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Space Shuttle Challenger disaster

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Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster
Challenger explosion.jpg
The Space Shuttle Challenger soon after the explosion.
DateJanuary 28, 1986; 35 years ago (1986-01-28)
Time11:39:13 EST (16:39:13 UTC)
LocationAtlantic Ocean, off the coast of Florida
28°38′24″N 80°16′48″W / 28.64000°N 80.28000°W / 28.64000; -80.28000Coordinates: 28°38′24″N 80°16′48″W / 28.64000°N 80.28000°W / 28.64000; -80.28000
OutcomeGrounding of the Space Shuttle fleet for nearly three years during which various safety measures, solid rocket booster redesign, and a new policy on management decision-making for future launches were implemented.
Deaths
InquiriesRogers Commission

The Space Shuttle Challenger disaster was a fatal accident in the United States' space program that occurred on January 28, 1986, when the Space Shuttle Challenger (OV-099) broke apart 73 seconds into its flight, killing all seven crew members aboard. The mission carried the designation STS-51-L and was the tenth flight for the Challenger orbiter.

The spacecraft disintegrated over the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Cape Canaveral, Florida, at 11:39 a.m. EST (16:39 UTC). The disaster began after a joint in the Space Shuttle's right solid rocket booster (SRB) failed at liftoff. The failure was caused by the failure of O-ring seals used in the joint, in part because of the unusually cold temperatures at the time of launch. The seals' failure caused a breach in the SRB joint, which allowed pressurized burning gas from within the solid rocket motor to reach the outside and impinge upon the adjacent SRB's aft field joint attachment hardware and external fuel tank. This led to the separation of the right-hand SRB's aft field joint attachment and the structural failure of the external tank. Following the explosion, the orbiter was broken up by aerodynamic forces.

The crew compartment and many other vehicle fragments were recovered from the ocean floor after a three-month search and recovery operation. The exact timing of the death of the crew is unknown; several crew members are known to have survived the initial breakup of the spacecraft. By design, the orbiter has no escape system, and the impact of the crew compartment at terminal velocity with the ocean surface was too violent to be survivable.

The disaster resulted in a 32-month hiatus in the Space Shuttle program and the formation of the Rogers Commission, a special commission appointed by United States President Ronald Reagan to investigate the accident. The Rogers Commission found that issues with NASA's organizational culture and decision-making processes had been key contributing factors to the accident. Test data from as early as 1977 had revealed a potentially catastrophic flaw in the SRBss O-rings, but this was not addressed or corrected by NASA or Morton Thiokol. NASA managers also disregarded warnings from engineers about the dangers of launching in cold temperatures and did not report these technical concerns to their superiors.

Space Shuttle mission[edit]

STS-51-L crew: (front row) Smith, Scobee, McNair; (back row) Onizuka, McAuliffe, Jarvis, Resnik

The Space Shuttle mission, named STS-51-L, was the twenty-fifth flight of the Space Shuttle and the tenth flight of Challenger.[1]: 6  The crew was announced on January 27, 1985, and was commanded by Francis Scobee. Michael Smith was assigned as the pilot, and the mission specialists were Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, and Ronald McNair. The two payload specialists were Gregory Jarvis, who was assigned to conduct research for the Hughes Aircraft Company, and Christa McAuliffe, who flew as part of the Teacher in Space Project.[1]: 10–13  The primary mission of the Challenger crew was to deploy a Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) aboard an Inertial Upper Stage. The satellite, named TDRS-B, would have been the second satellite in the TDRS constellation to enable constant communication with orbiting spacecraft. A secondary mission for the crew was to studying Halley's Comet as it passed near the sun in its orbit. McNair and Resnik would deploy the Shuttle-Pointed Autonomous Research Tool for Astronomy (SPARTAN) satellite, which has previously flown aboard Discovery in June 1985, would photograph the comet for two days and then be recovered and returned to Earth. Additionally, Onizuka planned to observe and photograph the comet from Challenger flight deck.[2] The mission was originally scheduled for July 1985, but was delayed to November and subsequently to January 1986 due to design issues with the TDRS-B circuitry.[1]: 10 [2] The mission was scheduled to launch on January 22, but the delayed return of Columbia mission, STS-61-C, caused the launch to be postponed to January 25. Adverse weather forced further delays, and the launch was postponed on January 25, when weather conditions in Africa exceeded limits for a transoceanic abort landing. The launch was postponed again on January 27, when an issue with the hatch handle was coupled with high winds at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) Shuttle Landing Facility that exceeded limits for a return to launch site abort.[3] While it was outside on the launchpad, the Space Shuttle was exposed to 7 inches (18 cm) of rainfall.[4]: 140  The launch was scheduled for 9:38 a.m. EST on January 28 but was delayed for two hours to allow ice to melt. At 11:38:00 a.m, Challenger launched from the Kennedy Space Center Launch Complex 39B.[1]: 17 [5]: III–76 

Safety concerns[edit]

Solid Rocket Booster O-rings[edit]

