College, but not long thereafter he took a job as an assistant comptroller in a Boston department store and the family moved to the Boston suburb of Framingham. As a youth she registered excitement over the Apollo moon landing program, and wrote years later on her astronaut application form that “I watched the Space Age being born and I would like to participate.”
McAuliffe attended Framingham State College in her hometown, graduating in 1970. A few weeks later she married her longstanding boyfriend, Steven McAuliffe, and they moved to the Washington, DC, metropolitan area so Steven could attend Georgetown Law School. She took a job teaching in the secondary schools, specializing in American history and social studies. They stayed in the Washington area for the next eight years, she teaching and completing an M.A. from Bowie State University, in Maryland. They moved to Concord, New Hampshire, in 1978 when Steven accepted a job as an assistant to the state attorney general. Christa took a teaching post at Concord High School in 1982, and in 1984 learned about NASA’s efforts to locate an educator to fly on the Shuttle. The intent was to find a gifted teacher who could communicate with students from space.
NASA selected McAuliffe for this position in the summer of 1984 and in the fall she took a year-long leave of absence from teaching, during which time NASA would pay her salary, and trained for an early 1986 Shuttle mission. She had an immediate rapport with the media, and the teacher in space program received tremendous popular attention as a result. It is in part because of the excitement over McAuliffe’s presence on the Challenger that the accident had such a significant impact on the nation.
In the aftermath of the Challenger accident, the crew’s families came together, firmly committed to the belief that they must carry on the spirit of their loved ones by continuing the Challenger crew’s educational mission. Their efforts resulted in the creation of Challenger Center for Space Science Education.
Challenger Center and its global network of Challenger Learning Centers use space-themed simulated learning and role-playing strategies to help students bring their classroom studies to life and cultivate skills needed for future success, such as problem solving, critical thinking, communication and teamwork.
A not-for-profit 501(c)(3) education organization, Challenger Center reaches hundreds of thousands of students, and tens of thousands of teachers every year.
The Oral History of the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster
“No! No! No! They don’t mean the shuttle! They don’t mean the shuttle!”
This story originally appeared in the February 2016 issue of Popular Mechanics to mark the 30th anniversary of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster on January 28, 1986, when all seven people on board the shuttle were killed. To hear the voices of the people interviewed for the story, check out Popular Mechanics’ How Your World Works podcast.
For more voices from back then, check out “How To Get America Back Into Space” from the March 1987 issue, published shorty after the Challenger accident.
January 28, 1986, 11:39 a.m., Cape Canaveral, Florida.
It was supposed to be one of the greatest achievements in the history of the United States space program.
A civilian—a schoolteacher, an emissary of the hope for tomorrow—was going to space. Christa McAuliffe, a thirty-seven-year-old mother of two from Concord, New Hampshire, had been selected from eleven thousand entrants to NASA’s Teacher in Space contest. She became a symbol of optimism and progress amid Cold War tension. And the rest of the shuttle crew was itself a representation of the strength of American society: Gregory Jarvis, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Michael Smith, and Commander Dick Scobee. Two women, one of them Jewish. An African- American. An Asian-American. They were the most diverse group of astronauts NASA ever assembled.
On the morning of January 28, 1986, despite concerns within NASA and among others working on the launch that the weather was too cold, the shuttle Challenger blasted off. Seventy-three seconds later, it broke apart in long, grotesque fingers of white smoke in the sky above Cape Canaveral, Florida.
The shuttle program was retired in 2011. But the sacrifice of the seven astronauts who perished that day should never be forgotten. To mark the thirtieth anniversary of the tragedy, Popular Mechanics found and interviewed more than two dozen people who were closely involved in the launch and its aftermath. Our interviews uncovered new details about not only the catastrophe but also the investigation that followed. Many of these people have never met, but they are linked by that day—bound by horror and loss as well as by endurance and hope. Never before have so many voices of this unfortunate fellowship been collected in one place. Their memories accumulate to tell the remarkable story of one terrible day, its painful aftermath, and its hopeful legacy.
- “Nice and clear”
Originally scheduled for January 22, the launch of Challenger was delayed or scrubbed five times in six days due to weather and mechanical issues. Another attempt was scheduled for Tuesday morning, January 28. The night before, the temperature dropped into the 20s.
“THERE WASN’T A CLOUD IN THE SKY. YOU COULD CUT THAT SKY WITH A KNIFE. IT ALMOST LOOKED LIKE THE SKY WAS FROZEN.”
Steve Nesbitt (NASA public affairs officer working at Mission Control): There had been a couple of scrubs in the days before. That was not unusual. Some of the most conservative people you will ever find are in Mission Control. If something wasn’t right, they were quite willing to delay and come back another day. But that mission just went on and on. A friend of mine had been scheduled to do it, but he was so tired. So I said, “Let me take your shift for you. I’ll do the launch of Challenger.”
Bob Hohler (journalist for Christa McAuliffe’s hometown newspaper, The Concord Monitor): I remember Christa’s parents being frustrated and they told me she was getting frustrated too. It’s hard just to keep going through the launch-day preparations. That’s a big production.
Johnny Corlew (member of the closeout crew, which secured the astronauts in the spacecraft and sealed the hatch): I was on every one of the attempts. I didn’t get tired of it. It was an honor to be able to work with the astronauts.
Carl McNair (brother of Ronald McNair): Monday night Ron called me and said that because of the icy conditions it didn’t look like they were going to launch. My wife was pregnant with our daughter, and she really didn’t need to be hanging around for an indefinite period of time. So we came back to Atlanta. My mother and aunt and Ron’s wife stayed down there. I regret that to this day.
John Zarrella (CNN correspondent): On Monday night a cold front was coming into Florida, so the network decided to send me out into the orange fields to cover the freeze. We were out there all night, then ran back over to the Kennedy Space Center. We thought we’d cover the launch, go back to the hotel, go to sleep, then head back home. That morning was bitter cold.
Hohler: I remember driving in to the Space Center on this sort of eerie dark morning, this sort of pearly sky. I’d never seen a launch before, so I didn’t understand as well as I do in hindsight how cold it was.
