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The Space Shuttle Challenger disaster occurred on January 28, 1986, when Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart 73 seconds into its flight, leading to the deaths of its seven crew members. The spacecraft disintegrated over the Atlantic Oceanmarker, off the coast of central Floridamarker, United States, at 11:39 a.m. EST (16:39 UTC).

Disintegration of the entire vehicle began after an O-ring seal in its right solid rocket booster (SRB) failed at liftoff. The O-ring failure caused a breach in the SRB joint it sealed, allowing pressurized hot gas from within the solid rocket motor to reach the outside and impinge upon the adjacent SRB attachment hardware and external fuel tank. This led to the separation of the right-hand SRB's aft attachment and the structural failure of the external tank. Aerodynamic forces promptly broke up the orbiter.

The crew compartment and many other vehicle fragments were eventually recovered from the ocean floor after a lengthy search and recovery operation. Although 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. However, the shuttle had no escape system and the astronauts did not survive the impact of the crew compartment with the ocean surface.

The disaster resulted in a 32-month hiatus in the 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 NASAmarker's organizational culture and decision-making processes had been a key contributing factor to the accident. NASA managers had known that contractor Morton Thiokol's design of the SRBs contained a potentially catastrophic flaw in the O-rings since 1977, but they failed to address it properly. They also disregarded warnings from engineers about the dangers of launching posed by the cold temperatures of that morning and had failed to adequately report these technical concerns to their superiors. The Rogers Commission offered NASA nine recommendations that were to be implemented before shuttle flights resumed.

Many viewed the launch live due to the presence on the crew of Christa McAuliffe, the first member of the Teacher in Space Project. Media coverage of the accident was extensive: one study reported that 85 percent of Americans surveyed had heard the news within an hour of the accident. The Challenger disaster has been used as a case study in many discussions of engineering safety and workplace ethics and inspired the 1990 television movie, Challenger.

Pre-launch conditions and delays

Ice on the launch tower hours before Challenger launch
Challenger was originally set to launch from Kennedy Space Centermarker in Floridamarker at 2:42 p.m. Eastern Standard Time (EST) on January 22. However, delays suffered by the previous mission, STS-61-C, caused the launch date to be pushed back to January 23 and then to January 24. Launch was then rescheduled to January 25 due to bad weather at the Transoceanic Abort Landing site in Dakarmarker, Senegalmarker. NASA decided to use Casablancamarker as the TAL site, but because it was not equipped for night landings, the launch had to be moved to the morning (Florida time). Predictions of unacceptable weather at Kennedy Space Centermarker (KSC) caused the launch to be rescheduled for 9:37 a.m. EST on January 27. According to Malcolm McConnell's book, Challenger: A Major Malfunction, NASA normally would have launched with the predicted forecast of a 50 percent chance of rain if not for plans to have Vice President George H. W. Bush stop over and watch the launch on his way to Hondurasmarker.

The launch was delayed the next day by problems with the exterior access hatch. First, one of the microswitch indicators used to verify that the hatch was safely locked malfunctioned. Then, a stripped bolt prevented the closeout crew from removing a closing fixture from the orbiter's hatch. When the fixture was finally sawn off, crosswinds at the Shuttle Landing Facilitymarker exceeded the limits for a Return to Launch Site abort. The crew waited for the winds to die down until the launch window finally ran out, forcing yet another scrub.