Cross-section diagram of the original SRB field joint

At lift off, most of the Space Shuttle's thrust was generated by two solid rocket boosters (SRBs),[6] which were built by Morton-Thiokol.[4]: 9–10  Each SRB was constructed in four main sections at the factory in Utah and transported to KSC. The four sections were then assembled in the Vehicle Assembly Building at KSC with three tang-and-clevis field joints. Each field joint was sealed with two rubber O-rings that were required to contain the hot, high-pressure gases produced by the burning solid propellant inside the SRBs. The redundant O-rings were required for the SRBs to be rated to carry people, as failure to seal in the hot gas would likely cause the destruction of the Space Shuttle and the loss of its crew.[4]: 24 [7]: 420  The two O-rings were configured to create a double bore seal, and the gap between segments was filled with asbestos-filled putty.[clarification needed] When the motor was running, this configuration was designed to compress air in the gap against the upper O-ring, pressing it against the sealing surfaces of its seat. On the SRB Critical Items List, the O-rings were listed as Criticality 1R, which indicated that an O-ring failure could result in the destruction of the vehicle and loss of life, but it was considered a redundant system due to the secondary O-ring.[1]: 126 

Evaluations of the proposed design in the early 1970s and subsequent testing showed that the wide tolerances between the mated parts allowed the O-rings to be extruded from their seats rather than compressed. This extrusion was judged to be acceptable by NASA and Morton-Thiokol management despite concerns of NASA engineers.[1]: 122–123 [8] A 1977 test showed that joint rotation occurred during the simulated internal pressure of a launch. Joint rotation, which occurred when the tang and clevis bent away from each other, up to .052 inches (1.3 mm), which reduced the pressure on the O-rings and weakened their seals, making it possible for combustion gases to erode the O-rings.[1]: 123–124  Engineers at the Marshall Space Flight Center contacted management of the Morton-Thiokol Solid Rocket Booster project to voice their concerns that the O-rings were not creating an adequate seal and should be redesigned to include shims around the O-rings, but they received no response.[1]: 124–125  In 1980, the Verification/Certification Committee requested further tests on joint integrity, to include testing in the temperature range of 40 to 90 °F (4 to 32 °C) and with only a single O-ring installed. The NASA program managers determined[clarification needed] that their current level of testing was sufficient and further testing was not required. In December 1982, the Critical Items List was updated to indicate that the secondary O-ring may not provide a backup to the primary O-ring, as it would not necessarily form a seal in the event of joint rotation. The O-rings were redesignated as Criticality 1, removing the "R" to indicate it was no longer considered a redundant system.[1]: 125–127 [4]: 66 

The first occurrence of in-flight O-ring erosion occurred on the right SRB on STS-2 in November 1981.[1]: 126  The O-ring erosion was not reported in the Marshall system to track flight anomalies, and was not included in the STS-3 Flight Readiness Review in March 1983.[1]: 126  O-ring erosion also occurred on STS-41-B and STS-41-C in 1984.[1]: 130 [4]: 45  In August 1984, a post-flight inspection of the left SRB on STS-41-D revealed that soot has blown past the primary O-ring and was found in between the O-rings. While there was no damage to the secondary O-ring, this indicated that the primary O-ring was not creating a reliable seal and was allowing hot gas to pass. The amount of O-ring erosion was not sufficient to prevent the O-ring from sealing, and the soot between the O-rings was determined[clarification needed] to have been from non-uniform pressure at the time of ignition.[1]: 130 [4]: 39–42  The January 1985 launch of STS-51-C was the coldest Space Shuttle launch at the time, with a 62 °F (17 °C) air temperature at the time of launch. The O-ring temperature was calculated to be 53 °F (12 °C), and the post-flight analysis revealed that the primary O-rings in both SRBs experienced erosion and soot in between the O-rings. Morton-Thiokol engineers determined that the cold temperatures caused a loss of flexibility in the O-rings that decreased their ability to seal the field joints, which allowed hot gas and soot to flow past the primary O-ring.[4]: 47 

In April 1985, two Space Shuttle missions, STS-51-D and STS-51-B, were flown. STS-51-D experienced O-ring erosion in both SRBs. The scale of O-ring erosion was higher on STS-51-B, with erosion in the primary O-rings in both SRBs and a secondary O-ring on the left SRB, which was the first time that a secondary O-ring was found to have been eroded.[4]: 50–52  Morton Thiokol engineers conducted a post-flight analysis and determined that the primary O-ring likely never formed a seal, as erosion by itself would not have resulted in the observed level of the secondary O-ring erosion.[4]: 59  O-ring erosion occurred on all but one (STS-51-J) of the Space Shuttle flights in 1985 and STS-61-C in January 1986, with soot blowby occurring on STS-61-A.[1]: 131 [4]: 63 

To correct the issues with O-ring erosion, engineers at Morton Thiokol, led by Allan McDonald and Roger Boisjoly, proposed a redesigned field joint that introduced a metal lip to limit movement in the joint. They also recommended adding a spacer to provide additional thermal protection and using an O-ring with a larger cross section.[4]: 67−69  In July 1985, Morton Thiokol ordered redesigned SRB casings, with the intention of using already-manufactured casings for the upcoming launches until the redesigned cases were available the following year.[4]: 62 

Cold weather[edit]