Nesbitt: I do remember feeling unsure whether we would be going on that particular day because it was quite cold. I remember seeing the video from the Kennedy Space Center of ice teams looking at icicles hanging off the spacecraft.
John Tribe (chief engineer for Boeing/Rockwell Launch Support Services): I described it as the icehouse scene from Dr. Zhivago. I said, “There’s no way we’re going to fly.”
“BASED ON THE ICE ALONE, I THOUGHT IT WOULD BE NO-GO.”
Corlew: When we brought the astronauts out there, we reminded them to use the potty on the Astrovan because the one at the 195-foot level was frozen. I told [Commander] Dick Scobee, “It’s pretty cold to be flying today.” And he said, “No, it’s great weather to be flying in. Nice and clear.”
Zarrella: There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. You could cut that sky with a knife. It almost looked like the sky was frozen. At eleven o’clock, everybody went down from the press mound over this grassy field, out to where the countdown clock was.
Challenger was the second of fifteen planned shuttle launches in 1986—six more than the year before. Launches had become so routine that none of the three network television stations broadcast Challenger live—only CNN and a few local stations. However, NASA set up a special feed to McAuliffe’s school and hundreds more around the country so kids could watch from their classrooms.
Megan Raymond (Concord High School student): I remember realizing the whole country was going to be watching this launch, and that we were going to be at the epicenter of that. I was sitting in the cafeteria, and there were tons of media—zoom lenses right in your face, microphones right in your face. They wanted to get a moment-to-moment reaction.
Kent Shocknek (anchor for Los Angeles NBC affiliate KNBC): Our station had committed to covering the launches and landings when other stations weren’t. We went in that morning with a very small crew. We didn’t use our main news set—that would have been too expensive just for a five-minute broadcast. We used this tiny, shoebox studio with a locked-down camera, no cameraman. We used the NASA feed and I would just narrate over it. I had a big three-ring reference binder on the shuttle program that I would take into the studio with each launch. So I went in with my binder and a glass of water and I got ready to do what I always did—to interpret what was going on.
Dan Rather (CBS Evening News anchor): I was seated in what we call the fishbowl, the small glass room where we made decisions about what was going on the evening news. I’d been covering NASA since the early 1960s. Back when there was a plan to put journalists into space. I had dreamed of being that journalist. I’d have gone in a second.
Rhea Seddon (astronaut): I happened to be at an off-site building [near Johnson Space Center in Houston], doing some training for my next mission. The launch was supposed to start around the same time as our meeting, so we found a TV and turned it on. It’s always a joyful morning, especially to see friends go to space.
Corlew: We made sure they were all properly suited before they went into the shuttle, made sure everything was right, made sure the hatch was closed properly. The whole crew was really jovial that morning. It was a joke between me and Christa: I’d told her I was going to bring her an apple. The day before she said, “Where’s my apple?” So the day we launched, I made sure she got her apple. She handed it back and said, “Save it for me. I’ll eat it when I get back.”
“THE WHOLE COUNTRY WAS GOING TO BE WATCHING THIS LAUNCH.”
Barbara Morgan (Christa McAuliffe’s alternate; trained with the Challenger crew): The crew was fantastic about integrating Christa really well. Dick Scobee did a great job of helping us understand the risks. There are many ways for things to go wrong. He told us that they would more likely be people issues than equipment issues.
Tribe: I couldn’t believe they came out of the MMT [Mission Management Team] meeting with a recommendation to launch. Based on the ice alone, I thought it would be no-go. The ice was an unknown.
- “Go at throttle up”
June Scobee Rodgers (wife of Dick Scobee): The families watched the launches from on top of the Launch Control Center. We had been watching the television in a room inside the building during the countdown, and we went up on top for the actual launch.
Susan Capano (Concord High School teacher): I was in a classroom that seated thirty kids, and there were maybe sixty kids in there and another eight or ten teachers. The school was just overwhelmed with excitement.
Randy Kehrli (staff counsel for the Presidential Commission on the Space ShuttleChallenger Accident, also called the Rogers Commission): Watching a launch [in person], your heart goes up into your throat. The ground shakes under your feet. It’s just the most impressive physical experience, most impressive performance of a machine I’ve ever seen. And it’s like, my gosh. We can do this?
Zarrella: Astronauts have told me over the years that the space shuttle is clearly the most complicated vehicle ever built. There’s no doubt about that. Fly off like a rocket, go into space, service the Hubble Space Telescope, grab onto satellites, fix them in the cargo bay, throw them back into orbit, build an International Space Station. And then when the job is done, land back on Earth on a runway. We’re never going to see that again in our lifetimes.
McNair: After Ron made his first trip to space [in 1984], he came over to my house with this video of it, and he said, “Let’s check this out.” We connected it to my speakers—I had these big four-foot speakers. Those things were just woofing. He just wanted to watch the actual launch part over and over again, the first minute, just the roar of the space shuttle. It finally blew out my speakers.
Nesbitt: I had two screens in front of me that I could use to call up a variety of data, like the engine performance, velocity, altitude, downrange—all the flight parameters. And there was a color television set farther off to the left. I typically did not watch that, because once the launch occurred I was just going crazy trying to gather all the data, jumping back and forth between places on the data screens so I could pick information up.
Dick Covey (astronaut who, as capsule communicator, or capcom, for Challenger, was the sole voice of communication to the crew from Mission Control): We had been disciplined to watch our data, not to get distracted by watching whatever video might be running in the control center. So I’m watching my data, and there’s nothing unusual through the throttle up. The engine guys confirm that the engines look good, so I make a call: “Go at throttle up.” Dick [Scobee] responded. And then I’m starting to think about what’s the next thing that’s coming, if we’re going to make a call or whatever, and the data just went all M’s, which is “missing.”
Nesbitt: I heard the capcom say, “Go at throttle up,” and then Dick Scobee came back and said, “Roger, go at throttle up.” And right then you hear the crackling in the audio. I heard the crackling—but we were always losing communication and picking it up again.