Forecasts for January 28 predicted an unusually cold morning, with temperatures close to , the minimum temperature permitted for launch. The low temperature had prompted concern from engineers at Morton Thiokol, the contractor responsible for the construction and maintenance of the shuttle's SRBs. At a teleconference on the evening of January 27, Thiokol engineers and managers discussed the weather conditions with NASA managers from Kennedy Space Center and Marshall Space Flight Centermarker. Several engineers—most notably Roger Boisjoly, who had voiced similar concerns previously—expressed their concern about the effect of the temperature on the resilience of the rubber O-rings that sealed the joints of the SRBs. Each SRB was constructed of six sections joined in three factory joints and three "field joints". The factory joints were welded, but the field joints—assembled in the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center—each used two rubber O-rings, a primary and a secondary (backup), to seal them. (Since the accident, SRB field joints now use three O-rings.) The seals of all of the SRB joints were required to contain the hot high-pressure gases produced by the burning solid propellant inside, forcing it out the nozzle at the aft end of each rocket. Thiokol engineers argued that if the O-rings were colder than , they did not have enough data to determine whether the joint would seal properly. This was an important consideration, since the SRB O-rings had been designated as a "Criticality 1" component—meaning that there was no backup if both the primary and secondary O-rings failed, and their failure would destroy the Orbiter and its crew.

One argument of NASA people in contest to Thiokol's concerns was that if the primary O-ring failed the secondary O-ring would still seal. This was unproven, and was in any case an illegitimate argument for a Criticality 1 component. (As astronaut Sally Ride cited in questioning NASA managers before the Rogers Commission, it is forbidden to rely on a backup for a Criticality 1 component. The backup is there to provide redundancy in case of unforeseen failure, not to replace the primary device, leaving no backup.) The engineers at Thiokol also argued that the low overnight temperatures would almost certainly result in SRB temperatures below their redline of . However, they were overruled by Morton Thiokol management, who recommended that the launch proceed as scheduled. Despite public perceptions that NASA always maintained a "fail-safe" approach, Thiokol management was influenced by demands from NASA managers that they show it was not safe to launch rather than prove conditions were safe. It later emerged in the aftermath of the accident that NASA managers frequently evaded safety regulations to maintain the launch manifest (schedule).

Due to the low temperature, a significant amount of ice built up on the fixed service structure that stood beside the shuttle. The Kennedy Ice Team inadvertently pointed an infrared camera at the aft field joint of the right SRB and found the temperature to be only . This was believed to be the result of supercooled air blowing on the joint from the liquid oxygen tank vent. It was much lower than the air temperature and far below the design specifications for the O-rings. However, the reading was later determined to be erroneous, the error caused by not following the temperature probe manufacturer's instructions. Tests and adjusted calculations later confirmed that the temperature of the joint was not substantially different than the ambient temperature.

Although the Ice Team had worked through the night removing ice, engineers at Rockwell International, the shuttle's prime contractor, still expressed concern. Rockwell engineers watching the pad from their headquarters in Downey, Californiamarker, were horrified when they saw the amount of ice. They feared that during launch, ice might be shaken loose and strike the shuttle's thermal protection tiles, possibly due to the aspiration induced by the jet of exhaust gas from the SRBs. Rocco Petrone, the head of Rockwell's space transportation division, and his colleagues viewed this situation as a launch constraint, and told Rockwell's managers at the Cape that Rockwell could not support a launch. However, Rockwell's managers at the Cape voiced their concerns in a manner that led Houston-based mission manager Arnold Aldrich to go ahead with the launch. Aldrich decided to postpone the shuttle launch by an hour to give the Ice Team time to perform another inspection. After that last inspection, during which the ice appeared to be melting, Challenger was finally cleared to launch at 11:38 a.m. EST.

January 28 launch and failure

Liftoff and initial ascent

The following account of the accident is derived from real time telemetry data and photographic analysis, as well as from transcripts of air-to-ground and mission control voice communications. All times are given in seconds after launch and correspond to the telemetry time-codes from the closest instrumented event to each described event.