Ice on the launch tower hours before Challenger launch

The air temperature on January 28 was low relative to other Space Shuttle launches, with STS-51-C launching with an air temperature 53 °F (12 °C).[4]: 101  The air temperature was forecast to drop to 18 °F (−8 °C) overnight before rising to 22 °F (−6 °C) at 6:00 a.m. and 26 °F (−3 °C) at the scheduled launch time of 9:38 a.m.[1]: 87 [4]: 96  Based upon O-ring erosion and blowby that had occurred in warmer launches, Morton-Thiokol engineers were concerned over the effect the cold temperatures would have on the seal provided by the SRB O-rings.[4]: 101–103  An overnight measurement taken by the KSC Ice Team recorded the left SRB was 25 °F (−4 °C) and the right SRB was 8 °F (−13 °C).[1]: 111  These measurements were recorded for engineering data and not reported, as the temperature of the SRBs was not part of the Launch Commit Criteria.[4]: 118 

In addition to its effect on the O-rings, the cold temperatures resulted in ice forming on the fixed service structure. To keep pipes from freezing, water was slowly run from the system; it could not be entirely drained because of the upcoming Space Shuttle launch. As a result, ice formed from 240 feet (73 m) down in the freezing temperatures. Engineers at Rockwell International, which manufactured the orbiter, were concerned that ice would be violently thrown during launch and could potentially damage the orbiter's thermal protection system or be aspirated into one of the engines. Rocco Petrone, the head of Rockwell's space transportation division, and his team determined that the potential damage from ice made the mission unsafe to fly. Arnold Aldrich, the NASA Mission Management Team Leader, consulted with engineers at KSC and the Johnson Space Center (JSC) who advised him that ice did not threaten the safety of the orbiter, and he decided to proceed with the launch.[1]: 115–118  The launch was delayed for an additional hour to allow more ice to melt. The ice team performed an inspection at T–20 minutes which indicated that the ice was melting, and Challenger was cleared to launch at 11:38 a.m. EST, with an air temperature of 36 °F (2 °C).[1]: 17 

Decision to launch[edit]

With the weather forecasts predicting record-low temperatures for a Space Shuttle launch, a conference call was set up on the evening of January 27 by Cecil Houston, the manager of the KSC office of the Marshall Space Flight Center, to discuss the safety of the launch. Morton-Thiokol engineers expressed their concerns about the effect of low temperatures on the resilience of the rubber O-rings. With colder temperatures lowering the elasticity of the rubber O-rings, the engineers feared that the O-rings would not be extruded to form a seal at the time of launch.[4]: 97–99 [9] The engineers argued that they did not have enough data to determine if the O-rings would seal at temperatures colder than 53 °F (12 °C), the coldest launch of the Space Shuttle to date.[4]: 105–106  Robert Lund, the Vice President of Engineering at Morton-Thiokol, stated that the launch should not occur until the temperature is above 53 °F (12 °C), and was supported by Joe Kilminster, the Vice President of the Space Booster Programs at Morton-Thiokol.[1]: 107–108  The teleconference held a recess to allow for offline discussion for Morton Thiokol management. When it resumed, Morton-Thiokol leadership had changed their opinion and stated that the evidence presented on the failure of the O-rings was inconclusive and that there was a substantial margin of error in the event of a failure or erosion. They stated that their decision was to proceed with the launch. Morton-Thiokol leadership submitted a recommendation for launch, and the teleconference ended.[1]: 97, 109  Lawrence Mulloy, the NASA SRB project manager,[4]: 3  subsequently called Aldrich to discuss the launch decision and weather concerns, but did not mention the O-ring discussion.[1]: 99 

Launch and failure[edit]

Liftoff and initial ascent[edit]

Gray smoke escaping from the right-side solid rocket booster

The STS-51-L mission began with the launch at 11:38 a.m.[1]: 17  Beginning at T+0.678 until T+3.375 seconds, puffs of dark gray smoke were recorded escaping from the right-hand SRB near the aft strut that attached the booster to the external tank (ET).[1]: 19  It was later determined that these smoke puffs were caused by joint rotation in the aft field joint of the right-hand SRB at ignition.[4]: 136  The cold temperature in the joint had prevented the O-rings from creating a seal. Rainfall from the preceding time on the launchpad had likely accumulated within the field joint, further compromising the sealing capability of the O-rings. As a result, hot gas was able to travel past the O-rings and erode them. Molten aluminum oxides from the burned propellant resealed the joint and created a temporary barrier against further hot gas and flame escaping through the field joint.[4]: 142 

As the Space Shuttle launched, the SSMEs were throttled to 104% of their rated maximum thrust. To prevent aerodynamic forces from structurally overloading the vehicle,[5]: III–8–9  the SRBs began decreasing thrust at T+21.6, followed by the SSMEs throttling down to 94% at T+28. At T+35.379, the SSMEs throttled back further to 65% prior to max q, the period of maximum aerodynamic pressure.[10] During its ascent, the Space Shuttle encountered wind shear conditions beginning at T+37, but they were within design limits of the vehicle and were countered by the guidance system.[1]: 20 

Plume[edit]