III. “Everybody shut up. Something’s wrong.”
Brian Perry (NASA flight dynamics officer): The first indication that we got of any kind of trouble was when I got a call from one of our backroom folks who’s in charge of processing the radar coming in. We have at least three different radars tracking the vehicle at any time, and they all have to provide a consistent indicator of where the shuttle is. She reported that the filter [the software] had disagreeing sources, which is not normal but not necessarily unheard of. You can get birds and airplanes and stuff in the way. So that by itself didn’t necessarily concern me.
Covey: Fred [astronaut Fred Gregory] was in charge of weather and so he was able to watch the video, and he almost immediately says, “Look!” And so I turned and I looked, but I didn’t know what I was looking at. I didn’t see how it originated, nor did I understand exactly what it was. It just didn’t register with me.
Nesbitt: Sitting to my left was a Navy flight surgeon. She was able to watch the TV screens, and as I was speaking I heard her say, “What was that?” I paused for a minute and looked over, and I saw the two SRBs [solid rocket boosters] veering off on wild separate rides.
“I REMEMBER SEEING THE EXPLOSION, THE TWO STREAMS OF WHITE SMOKE, AND REALIZING THERE WAS NO SHUTTLE IN THE MIDDLE.”
Seddon: I said, “Oh, look, you can see the boosters are coming off.” And one of my crewmates said—he was looking at his watch—”No, it’s too early.” We weren’t supposed to jettison the boosters until they were burned out.
Shocknek: My first thought was that perhaps an SRB had fallen off prematurely, but the size of the explosion and the asymmetry of that fireball—I knew this was not a solid rocket booster being jettisoned. I remember saying, “My God”—not something I would say in the course of any other broadcast day.
Zarrella: From our vantage point, we could not see the fireball from the ground. We couldn’t see it. I remember distinctly you could see the cloud of smoke and it appeared there were fireworks that were shooting out from behind the cloud. We stood there for what seemed like an eternity. We were all looking at it, watching. And looking at each other, because we all knew something was wrong.
Capano: The kids in the classroom were shouting and cheering as it launched. And then we started hearing things from the TV. The kids were talking, they were all excited, and we had to quiet them because we’d started hearing that something had gone wrong.
Raymond: I remember seeing the explosion, the two streams of white smoke, and realizing there was no shuttle in the middle. I remember thinking specifically: Wait, that doesn’t look right. I remember hearing cameras clicking. I remember one of our beloved teachers standing up on the cafeteria table and shouting, “Everybody shut up. Shut the hell up. Something’s wrong.” We respected him so much that when he did that, we got really scared, because he was scared.
Seddon: The camera panned back, and all you could see was a cloud of … stuff. We thought the engines were still going with the shuttle attached to the tank. Then they showed the ocean, and there were pieces coming down—big chunks of something.
Tribe: In the firing room [in Launch Control at the Kennedy Space Center], we could see it out the window. All I remember now is one wing spiraling down, like a leaf coming off a tree. Of course it was plummeting down, but it looked like it was slow in real life. We were stunned.
Hohler: I was taking pictures of Christa’s parents, with my back to the launch. So I didn’t see it myself. I just watched her parents’ faces as it occurred. And I knew right then that life was never going to be the same.
- “There was a period of something like disbelief”
Scobee Rodgers: I couldn’t hear what was being said. It wasn’t clear what had happened. We came down from the roof, and we were gathered around the television. Then I was seeing replays and I heard the words “major malfunction.”
Nesbitt: I kind of paused to gather my thoughts, hoping to hear something on the flight director loop. There was nothing for several seconds, and I felt an urgent need to say something, to plant a flag here that acknowledges something terrible or unusual has happened. But I didn’t actually know what was going on. I didn’t want to say, “The spacecraft has exploded,” because I didn’t know that for sure. I wanted to be correct. So I said, “Flight controllers looking very carefully at the situation. Obviously a major malfunction.” Some people criticized my delivery, criticized that as being an understatement when clearly the crew had just died. But in those immediate seconds right afterward, that information was not available, and my own sense of professionalism would not let me make that kind of statement, that the crew was lost, without having that confirmed.
Perry: After a while [the inconsistent data] went on longer than we thought reasonable, especially when we weren’t getting any calls from onboard. So I asked my traj [trajectory] guy, who’s talking to the range-safety people, to ask if they were seeing anything. The guy down at the range responds, “It all blew up.” Traj and I look at each other, and traj says, “Say that again?” And he says, “It all blew up!” And traj says, “What did?” And he said, “The shuttle.” And that was when I made the call to [flight director] Jay [Greene]: “RSO [range safety officer] reports the vehicle has exploded.” That was the first that a lot of people in the room knew about it.
Capano: We got the kids quiet, and then I remember that the line that came across the TV was “The vehicle has exploded.” One of the girls in my classroom said, “Ms. Olson [Capano’s maiden name], what do they mean by ‘the vehicle’?” And I looked at her and I said, “I think they mean the shuttle.” And she got very upset with me. She said, “No! No! No! They don’t mean the shuttle! They don’t mean the shuttle!”
Raymond: The principal came over the PA system and said something like, “We respectfully request that the media leave the building now. Now.” Some of the press left, but some of them took off into the school. They started running into the halls to get pictures, to get sound—people were crying, people were running. It was chaos. Some students started chasing after journalists to physically get them out of the school.
Rather: I remember seeing it on the monitor. There was a period of something like disbelief. There wasn’t any question I had seen what I’d just seen, but it was such a shock. I remember the plume of smoke. It was eerie—the plume of smoke formed a fork, like a wishbone. I remember saying some version of, “God almighty, this thing has just blown up.” I ran to the studio, went live on the air. The maximum test of anchoring is major network television coverage of a disaster. Because you’re operating without a script. In one ear, I had the director of the program giving me directions—for example, “Go to this correspondent.” In the other, I had researchers giving me a constant flow of suggestions, checking and double-checking facts. It’s a constant ad-lib situation. From the moment it happened, I knew we’d be on the air until late at night, and indeed we were.