At 6.6 seconds before liftoff, as normal, the three space shuttle main engines (SSME) ignited. Until liftoff actually occurs, the SSMEs can be safely shut down and the launch aborted if necessary. At liftoff time (T=0, which was at 11:38:00.010 EST), the three SSMEs were at 100% of their original rated performance, and began throttling up to 104% under computer control. At this moment, the two SRBs were ignited and hold-down bolts were released with explosives, freeing the vehicle from the pad. With the first vertical motion of the vehicle, the gaseous hydrogen vent arm retracted from the External Tank but failed to latch back. Review of film shot by pad cameras showed that the arm did not re-contact the vehicle, and thus it was ruled out as a contributing factor in the accident. The post-launch inspection of the pad also revealed that kick springs on four of the hold-down bolts were missing, but they were similarly ruled out as a possible cause.
Later review of launch film showed that at T+0.678, strong puffs of dark gray smoke were emitted from the right-hand SRB near the aft strut that attaches the booster to the ET. The last smoke puff occurred at about T+2.733. The last view of smoke around the strut was at T+3.375. It was later determined that these smoke puffs were caused by the opening and closing of the aft field joint of the right-hand SRB. The booster's casing had ballooned under the stress of ignition. As a result of this ballooning, the metal parts of the casing bent away from each other, opening a gap through which hot gases—above 5,000 Â°F (2,760 Â°C)—leaked. This occurred in previous launches, but each time the primary O-ring shifted out of its groove and formed a seal. Although the SRB was not designed to function this way, it appeared to work well enough and Morton-Thiokol changed the design specs to accommodate this process, known as extrusion.

Unfortunately, while extrusion was taking place, hot gases would leak past, a process called blow-by, damaging the O-rings until a seal was made. Investigations into the matter by Morton-Thiokol engineers determined that the amount of damage to the O-rings was directly related to the time it took for extrusion to occur, and that cold weather, by causing the O-rings to harden, lengthened the time of extrusion. (The redesigned SRB field joint used subsequent to the Challenger accident uses an additional interlocking mortise and tang with a third O-ring, mitigating blow-by.)

On the morning of the disaster, the primary O-ring had become so hard due to the cold that it couldn't seal in time. The secondary O-ring was not in its seated position due to the metal bending. There was now no barrier to the gases, and both O-rings were vaporized across 70 degrees of arc. However, aluminium oxides from the burned solid propellant sealed the damaged joint, temporarily replacing the O-ring seal before actual flame rushed through the joint.

As the vehicle cleared the tower, the SSMEs were operating at 104% of their rated maximum thrust, and control switched from the Launch Control Centermarker (LCC) at Kennedy to the Mission Control Center (MCC) at Johnson Space Centermarker in Houston, Texasmarker. To prevent aerodynamic forces from structurally overloading the orbiter, at T+28 the SSMEs began throttling down to limit the velocity of the shuttle in the dense lower atmosphere, as per normal operating procedure. At T+35.379, the SSMEs throttled back further to the planned 65%. Five seconds later, at about 19,000 feet (5800 m), Challenger passed through Mach 1. At T+51.860, the SSMEs began throttling back up to 104% as the vehicle passed beyond Max Q, the period of maximum aerodynamic pressure on the vehicle.


Just as the shuttle approached Max Q, it slammed through the most intense wind shear ever experienced to date in the space shuttle program.

At T+58.788, a tracking film camera captured the beginnings of a plume near the aft attach strut on the right SRB. Unknown to those on Challenger or in Houston, hot gas had begun to leak through a growing hole in one of the right-hand SRB's joints. The force of the wind shear shattered the temporary oxide seal that had taken the place of the damaged O-rings, removing the last barrier to flame rushing through the joint. Had it not been for the wind shear, the fortuitous oxide seal might have held through booster burnout.

Within a second, the plume became well defined and intense. Internal pressure in the right SRB began to drop because of the rapidly enlarging hole in the failed joint, and at T+60.238 there was visual evidence of flame coming through the joint and impinging on the external tank.

At T+64.660, the plume suddenly changed shape, indicating that a leak had begun in the liquid hydrogen tank, located in the aft portion of the external tank. The nozzles of the main engines pivoted under computer control to compensate for the unbalanced thrust produced by the booster burn-through. The pressure in the shuttle's external liquid hydrogen tank began to drop at T+66.764, indicating the effect of the leak.