Plume on right SRB at T+ 58.788 seconds

At T+58.788, a tracking film camera captured the beginnings of a plume near the aft attach strut on the right SRB, right before the vehicle passed through max q at T+59.000.[10] The high aerodynamic forces and wind shear likely broke the aluminum oxide seal that had replaced eroded O-rings, allowing the flame to burn through the joint.[4]: 142  Within a second from when it was first recorded, the plume became well-defined, and the enlarging hole caused a drop in internal pressure in the right SRB. A leak had begun in the liquid hydrogen (LH2) tank of the ET at T+64.660, as indicated by the changing shape of the plume. The SSMEs pivoted to compensate for the booster burn-through, which was creating an unexpected thrust on the vehicle. The pressure in the external LH2 tank began to drop at T+66.764 indicating that the flame had burned from the SRB into the tank. The crew and flight controllers made no indication they were aware of the vehicle and flight anomalies. At T+68, the CAPCOM Richard O. Covey told the crew that the SSMEs could throttle up to 104%. In response to Covey, Scobee said, "Roger, go at throttle up"; this was the last communication from Challenger on the air-to-ground loop.[10]

Vehicle breakup[edit]

At T+72.284, the right SRB pulled away from the aft strut that attached it to the ET, causing lateral acceleration that was felt by the crew. At the same time, pressure in the LH2 tank began dropping, accompanied by a large fireball on the side of the ET. Pilot Mike Smith said "Uh-oh," which was the last speech recorded of the crew. At T+73.124, an explosion occurred at the aft dome of the LH2 tank, which pushed the LH2 tank forward into the LOX tank, while the right SRB collided with the intertank structure. The resulting explosion engulfed the ET and orbiter.[10] The orbiter, at an altitude of 46,000 feet (14 km), was broken into several large pieces from high aerodynamic forces as it traveled at Mach 1.92.[10][1]: 21  The two SRBs separated from the ET and continued in uncontrolled powered flight until the range safety control officer initiated their self-destruct charges at T+110.[1]: 30 [10]

Post-breakup flight controller dialogue[edit]

Jay Greene at his console after the breakup of Challenger

At T+73.191, there was a burst of static on the air-to-ground loop as the vehicle broke up, which was later attributed to ground-based radios searching for a signal from the destroyed spacecraft. NASA Public Affairs Officer Steve Nesbitt was initially unaware of the explosion and continued to read out flight information. At T+89, after video of the explosion was seen in Mission Control, flight director Jay Greene requested flight information from the Flight Dynamics Officer (FIDO), Brian Perry. Perry responded that "the [radar] filter has discreting sources". The Ground Control Officer, N.R. Talbott, reported "negative contact (and) loss of downlink" as they were no longer receiving transmissions from Challenger.[10]

Nesbitt stated, "Flight controllers here are looking very carefully at the situation. Obviously a major malfunction. We have no downlink." Soon afterwards, he said, "We have a report from the Flight Dynamics Officer that the vehicle has exploded. The flight director confirms that. We are looking at checking with the recovery forces to see what can be done at this point."[10]

In Mission Control, Greene ordered that contingency procedures be put into effect,[10] which included locking the doors, shutting down telephone communications, and freezing computer terminals to collect data from them.[4]: 122 

Cause and time of death[edit]

The crew cabin was made of reinforced aluminum and detached in one piece from the rest of the orbiter.[11] At the time of separation, the maximum acceleration is estimated to have been between 12 and 20 g. The cabin detached in one piece from the orbiter and traveled in a ballistic arc, reaching an apogee of 65,000 feet (20 km) approximately 25 seconds after the explosion. Within two seconds after breakup the cabin had dropped below 4 g, and was in free fall within 10 seconds. The forces involved at this stage were probably insufficient to cause major injury to the crew.[12]

At least some of the crew were alive and at least briefly conscious after the breakup, as three of the four recovered Personal Egress Air Packs (PEAPs) on the flight deck were found to have been activated.[12] PEAPs were activated for Smith[13] and two unidentified crewmembers, but not for Scobee.[12] The PEAPs were not intended for in-flight use, and the astronauts never trained with them for an in-flight emergency. The location of Smith's activation switch, on the back side of his seat, indicated that either Resnik or Onizuka likely activated it for him. Investigators found their remaining unused air supply consistent with the expected consumption during the post-breakup trajectory.[13]: 245–247 

While analyzing the wreckage, investigators discovered that several electrical system switches on Smith's right-hand panel had been moved from their usual launch positions. The switches had lever locks on top of them that were required to be pulled out before the switch could be moved. Later tests established that neither the force of the explosion nor the impact with the ocean could have moved them, indicating that Smith made the switch changes, presumably in a futile attempt to restore electrical power to the cockpit after the crew cabin detached from the rest of the orbiter.[13]: 245 