“NO! NO! NO! THEY DON’T MEAN THE SHUTTLE! THEY DON’T MEAN THE SHUTTLE!”
Jean Becker (USA Today reporter): I was in the newsroom that day, in Washington, D.C. I can see myself sitting at this big round desk. About half of the newsroom was watching it. There was just this eerie silence, and then a sense that we had to get to work covering this. I can still see the main editor coming out of her office and barking, “Jean! You’re on your way to the airport right now. Get your purse, you’re gone.” I didn’t go home. I didn’t pack. I didn’t even have a toothbrush. I just got on the plane and went down there.
Zarrella: I was running up to the press dome to find out from the NASA public affairs people what was going on. My cameraman was on an elevated mound, and as I ran up, he had his head up to the eyepiece and his camera trained on the cloud. And I’ll never forget: I said, “Steve, what happened?” And he looked away from his eyepiece and he said, “The f—ing thing blew up.” Those were his exact words. I headed right up into the press dome, and when I got there it was already bedlam.
Jake Garn (U.S. senator and crew member on a 1985 shuttle mission): I was watching from the main visitors’ area. I had flown myself just six months before. I knew this crew personally. We didn’t train for the same flight, but we were in training at the same time. Just after the explosion, it was just hugs and tears. Just sort of disbelief. Is this really happening? The mind doesn’t function too well when you go through a tragedy like that.
- “Mr. President, the Challenger exploded”
Kathy Osborne (executive assistant to President Reagan): I received a phone call from White House staff people who saw it on TV in another room. The president was in the Oval Office with his White House senior staff. They were having a meeting about the State of the Union speech, which he was supposed to deliver that night.
There were two ways to come in to the Oval Office. People could come through the Roosevelt Room, which is a prettier way to enter, so we brought outsiders through that way. Or they could come through my office, which is what staff always did. Nobody walked into the Oval Office unless they saw [executive assistant] James Kuhn and myself first, because they didn’t know what was going on in the office and we did. When I got that phone call, I hung up and, rather than just going right into the Oval, I felt like I needed to turn on the TV. I was horrified by what I was seeing replayed over and over on the screen. After a couple of minutes, I went into the Oval Office and the president was in the process of talking. I was standing there with the door open, holding it open and just waiting a few seconds for him to finish his sentence. [Press secretary] Larry Speakes was on a couch facing me, and he could see by the look on my face that something was wrong, and he stood up. And just as I started to say, “Mr. President,” Pat Buchanan almost knocked me over trying to get through the door to the Oval Office and shouted something like, “TheChallenger exploded.”
James Kuhn (executive assistant to President Reagan): Pat Buchanan came tearing down into [Kathy Osborne’s and my] little reception area and said, “The space shuttle just blew up.” He went right into the Oval Office and told the president. We were all so stunned. It was just complete silence.
Pat Buchanan (White House communications director): Reagan looked at me with this look on his face, and said, “Isn’t that the one with the teacher on it?” And I said, “Yes, sir.”
Osborne: The president’s immediate reaction was, of course, a look of anguish. We moved him and most of the senior staff into the president’s backup office where the television was. They were back there quite a while, just watching it replay constantly.
- “Magical thinking—the hope that they could have survived”
“WE WANT TO FIND THE ANSWER, THE TRUE ANSWER, AND WE NEED TO DO IT THE RIGHT WAY.”
Live TV images offered a glimmer of optimism: the sight of a parachute descending. But it was only the shuttle nose cap. At first, the prevailing story was that the crew had been killed instantly. However, later investigations revealed that the cabin had been severed from the shuttle and projected free of the fireball, and that the crew had briefly survived. Despite plummeting at more than two hundred miles per hour, the cabin would take almost three minutes to reach the ocean. Only after six weeks of searching were their bodies recovered.
Pat Smith (brother of Michael Smith): I was down in Florida for some of the launch attempts. I left and headed home to North Carolina. I was still on the road, coming home with my wife and children, just ten minutes from home, and I said, “It’s time for the launch. Let’s see if we can find anything on the radio.” We didn’t have to turn the dial very far to find out what had happened. Everybody was talking about it. My wife asked, “Do you think they got out?” I said, “There’s no way they got out.”
Hohler: I had this sort of magical thinking—the hope that they could have survived.
Covey: At best, the orbiter was separated from everything else and maybe trying to find a way to fly. And the worst thing in an emergency when you are flying is to have someone on the ground trying to talk to you without giving you the help that you need. So I was reluctant to be a distraction unless I had something I could tell them. If they weren’t talking to us, then they either didn’t have the ability to talk to us, or they were busy enough that they didn’t want to talk to us. I asked for emergency procedures, contingency aborts, anything that we could do to help them. And then it became obvious that there wasn’t anything we could do, and we were spectators in a tragedy.
Scobee Rodgers: I knew they had been trained to return to Earth some way, that there were different places they could return to. But when we were standing by the elevator to go up to the crew quarters, the radio was on and we heard, “Everyone lost. No crew members survived. All are lost.” I heard that.
McNair: We’d traveled all night getting back to Atlanta, and when I got up I turned on the TV. I saw the shuttle launch, and when I saw that awkward veering of the solid rocket boosters I immediately knew something was wrong. I knew then and there we had lost Ron and all the other astronauts. My wife saw me just shattered, weeping, and she said, “What happened?” When my dad finally got up, I told him, “Dad, you have to see this.” Not until that day, and never after that day, had I seen my dad cry. I can feel it now, that feeling.
Raymond: I just remember walking the hallways and seeing faculty members sitting by themselves in an empty classroom at a desk, just in total shock. I remember a student who had been really close to Christa, and he was just pounding a locker door over and over again with his fist.
Shocknek: My obligation was to be as composed as possible for viewers, but I was shaken up. It’s pretty obvious if you look at the video after we lost our signal and the director punched up the camera on me in the studio that I had to take a big swallow and try to come up with airworthy information. With everything that was going through my mind, the one thing that didn’t—until I was off the air and slumped back in my chair—was the realization that I knew two of the astronauts. Over the years I had a couple times run into El Onizuka and Judy Resnik. I remember how friendly they both were. To not even realize until later that I knew two of those folks struck me as a reminder of what an amazing thing the mind is—pushing things forward that are needed right at the moment and burying away those that are not.