At this stage the situation still seemed normal both to the astronauts and to flight controllers. At T+68, the CAPCOM Richard Covey informed the crew that they were "go at throttle up", and Commander Dick Scobee confirmed the call. His response, "Roger, go at throttle up," was the last communication from Challenger on the air-to-ground loop.

Vehicle breakup

At T+72.284, the right SRB apparently pulled away from the aft strut attaching it to the external tank. Later analysis of telemetry data showed a sudden lateral acceleration to the right at T+72.525, which may have been felt by the crew. The last statement captured by the crew cabin recorder came just half a second after this acceleration, when Pilot Michael J. Smith said "Uh oh." Smith may also have been responding to onboard indications of main engine performance, or to falling pressures in the external fuel tank.

At T+73.124, the aft dome of the liquid hydrogen tank failed, producing a propulsive force that pushed the hydrogen tank into the liquid oxygen tank in the forward part of the ET. At the same time, the right SRB rotated about the forward attach strut, and struck the intertank structure.

The breakup of the vehicle began at T+73.162 seconds and at an altitude of 48,000 feet (14.6 km). With the external tank disintegrating (and with the semi-detached right SRB contributing its thrust on an anomalous vector), Challenger veered from its correct attitude with respect to the local air flow and was immediately torn apart by abnormal aerodynamic forces resulting in a load factor of up to 20g — well over its design limit of 5 g. The two SRBs, which can withstand greater aerodynamic loads, separated from the ET and continued in uncontrolled powered flight for another 37 seconds. The SRB casings were made of half-inch (12.7 mm) thick steel and were much stronger than the orbiter and ET; thus, both SRBs survived the breakup of the space shuttle stack, even though the right SRB was still suffering the effects of the joint burn-through that had set the destruction of Challenger in motion.

Post-breakup flight controller dialog

In Mission Control, there was a burst of static on the air-to-ground loop as Challenger disintegrated. Television screens showed a cloud of smoke and water vapor (the product of hydrogen combustion) where Challenger had been, with pieces of debris falling toward the ocean. At about T+89, flight director Jay Greene prompted his flight dynamics officer (FIDO) for information. FIDO responded that "...the (radar) filter has discreting sources", a further indication that Challenger had broken into multiple pieces. A minute later, the ground controller reported "negative contact (and) loss of downlink" of radio and telemetry data from Challenger. Greene ordered his team to "watch your data carefully" and look for any sign that the Orbiter had escaped.

At T+110.250, the Range Safety Officer (RSO) at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Stationmarker sent radio signals that activated the range safety system's "destruct" packages on board both solid rocket boosters. This was a normal contingency procedure, undertaken because the RSO judged the free-flying SRBs a possible threat to land or sea. The same destruct signal would have destroyed the External Tank had it not already disintegrated.

"Flight controllers here looking very carefully at the situation," reported public affairs officer Steve Nesbitt. "Obviously a major malfunction. We have no downlink." After a pause, Nesbitt said, "We have a report from the Flight Dynamics Officer that the vehicle has exploded."

Greene ordered that contingency procedures be put into effect at Mission Control; these procedures included locking the doors of the control center, shutting down telephone communications with the outside world, and following checklists that ensured that the relevant data were correctly recorded and preserved.

No "explosion"