On July 28, 1986, NASA's Associate Administrator for Space Flight, former astronaut Richard H. Truly, released a report on the deaths of the crew from physician and Skylab 2 astronaut Joseph P. Kerwin. Kerwin's report concluded that it is unknown whether the crew remained conscious until ocean impact, because it is unknown whether the crew cabin remained pressurized. Depressurization would have caused the crew to quickly lose consciousness, as the PEAPs supplied only unpressurized air. Pressurization could have enabled consciousness for the entire fall until impact. The crew cabin hit the ocean surface at 207 mph (333 km/h) approximately two minutes and 45 seconds after breakup. The estimated deceleration was 200 g, far exceeding structural limits of the crew compartment or crew survivability levels. The middeck floor had not suffered buckling or tearing, as would result from a rapid decompression, but stowed equipment showed damage consistent with decompression, and debris was embedded between the two forward windows that may have caused a loss of pressure. Impact damage to the crew cabin was severe enough that it could not be determined if the crew cabin had been previously damaged enough to lose pressurization.[12]

Prospect of crew escape[edit]

During powered flight of the Space Shuttle, crew escape was not possible. Launch escape systems were considered during the Space Shuttle's development, but NASA's conclusion was that the Space Shuttle's expected high reliability would preclude the need for one.[1]: 181  Modified SR-71 Blackbird ejection seats and full pressure suits were used for the two-man crews on the first four Space Shuttle orbital test flights, which were disabled and subsequently removed for the operational flights.[14]: 370–371  Escape options for the operational flights were considered, but were not implemented due to the their complexity, high cost, and heavy weight.[1]: 181  After the disaster, a system was implemented to allow the crew to egress during gliding flight, but this system would not have been usable during an explosion during ascent.[15]

Recovery of debris and crew[edit]

Immediately after the disaster, the NASA Launch Recovery Director launched the two SRB recovery ships, MV Freedom Star and MV Liberty Star, to proceed to the impact area to recover debris, and requested the support of US military aircraft and ships. Due to falling debris from the explosion, the Range Safety Officer (RSO) kept recovery forces from the impact area until 12:37 p.m. The size of the recovery operations increased through the day, with a total of 12 aircraft and 8 ships participating by 7:00 p.m. Surface operations covered debris from the orbiter and ET. The surface recovery operations ended on February 7.[16]

On January 31, the US Navy was tasked with submarine recovery operations.[17]: 5  The search efforts prioritized the recovery of the right SRB, followed by the crew compartment, and then the remaining payload, orbiter pieces, and ET.[17]: 16  The search for debris formally began on February 8 with the USS Preserver (ARS-8), and eventually grew to 16 total ships managed by NASA, the US Air Force, and independent contractors.[17]: 4–5  The surface ships used side-scan sonar to make the initial search for debris and covered 486 square nautical miles (1,670 km2) at water depths between 70 feet (21 m) and 1,200 feet (370 m).[17]: 24  The sonar operations discovered 881 potential locations for debris, of which 187 pieces were later confirmed to be from the Space Shuttle.[17]: 24 

Right SRB debris showing the hole caused by the plume

The debris from the SRBs was widely distributed due to the detonation of their linear shaped charges. All nine joints on each SRB were disabled, which many of the broken sections subsequently breaking into smaller pieces. The identification of SRB material was primarily conducted by crewed submarines and submersibles. The vehicles were dispatched to investigate potential debris located during the search phase.[17]: 32  Surface ships lifted the SRB debris with the help of technical divers and underwater remotely operated vehicles to attach the necessary slings to raise the debris with cranes.[17]: 37, 42  The solid propellant in the SRBs posed a risk, as it became more volatile after being submerged. Recovered portions of the SRBs were kept wet during recovery, and their unused propellant was ignited once they were brought ashore. The failed joint on the right SRB was first located on sonar on March 1. Subsequent dives to 560 ft (170 m) by the NR-1 submarine on April 5 and the SEA-LINK I submersible on April 12 confirmed that it was the damaged field joint,[17]: 42  and it was successfully recovered on April 13. Of the 196,726 lb (89,233 kg) of both SRB shells, 102,500 lb (46,500 kg) was recovered, another 54,000 lb (24,000 kg) was found but not recovered, and 40,226 lb (18,246 kg) was never found.[17]: 44 

On March 7, Air Force divers identified potential crew compartment debris, which was confirmed the next day by divers from the USS Preserver.[17]: 51 [18] The damage to the crew compartment indicated that it had remained largely intact during the initial explosion but was extensively damaged when it impacted the ocean.[16] The remains of the crew were badly damaged from impact and submersion, and were not intact bodies.[19] The USS Preserver made multiple trips to return debris and remains to port, and concluded crew compartment recovery until April 4.[17]: 51  While recovering the remains of the crew, Jarvis's body floated away and was not recovered until April 15, several weeks after the other remains had been positively identified.[18][20] Once remains were brought to port, pathologists from the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology worked to identify the human remains, but could not determine the exact cause of death for any of them.[19][12] Medical examiners in Brevard County disputed the legality of transferring human remains to US military officials to conduct autopsies and refused to issue the death certificates; NASA officials ultimately released the death certificates of the crew members.[21]