“IT’S DIFFICULT WHEN A FRIEND DIES, BUT TO LOSE A WHOLE GROUP AT ONCE…”
Scobee Rodgers: We were standing there in the crew quarters in a circle, the families, when Vice President Bush, Senator John Glenn, and Senator Jake Garn came to us, these people grieving. I looked at everybody, waiting for someone to say something. No one spoke up. So I thanked them for coming. And I said that our loved ones valued their mission and the value and importance of spaceflight. And that to a person, I think we all would agree, spaceflight should continue.
George H.W. Bush (vice president): While I was meeting with the families, June Scobee Rodgers looked me in the eye and begged me not to let what had happened to her husband and the Challenger end space exploration.
Garn: I had some feeling for what the families were going through because I lost my first wife in an automobile accident. It’s difficult when a friend dies, but to lose a whole group at once …
VII. “He knew he was speaking to the children of America”
Buchanan: We called in Peggy Noonan, told her what we needed was a short speech for the president to talk about what had happened. She must have written it in an hour and a half.
Peggy Noonan (speechwriter and special assistant for President Reagan): If you worked for Ronald Reagan, you knew what Ronald Reagan thought. He knew he was speaking to the children of America, but he also knew at the same time he was speaking to the adults of America. And he was speaking to the world at a time of Cold War tension. He knew those opposed to us would see this as a military setback. So he had to speak to everybody, and not patronize anybody. And of course, because he was Reagan, he could.
The State of the Union was postponed, and President Reagan delivered a nationally televised address from the Oval Office at 5:00 p.m. Just four minutes long, it is considered one of the greatest speeches by a sitting American president and included the invocation of a sonnet by early twentieth-century British-American poet and aviator John Gillespie Magee, Jr. “We will never forget them,” Reagan said, “nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God.”
Kuhn: I was right there in the Oval Office with him while he was giving that address. Reagan was a tower of strength that day and going forward. He was always steady in the worst of times and steady in the best of times.
Noonan: It didn’t seem that the president was satisfied with the speech. He seemed even sadder when it was over than he was before. I think we all went home feeling maybe that didn’t work. But he called me the next day. He told me that he hadn’t thought that it worked, but now he did.
Osborne: The president was asking the staff for more details, like how could this happen, where were the astronauts’ families, what could he do to help them. The president said he wanted to call the individual families, but he wanted to wait until the following day rather than imposing on their grief and their privacy that same day.
Kuhn: Part of my job was to make a decision about what calls to put through to the president. I got a call from the president’s operator late that night, and she said, “I have Christa McAuliffe’s father-in-law on the line, and he wants to speak to the president.” And I thought, Oh, boy. This is going to be difficult. I was on the phone with him for about forty-five minutes. His anguish was unbelievable. He said it was President Reagan’s fault thatChallenger had exploded, and he wanted to know what President Reagan was going to do to make it right. I let him do 90 percent of the talking, and I tried to tell him as much as I could about how anguished the president was. At the end, I told him, “You will hear back from us.” I put him in touch with the crisis communications center at the Kennedy Space Center. I talked to a person I knew down there, and she said, “Jim, this is our job. Let us handle it from here.”
VIII. “This isn’t going to be another Warren Commission”
Less than a week later, on February 3, President Reagan ordered a special investigation of the accident. Headed by former secretary of state William Rogers, the Rogers Commission included Neil Armstrong, Sally Ride, Chuck Yeager, Nobel Prize– winning physicist Richard Feynman, and other experts in aeronautics, aviation, and disaster analysis. Their final report would be a stinging rebuke of NASA and would lead to a two-and-a-half-year suspension of the shuttle program.
Covey: People said, “Well, the external tank obviously exploded,” because that was what made the big fireball. But what caused it, nobody had a clue. It was days if not a week before any of us could say, “All right, now I’m starting to understand what went wrong.”
Tribe: I was working for North American Aviation at the time of the Apollo 1 fire [in 1967, which killed three astronauts]. We built the Apollo capsule. I was on station that night, and the last test we performed before the fire was Gus Grissom and me working through a static fire simulation. The comm system was bad, and we took a ten-minute break to try to clear it up. It was during that ten-minute hold that the fire broke out. There are a lot of differences and a lot of years between these two disasters, but some of the drivers are the same. The Apollo fire was driven by trying to go too fast. The hardware and the procedures weren’t ready. And of course, Challenger was also pushing too hard to meet schedule pressure: launch fever. In our business, it’s when you don’t do things in a carefully conducted manner that you start to get into trouble.
Donald Kutyna (Air Force general and Rogers Commission member): Bill Rogers was the smartest guy in Washington on how to handle politicians. His main function was to keep the damn politicians—all of whom wanted to get their names in the paper by doing something about the Challenger accident—at bay.
Kehrli: The first thing Rogers said to everybody was “This isn’t going to be another Warren Commission. We want to find the answer, the true answer, and we need to do it the right way.” We were extremely sensitive to the fact that we would be accused of whitewashing, trying to get NASA off the hook. And we were sensitive to the charge that there was pressure by the White House—we investigated the possibility of White House pressure as a possible cause. I think that was the genius of Rogers and the people who came up with the commission members. There was a wide variety. It wasn’t all military. It wasn’t all NASA. This was a very hardworking commission. Rogers was there every day. Sally Ride was there every day. Neil Armstrong was there every day. You have to remember at the time how the nation felt about it. How could NASA let us down? They’re heroes! They went to the moon! How could these seven people be dead? It was bringing America to its knees. And so for six months we worked seven days a week, twelve hours a day.
Chuck Yeager(Air Force general and test pilot): Finally they were getting some military Air Force guys on it. I was surprised to be included. I had to think about whether or not to participate. I knew that NASA was screwing up.