The Inertial Upper Stage (IUS) that would have been used to boost the orbit of the TDRS-B satellite was one of the first pieces of debris recovered.[17]: 51  There was no indication that there had been premature ignition of the IUS, which had been one of the suspected causes for the disaster.[1]: 50  Debris from the three SSMEs was recovered from February 14 to 28,[17]: 51  and post-recovery analysis produced results consistent with functional engines suddenly losing their LH2 fuel supply.[16] Deepwater recovery operations continued until April 29, with smaller scale, shallow recovery operations continuing until August 29.[17]: 53  On December 17, 1996, two pieces of the orbiter were found at Cocoa Beach.[22] All recovered non-organic debris from Challenger was buried in Cape Canaveral Air Force Station missile silos at LC-31 and LC-32.[23]

Funeral ceremonies[edit]

The Space Shuttle Challenger Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery

On April 29, 1986, the astronauts' remains were transferred on a C-141 Starlifter aircraft from Kennedy Space Center to the military mortuary at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. Their caskets were each draped with an American flag and carried past an honor guard and followed by an astronaut escort.[24] After the remains arrived at Dover Air Force base, they were transferred to the families of the crew members.[24] Scobee and Smith were buried at Arlington National Cemetery.[25] Onizuka was buried at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, Hawaii.[26] McNair was buried in Rest Lawn Memorial Park in Lake City, South Carolina,[27] but his remains were later moved within the town to the Dr. Ronald E. McNair Memorial Park.[28][29] McAuliffe was buried at Calvary Cemetery in Concord, New Hampshire.[30] Gregory Jarvis was cremated, and his ashes scattered in the Pacific Ocean.[31] Unidentified crew remains were buried at the Space Shuttle Challenger Memorial in Arlington on May 20, 1986.[25]

Rogers Commission[edit]

Members of the Rogers Commission arrive at Kennedy Space Center.

On February 3, 1986, President Reagan signed Executive Order 12546, which established a committee to investigate the Challenger disaster. The Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident, also known as the Rogers Commission after its chairman, was formed on February 6 with the swearing in of its members.[1]: 206  The commission members were Chairman William P. Rogers, Vice Chairman Neil Armstrong, David Acheson, Eugene Covert, Richard Feynman, Robert Hotz, Donald Kutyna, Sally Ride, Robert Rummel, Joseph Sutter, Arthur Walker, Albert Wheelon, and Chuck Yeager.[1]: iii–iv  The commission held hearings that discussed the NASA accident investigation and the Space Shuttle program as a whole. On February 10, a hearing was held that discussed the issues with the O-rings in the SRBs and that Morton Thiokol engineers had advised against the launch. On February 15, Rogers released a statement that established the commission's changing role to investigate the accident independent of NASA due to concerns of the failures of the internal processes at NASA. The commission created four investigative panels to research the different aspects of the Space Shuttle mission. The Accident Analysis Panel, chaired by Kutyna, used data from salvage operations and testing to determine the exact cause behind the accident. The Development and Production Panel, chaired by Sutter, investigated the contractors responsible for Space Shuttle components, and how the contractors interacted with NASA. The Pre-Launch Activities Panel, chaired by Acheson, focused on the final assembly processes and pre-launch activities conducted at KSC. The Mission Planning and Operations Panel, chaired by Ride, investigated the planning that went into mission development, along with potential concerns over crew safety and pressure to adhere to a schedule. Over a period of four months, the commission interviewed over 160 individuals, held at least 35 investigative sessions, and involved more than 6,000 NASA employees, contractors, and support personnel.[1]: 206−208  The commission's report was published on June 6, 1986.[1]: iii–iv 

The commission determined that the cause of the accident was blowby occurring in a field joint on the right SRB, and found no other potential causes for the disaster.[1]: 71  It attributed the accident to a faulty design of the field joint that was unacceptably sensitive to changes in temperature, dynamic loading, and the character of its materials.[1]: 73  The report was critical of NASA and Morton Thiokol, and emphasized that both organizations had overlooked evidence that indicated the potential danger with the SRB field joints. It noted that NASA accepted the risk of O-ring erosion without evaluating how it could potentially affect the safety of a mission.[1]: 149  The commission concluded that the safety culture and management structure at NASA was insufficient to properly report, analyze, and prevent flight issues.[1]: 162  It stated that the pressure to increase the rate of flights negatively impacted the amount of training, quality control, and repair work that was available for each mission.[1]: 177 

In addition to determining the causes and contributing factors to the disaster, the commission published a series of recommendations to improve the safety of the Space Shuttle program. It proposed a redesign of the joints in the SRB that would prevent gas blowby. It also recommended that the Space Shuttle program's management should be restructured to keep project managers from being pressured by the Space Shuttle organization, and should also include astronauts to better address crew safety concerns. It proposed that an office for safety must be established that reports directly to the NASA administrator, and it will oversee all safety, reliability, and quality assurance functions in NASA programs. Additionally, the commission addressed issues with overall safety and maintenance for the orbiter, and proposed a means for the crew to escape during controlled gliding flight.[1]: 198–200 

During a televised hearing on February 11, Feynman demonstrated the loss of rubber's elasticity in cold temperatures using a glass of cold water and a piece of rubber, for which he received subsequent media attention. Feynman, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, advocated for harsher criticism towards NASA in the report, and repeatedly disagreed with Rogers. He threatened to remove his name from the report unless it included his personal observations on the reliability of the Space Shuttle, which appeared as Appendix F.[32][33] In the appendix, he argued that multiple components of the Space Shuttle, including the avionics and SSMEs in addition to the SRBs, were more dangerous and accident-prone than original NASA estimates.[33][34]

U.S. House Committee report[edit]

The U.S. House Committee on Science and Technology conducted an investigation of the Challenger disaster and released a report on October 29, 1986.[35]: i  The committee, which had authorized the funding for the Space Shuttle, reviewed the findings of the Rogers Commission as part of its investigation. The committee agreed with the Rogers Commission on the failed SRB field joint as the cause of the accident, and that NASA and Morton Thiokol failed to act despite numerous warnings of the potential dangers of the SRB. The committee's report further emphasized safety considerations of other Space Shuttle components and recommended a risk management review for all critical systems.[35]: 2–5 

NASA response[edit]

SRB redesign[edit]

In response to the commission's recommendation, NASA initiated a redesign of the SRB, which was supervised by an independent oversight group.[1]: 198 [36] The redesigned joint included a capture feature on the tang around the interior wall of the clevis.[clarification needed] The space between the capture feature and the clevis was sealed with another O-ring. The capture feature reduced the potential of joint rotation to 15 percent of the joint rotation that occurred during the disaster. Should joint rotation occur, any rotation that reduced the O-ring seal on one side of the clevis wall would increase it on the other side. Additionally, heaters were installed to maintain consistent, higher temperatures of the O-rings.[4]: 429–430 

Safety office[edit]

NASA also created a new Office of Safety, Reliability and Quality Assurance, headed as the commission had specified by a NASA associate administrator who reported directly to the NASA administrator.[1]: 199  [15][37] Former Challenger flight director Jay Greene became chief of the Safety Division of the directorate.[38]After the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003,the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) concluded that NASA had not effectively set up an independent office for safety oversight.[39]: 178  The CAIB concluded that the ineffective safety culture that had resulted in the Challenger accident was also responsible for the subsequent disaster.[39]: 195 

Space Shuttle return to flight[edit]

The projected Space Shuttle launch schedule of 24 launches per years was criticized by the Rogers Commission as an unrealistic goal that created unnecessary pressure on NASA to launch missions.[1]: 165  In August 1986, President Reagan approved the construction of an orbiter, which would later be named Endeavour, to replace Challenger. He also announced that the Space Shuttle would no longer carry commercial satellite payloads, which would be launched using commercial expendable launch vehicle.[40][41]

The Space Shuttle fleet was grounded for two years and eight months while the program underwent investigation, redesign, and restructuring. On September 29, 1988, Discovery launched on STS-26 mission from Kennedy Space Center pad 39-B with a crew of five veteran astronauts.[42] Its payload was TDRS-3, which was a substitute for the satellite lost with Challenger. The launch tested the redesigned boosters, and the crew wore pressure suits during the ascent and reentry. The mission was a success, and the Space Shuttle program resumed its flying schedule.[43]

Aftermath[edit]

White House response[edit]

President Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan (left) at the memorial service on January 31, 1986

President Ronald Reagan had been scheduled to give the 1986 State of the Union Address on January 28, 1986, the evening of the Challenger disaster. After a discussion with his aides, Reagan postponed the State of the Union, and instead addressed the nation about the disaster from the Oval Office of the White House with a speech written by Peggy Noonan.[44]'[45] On January 31, Ronald and Nancy Reagan traveled to the Johnson Space Center to speak at a memorial service honoring the crew members. During the ceremony, an Air Force band sang "God Bless America" as NASA T-38 Talon jets flew directly over the scene, in the traditional missing-man formation.[46]

Soon after the disaster, US elected officials expressed concern that White House officials, including Chief of Staff Donald Regan and Communications Director Pat Buchanan, had pressured NASA to launch Challenger before the scheduled January 28 State of the Union address, because Reagan had intended to mention the launch in his remarks.[47][48] Three weeks before the State of the Union address was to have been given, NASA officials suggested that Reagan mention Challenger launch and Christa McAuliffe's flight in his speech.[48] In March 1986, The White House released a copy of the original State of the Union speech as it would have been given before the disaster. In that speech, Reagan intended to mention an X-ray experiment launched on Challenger and designed by a guest he'd invited to the address, but did not further discuss the Challenger launch.[48][49] In the rescheduled State of the Union address on February 4, President Reagan mentioned the deceased Challenger crew members, and modified his remarks about the X-ray experiment as "launched and lost".[50] In April 1986, the White House released a report that concluded there had been no pressure from President Reagan for NASA to launch Challenger prior to the State of the Union.[47]

Media coverage[edit]

Nationally televised coverage of the launch and explosion was provided by CNN.[51] To promote the Teacher in Space program with McAuliffe as a crewmember, NASA arranged for many US children to view the launch live at school.[51][52] Press interest in the disaster increased in following days; the number of reporters as KSC increased from 535 on the day of the launch to 1,467 reporters three days later.[53] In the aftermath of the accident, NASA was criticized for not making key personnel available to the press.[54] In the absence of information, the press published articles suggesting the external tank was the cause of the explosion.[53][55]

Engineering case study[edit]