Alton Keel (engineer; executive director of the Rogers Commission): It took almost every waking moment. I took off only half a day in the entire six months. At first, the commission was serving as oversight of NASA investigating itself. The first hearing was a closed-door hearing, just commission members and the witnesses, who were from NASA and Morton Thiokol [the contractor that had built the solid rocket boosters]. The intent of the meeting was for NASA to tell us typically what happens during launch—not specificallythis launch but generally how it was supposed to go. Finally, Allan McDonald from Morton Thiokol, who was project manager for the solid rocket motor, said, “Mr. Chairman, may I say something?” He was quivering in his chair. Rogers said, “Of course.” McDonald said, “We recommended not to launch.” And then you could have heard a pin drop in the room. Everybody went quiet. Then everything started to unfold from that point.
Kutyna: On STS-51C, which flew a year before, it was 53 degrees [at launch, then the coldest temperature recorded during a shuttle launch] and they completely burned through the first O-ring and charred the second one. One day [early in the investigation] Sally Ride and I were walking together. She was on my right side and was looking straight ahead. She opened up her notebook and with her left hand, still looking straight ahead, gave me a piece of paper. Didn’t say a single word. I look at the piece of paper. It’s a NASA document. It’s got two columns on it. The first column is temperature, the second column is resiliency of O-rings as a function of temperature. It shows that they get stiff when it gets cold. Sally and I were really good buddies. She figured she could trust me to give me that piece of paper and not implicate her or the people at NASA who gave it to her, because they could all get fired.
Kehrli: The engineers from Morton Thiokol had raised holy hell the night before the launch. And they were right. This concern about the joint sealing was not new. They had been working this problem for years, and they hadn’t fixed it yet. Engineers were saying, “You can’t fly in these conditions.” But then NASA kept waiving the launch constraint from flight to flight. It’s like Richard Feynman said, “That’s like playing Russian roulette. Sooner or later it was going to get you.” And that’s exactly what happened.
“I HAD TO THINK ABOUT WHETHER OR NOT TO PARTICIPATE. I KNEW THAT NASA WAS SCREWING UP.”
Kutyna: I wondered how I could introduce this information Sally had given me. So I had Feynman at my house for dinner. I have a 1973 Opel GT, a really cute car. We went out to the garage, and I’m bragging about the car, but he could care less about cars. I had taken the carburetor out. And Feynman said, “What’s this?” And I said, “Oh, just a carburetor. I’m cleaning it.” Then I said, “Professor, these carburetors have O-rings in them. And when it gets cold, they leak. Do you suppose that has anything to do with our situation?” He did not say a word. We finished the night, and the next Tuesday, at the first public meeting, is when he did his O-ring demonstration.
We were sitting in three rows, and there was a section of the shuttle joint, about an inch across, that showed the tang and clevis [the two parts of the joint meant to be sealed by the O-ring]. We passed this section around from person to person. It hit our row and I gave it to Feynman, expecting him to pass it on. But he put it down. He pulled out pliers and a screwdriver and pulled out the section of O-ring from this joint. He put a C-clamp on it and put it in his glass of ice water. So now I know what he’s going to do. It sat there for a while, and now the discussion had moved on from technical stuff into financial things. I saw Feynman’s arm going out to press the button on his microphone. I grabbed his arm and said, “Not now.” Pretty soon his arm started going out again, and I said, “Not now!” We got to a point where it was starting to get technical again, and I said, “Now.” He pushed the button and started the demonstration. He took the C-clamp off and showed the thing does not bounce back when it’s cold. And he said the now-famous words, “I believe that has some significance for our problem.” That night it was all over television and the next morning in the Washington Post and New York Times. The experiment was fantastic—the American public had short attention spans and they didn’t understand technology, but they could understand a simple thing like rubber getting hard.
I never talked with Sally about it later. We both knew what had happened and why it had happened, but we never discussed it. I kept it a secret that she had given me that piece of paper until she died [in 2012].
Keel: We recorded every single document that came in and out, every phone call, every piece of correspondence. No matter how obscure or how fanciful the charge, we investigated it. We got people saying aliens did it—we had an investigator go out and talk to that person. We wanted the report to be a narrative and not just technical information—to tell a story, to have an effect. The only person who hung around while it was being edited who didn’t have to be there was Neil [Armstrong]. He would have a nip of single-malt scotch and regale us with stories about landing on the moon with Buzz Aldrin, looking for a place to land while the fuel was running out. If you ask me in hindsight would I do anything differently—at the risk of seeming immodest, the commission got it right.
Kehrli: I do not think it was a cold, intentional calculation on NASA’s part. I think it was a flaw in the decision-making structure of NASA. I think there were some incorrect judgments, but they were judgments. It might have been negligence. It probably wasnegligence. But in terms of criminal, cold, calculated intent, I don’t think there was any of that.
Covey: It was disappointing, angering almost, to find out that discussions had been held relative to [the known issue of joint failure in solid rocket boosters]. Why wasn’t that a bigger issue? How did we get to the point of accepting that indicator of a system not working the way it was designed? Why had we been willing to accept that?
Rather: The media were enthralled with the space program, including this reporter. We didn’t ask enough questions. When it became clear that the morning was going to be cold, an alert and deep-digging media would have figured out that it’s more dangerous. That should have been a bigger caution flag. Frankly, in the end I don’t think it would have made a difference. The decision-makers at NASA were hell-bent to launch that morning. NASA’s argument was that when you go to frontiers that are so dangerous, nobody should be surprised when disasters happen and we just need to accept that as inevitable. I questioned that at the time, and as the years have gone by I still question it.
Smith: What really bothered me is that they knew there was a chance it was going to happen. That is awful. That is unbelievable. When those people knew they were putting those seven people on that space shuttle with a chance of them dying, I have a real problem with that. I have a problem with anybody who plays with other people’s lives.
Keel: Part of the mistake we made and that NASA made was starting to think of the shuttle as a cargo plane while it was really still an experimental program. The probability of failure was 1 percent. If you applied that to commercial flight, that’s thousands of crashes a day. We began to think of it as too routine.