The Challenger accident has been used as a case study in the study of subjects such as engineering safety, the ethics of whistle-blowing, communications, and group decision-making, and the dangers of groupthink.[56] Roger Boisjoly and Allan McDonald became speakers who advocated for responsible workplace decision making and engineering ethics.[9][57] Information designer Edward Tufte has argued that the Challenger accident was the result of poor communications and overly-complicated explanations on the part of engineers, and stated that showing the correlation of ambient air temperature and O-ring erosion amounts would have been sufficient to communicate the potential dangers of the cold-weather launch. Boisjoly contested this assertion, and stated that the data presented by Tufte were not as simple or available as Tufte stated.[58]

Legacy[edit]

In 2004, President George W. Bush conferred posthumous Congressional Space Medals of Honor to all 14 crew members killed in the Challenger and Columbia accidents.[59]

An unpainted decorative oval in the Brumidi Corridors of the United States Capitol was finished with a portrait depicting the crew by Charles Schmidt in 1987. The scene was painted on canvas and then applied to the wall.[60]

The families of the Challenger crew organized the Challenger Center for Space Science Education as a permanent memorial to the crew. Forty-three learning centers and one headquarters office have been established by this non-profit organization.[61]

Fragment of Challenger's fuselage on display as part of the "Forever Remembered" installation at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in 2015

On June 27, 2015, the "Forever Remembered" exhibit at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, Florida, opened and includes a display of a section of Challenger's recovered fuselage. The exhibit was opened by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden along with family members of the crew.[62] A tree for each astronaut was planted in NASA's Astronaut Memorial Grove at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, along with trees for each astronaut from the Apollo 1 and Columbia disasters.[63] Seven asteroids were named after the crew members: 3350 Scobee, 3351 Smith, 3352 McAuliffe, 3353 Jarvis, 3354 McNair, 3355 Onizuka, and 3356 Resnik. The approved naming citation was published by the Minor Planet Center on March 26, 1986 (M.P.C. 10550).[64] In 1988, seven craters on the far side of the Moon, within the Apollo Basin, were named after the fallen astronauts by the IAU.[65][66][67][68][69][70][71]

Several memorials have been established in honor of the Challenger disaster. The public Peers Park in Palo Alto, California features a Challenger Memorial Grove that includes redwood trees grown from seeds carried aboard Challenger in 1985.[72] Schools and streets have been renamed to include the names of the crew or "Challenger."[73][74][75] In 1990, a 1/10th scale replica of Space Shuttle Challenger in lift off position was erected in Little Tokyo district of Los Angeles, California.[76] Challenger Point a peak of the Sangre de Cristo Range commemorates the Challenger mission.[77]

The McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center, a science museum and planetarium in Concord, New Hampshire, is named in honor of McAuliffe, a Concord High School teacher, and Alan Shepard, who was from Derry, New Hampshire.[78]

In December 2013, Beyoncé Knowles released a song titled "XO", which begins with a sample of Nesbitt commentary immediately after the explosion. Its inclusion was publicly criticized by June Scobee Rodgers, the widow of Dick Scobee, and retired astronaut Clayton Anderson. On December 30, Knowles released a statement that defended the use of audio recordings from the disaster.[79] On December 31, the NASA press secretary released a statement that was critical of Knowles for using Nesbitt's commentary.[80]

An American flag, later named the Challenger flag, was carried aboard the Challenger. It was sponsored by Boy Scout Troop 514 of Monument, Colorado, and was recovered intact, still sealed in its plastic container.[81]

Onizuka carried a soccer ball with his personal effects. It was recovered intact and later flown to the International Space Station aboard Soyuz Expedition 49 by American astronaut Robert S. Kimbrough. It is currently on display at Clear Lake High School in Houston, which was attended by Onizuka's children.[82]

Media[edit]

Books[edit]

In 2009, Allan J. McDonald, former director of the Space Shuttle Solid Motor Rocket Project for Morton-Thiokol, Inc. published his book Truth, Lies, and O-Rings: Inside the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster.[83][4]

Video documentation[edit]

Until 2010, the live broadcast of the launch and subsequent disaster by CNN was the only known on-location video footage from within range of the launch site. Additional amateur and professional recordings have since been released.[84][85][86]

Film[edit]

An ABC television movie titled Challenger was broadcast on February 25, 1990.[87] It starred Barry Bostwick as Scobee, Brian Kerwin as Smith, Joe Morton as McNair, Keone Young as Onizuka, Julie Fulton as Resnik, Richard Jenkins as Jarvis, and Karen Allen as McAuliffe.[88]

A BBC docudrama titled The Challenger Disaster was broadcast on March 18, 2013, based on the last of Richard Feynman's autobiographical works, What Do You Care What Other People Think? (1988). It stars William Hurt as Feynman.[89][90]

A film,The Challenger Disaster, was released on January 25, 2019; it depicts the decision process to launch.[91]

Television[edit]

The first episode of History Channel's documentary titled Days That Shaped America is about Challenger.[92]

The four-part docuseries Challenger: The Final Flight, created by Steven Leckart and Glen Zipper, was released by Netflix on September 16, 2020.[93]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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