Yeager: NASA wanted the pub-licity for the launch. The launch had been scrapped several days in a row and the media was leaving. So they ordered the launch. They got their publicity, all right.
Tribe: I haven’t forgiven the guys that overrode the O-ring decision.
In addition to the suspension of the shuttle program, NASA would undergo a significant overhaul, including sweeping personnel changes and a new management structure, while both the government and contractor Morton Thiokol would pay millions in settlements to the astronauts’ families. But none of that would lessen the trauma and grief.
Bush: At age ninety-one, my memory is not what it used to be. I am beginning to think I have now forgotten more than I ever knew to begin with. But like all Americans who are of a certain age, I remember the day the Challenger blew up.
Nesbitt: I ended up being the last person to leave Mission Control that day. My emotional feeling at the time was like a house dropped on me, and I have sort of felt it ever since. For many years I thought of it practically every day. I’ve often seen the picture of Christa McAuliffe’s parents with the look of shock on their faces. And I’ve wondered if my voice or what I said contributed to their grief. Did I sound too cold in my delivery? Obviously that kind of thing haunts you.
Becker: I finished writing my piece around midnight that night. I was pushing deadline. And I remember going outside and seeing the launchpad just bathed in floodlights. And I remember just sitting down and crying.
Kuhn: A few days later, we went to Houston, to the Johnson Space Center, for the memorial service. There were fifteen thousand people there. The Reagans met with the families privately ahead of time. The president let them talk. There were twenty-five or so family members in there, and he went to each one individually, told them how sorry he was and then he let them talk to him. He listened. The family members were strong that day.
Kathie Scobee Fulgham (Dick Scobee’s daughter, who was twenty-two at the time): I’d never even lost a grandparent. I had no idea what death meant. I did not believe it. I was having nightmares about him being stuck on a piece of space shuttle floating around in the ocean.
Rather: This event set a precedent for coverage going forward in which the video was so spectacular, so tragedy-laden, that we repeated it over and over again. It’s at the point where now—and I include myself in this criticism—it tends to be overdone.
Raymond: I remember the media wanting to capture this mourning community and students in pain. People just want to see that. It’s like having to stop and look at a car wreck. I remember the windows of the first-floor classrooms had to be covered with paper, because a few journalists were standing on each others’ shoulders and holding cameras through the windows just to get pictures. But it was really incredible how much the school and the community came together. Students would stop and check on faculty throughout the day. Just pop your head into a classroom and check on a teacher and say, “How are you doing?” All those hierarchies melted away. It lasted a very long time.
Scobee Rodgers: After we were back home we could not turn our TV on without seeing it. We’d go to the grocery store and see the front page of newspapers, magazines—everything was a reminder. I’ll never forget the first time I went to the grocery store. In my mind I wasn’t a widow yet. I was still Dick Scobee’s wife. He loved peanut butter, and I went over and picked up a jar of peanut butter like I always did. And I sat down in the store and cried, because I didn’t have anyone to take that peanut butter home to. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about him.
Scobee Fulgham: When grief is public, I think it’s so much worse. Grief is very complicated—there is nothing simple about it. It is not a straight line. Sometimes it’s okay, and sometimes, even now, there will be days when I really miss him. Or there’s something that the kids have done that I really wanted him to see, and I’ll just think, I really wish he was here. He loved Christmas. Christmases always make me miss him.
Seddon: I think there were a few astronauts who left the program because their families worried about them. I think if my kids were really traumatized by it, my decision might have been different. But at the time my kids took it as a regular part of life. Hoot [Seddon] and I were committed to this life and these risks, and we were ready to go forward. We wanted to continue flying.
Corlew: That night I went home, I told my wife, “I don’t want to talk to nobody.” I went back to work the next day and I told my boss, “Put me on annual leave.” I went to Lake Okeechobee and fished for three weeks. I couldn’t do it anymore after Challenger. They asked me if I wanted to be on the closeout crew, and I said, “No.” I wouldn’t even watch a launch until after “Go at throttle up.” Only then I would turn and look at it.
- “We learn from our mistakes and tragedies”
In September 1988, the shuttle program resumed, carrying out eighty-seven missions without incident. That streak ended in 2003, when the shuttle Columbia disintegrated upon reentry, killing all seven crew members. Noting that “the causes of the institutional failure responsible for Challenger have not been fixed,” the Columbia Acci dent Investigation Board recommended the shuttle be allowed to fly until the International Space Station was complete, then be either recertified or retired. In 2011, NASA sent up a shuttle for the last time. Yet the Challenger legacy continues to foster interest in space exploration, science, and engineering among new generations.
Nesbitt: It was two and a half years after Challenger when we launched again. I asked my boss if I could do the launch commentary because I felt like I had an incomplete job that I needed to do. For that mission and every one after that, I always had my fingers crossed for that first two minutes and five seconds until the solid rocket boosters separate. Even though there were plenty of other bad things that could happen, once the SRBs separated and the main engines were going, I felt a lot better.
Kehrli: I was there for that return-to-flight launch. NASA flew me down to see it. Yeah, I was scared. I remember going, “Come on, Rick [Commander Rick Hauck]! Come on, Rick, fly this thing! Fly it, fly it!”
Morgan: NASA had scheduled appearances for Christa and me, for after she returned from the flight. We were to share our experiences with people all over the country. After the accident, NASA asked if I would carry on and serve in Christa’s shoes as Teacher in Space designee. I thought it was important for kids to see how adults should respond to terrible situations.
“THE LEGACY OF THE CHALLENGER IS THE VERY SPIRIT OF THE AMERICAN PEOPLE.” —GEORGE H.W. BUSH”
Yeager: My last job in the Air Force was as director of safety. When I got there, the policy regarding the approach to investigating accidents was finding a primary cause and secondary causes. I went to General [Michael E.] Ryan, who was chief of staff of the Air Force, and told him: “They are only correcting the primary cause and not the secondary cause.” I suggested we change it to “all-cause” accident so that all the causes would be fixed. He agreed, so we did. The airline industry followed suit, which prevented many, many accidents. But NASA didn’t do this. Even after Challenger, they did not fix them all. They knew about the issues before the Columbia accident and didn’t fix them.
Morgan: The families wanted something that really represented and continued the crew’s mission for education. They put together the Challenger Center for Space Science Education, which to this day is still making a huge difference. Many years later, one of my astronaut classmates told me that she was in junior high at the time [of]. She saw Christa and was able to connect with her, and that’s when she started seriously thinking about taking the path to become an astronaut. That means so much to me.
Smith: The real legacy of Challenger is a positive one. The Challenger Centers that June Scobee and Jane Smith [wife of Michael Smith] and the other families started, that is a real positive thing. It gets young people interested in space. And the space program has been a huge positive. Was it worth the cost? I’d have to say yes. Although the astronauts lost their lives, I’d have to say yes.
Raymond: I have several good friends from that time who went into education. I’m still in education. Certain things that Christa said will always stay in my head. She had a profound impact on us. She was just such a naturally gifted teacher. She could always see the statue in the stone.
McNair: I think the Challenger Centers and the McNair Scholars Program are the real legacy of Challenger. Ron had been planning to go back to education, to teach physics at the University of South Carolina, the very same school that wouldn’t accept him as a student [because it was segregated at the time]. Over sixty thousand students, either economically disadvantaged or first-generation college students, have been McNair Scholars—probably more people than Ron ever would have impacted in his lifetime. Not only those McNair Scholars, but the people they’ve impacted, the students they’ve taught.
Bush: I believe that the legacy of the Challenger is the very spirit of the American people. We learn from our mistakes and our tragedies. And then we move on. And we do things bigger and better than before. Challenger is one of our best examples of that. The remarkable June Scobee Rodgers moved on by helping establish the Challenger Centers, which bring the joy of science and space to hundreds of thousands of our children. NASA, and our country, moved on by reaching even deeper into outer space. We have had spacecraft exploring Venus, Mars, Saturn, and Mercury. And today we have an American, Scott Kelly, commanding the International Space Station. By the time he comes home, he will have set a record for the longest time in space by a U.S. astronaut. On the day the shuttle blew up, I said, “Our fallen astronauts have taken their place in the heavens so that America can take its place in the stars.” I hope the crew of the Challenger would feel we have honored them well. I think they would.
In Popular Mechanics
The Challenger Disaster: A Dramatic Lesson In The Failure To Communicate
There is no shortage of reporting about the failed launch of the space shuttle Challenger that took the lives of seven astronauts on January 28, 1986. Books have been written, and documentaries have been made. Now a new film aptly named, The Challenger Disaster, dramatizes the mistakes that led to the fatal launch. As such it makes a good case study about why we so often fail to communicate.
The film, written and directed by Nathan VonMinden, is an example of the “inspired by a true story” genre and as such cannot be taken as a documentary. It focuses on the human interactions that led to mistakes being made.
The story focuses on an engineer called Adam (played by Eric Hanson), who sought to alert his superiors to the fact that O-rings, which form the seals in the rockets, were not certified for cold weather launches. In the case of Challenger, the launch had been postponed multiple items, and finally, it was to go up on a day when temperatures were below freezing, rare for Cape Canaveral, Florida.
The pressure to launch was immense. NASA was seeking to launch as many as 25 SSTs that year but was behind schedule. Compounding the pressure was the presence of Christa McAuliffe a high school teacher who was planning to conduct school lessons from space. NASA, ever mindful of positive PR, was itching to maximize this launch.
What is compelling about the story, which is told in flashbacks, is that Adam and others at Thiokol (referred to in the film only as “the Company”) sought to dissuade NASA from launching. Additionally, there was the issue of collocation. In the pre-Internet era, and without the use of teleconference, the engineers, based in Utah, spoke via phone to NASA teams in Huntsville, Alabama and Cape Canaveral. No one could read facial expressions or body language. Ultimately the engineers were unable to persuade their management to recommend against the launch. And so, Challenger lifted off only to disintegrate moments after takeoff.
The compelling part of the film for me is its focus on dysfunctional communications. Management was listening, but engineers, chiefly Adam, did not seem to have the ability to make their case. As portrayed in the film, he comes across as well-intentioned, but something of a zealot. He is prone to making speeches rather than engage in give-and-take discussions. That means he could be easily dismissed.
Here are the lessons to be learned.
Use reason to argue the facts. Facts should be the basis of rational decision making. Use them to make your case and back your opinions with data. Do it selectively and let backup materials carry the freight of your information.
Read the room. Just because people are there (or linked remotely) does not mean they are “present.” When you make your case, check for facial expressions. Failure to make eye contact may indicate disinterest. For those whom you cannot see, keep them engaged by asking open-ended questions, when possible.
Allow for intelligent discussion. We live in an era of confirmation bias. That is, we hear what we want to hear and disregard the rest. Facts, therefore, become negotiable. And for that reason, it is important to listen. Seek to understand, before you are understood, as the saying goes.
Throttle down your passion. Research shows that too much zeal in an argument can be harmful. Passion directed at the opposition stokes emotional response and thereby makes resistance to an alternate point of view easier to maintain. Tone it down when you argue.
None of this is “rocket science” but, as depicted dramatically in this film, we see how easy it becomes to talk past one another. When people are convinced that they are right, they often become less persuasive because their conviction overrides their ability to persuade as well as recognize another point of view. If I have my agenda, and you have your agenda–and both of us believe in it passionately–the mission becomes obscured and trouble arises.
In the film, we see a snippet of President Ronald Reagan’s speech to the nation on the evening of the disaster. “I’ve always had great faith in and respect for our space program, and what happened today does nothing to diminish it, do it all up front and in public,” said Reagan. “That’s the way freedom is, and we wouldn’t change it for a minute.” Subsequent investigations would prove the engineers correct, but on the day before the launch, no one seemed to be listening to one another.
When important issues arise, it’s not just simply what you say, but how you say it, that can make people listen.