Contrary to the flight dynamics officer's initial statement, the shuttle and external tank did not actually "explode". Instead they rapidly disintegrated under tremendous aerodynamic forces, since the shuttle was slightly past "Max Q", or maximum aerodynamic pressure ("past" meaning that the dynamic pressure had started to decrease after reaching its maximum). When the external tank disintegrated, the fuel and oxidizer stored within it were released, producing the appearance of a massive fireball. However, according to the NASA team that analyzed imagery after the accident, there was only "localized combustion" of propellant. Instead, the visible cloud was primarily composed of vapor and gases resulting from the release of the shuttle's liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen propellant. Stored in cryogenic conditions, the liquid hydrogen could not have ignited rapidly enough to trigger an "explosion" in the traditional sense of a detonation (as opposed to a deflagration, which was what occurred). Had there been a true explosion, the entire shuttle would have been instantly destroyed, killing the crew at that moment. The more robustly constructed crew cabin and SRBs survived the breakup of the launch vehicle; while the SRBs were subsequently detonated remotely, the detached cabin continued along a ballistic trajectory, and was observed exiting the cloud of gases at T+75.237. Twenty-five seconds after the breakup of the vehicle, which occurred at 48,000 feet (14.6 km), the trajectory of the crew compartment peaked at a height of 65,000 feet (19.8 km).

Cause and time of death

The shuttle was designed to withstand a force of 3 times the force of gravity with another 1.5(G) safety factor built in. The crew cabin in particular is a very robust section of the shuttle because of its design and construction of reinforced aluminum. During vehicle breakup, the crew cabin detached in one piece and slowly tumbled into a ballistic arc. NASA estimated separation forces at about 12 to 20(G) very briefly; however, within two seconds, the forces on the cabin had already dropped to below 4G, and within ten seconds the cabin was in free fall. These forces were likely insufficient to cause major injury. At least some of the astronauts were likely alive and briefly conscious after the breakup, because three of the four Personal Egress Air Packs (PEAPs) on the flight deck were found to have been activated. Investigators found their remaining unused air supply roughly consistent with the expected consumption during the 2 minute 45 second post-breakup trajectory. Whether the astronauts remained conscious long after the breakup is unknown, and largely depends on whether the detached crew cabin maintained pressure integrity. If it did not, the time of useful consciousness at that altitude is just a few seconds; the PEAPs supplied only unpressurized air, and hence would not have helped the crew to retain consciousness. The crew cabin hit the ocean surface at roughly , causing an instantaneous deceleration of over 200 G, far beyond the structural limits of the crew compartment or crew survivability levels.

“Scob fought for any and every edge to survive. He flew that ship without wings all the way down....they were alive”
— Robert Overmyer, NASA Lead Investigator

On July 28, 1986, Rear Admiral Richard H. Truly, NASA's Associate Administrator for Space Flight and a former astronaut, released a report from Joseph P. Kerwin, biomedical specialist from the Johnson Space Centermarker in Houston, relating to the deaths of the astronauts in the accident. Dr. Kerwin, a veteran of the Skylab 2 mission, had been commissioned to undertake the study soon after the accident. According to the Kerwin Report:

Despite the report, some experts, including one of NASA's lead investigators Robert Overmyer, believed most if not all of the crew were alive and possibly conscious during the entire descent until impact with the ocean.

Crew escape was not possible

During powered flight of the space shuttle, crew escape was not possible. While launch escape systems were considered several times during shuttle development, NASA's conclusion was that the shuttle's expected high reliability would preclude the need for one. Modified SR-71 Blackbird ejection seats and full pressure suits were used on the first four shuttle orbital missions, which were considered test flights, but they were removed for the "operational" missions that followed. (The CAIB later declared, after the Columbia descent disaster, that the space shuttle system should never have been declared operational because it is experimental by nature due to the limited number of flights as compared to certified commercial aircraft.) Providing a launch escape system for larger crews was considered undesirable due to "limited utility, technical complexity and excessive cost in dollars, weight or schedule delays."

After the loss of Challenger the question was re-opened, and NASA considered several different options, including ejector seats, tractor rockets and bailing out through the bottom of the orbiter. However, NASA once again concluded that all of the launch escape systems considered would be impractical due to the sweeping vehicle modifications that would have been necessary and the resultant limitations on crew size. A bail-out system was designed to give the crew the option to leave the shuttle during gliding flight; however, this system would not have been usable in the Challenger scenario.


In the aftermath of the disaster, NASA was criticized for its lack of openness with the press. The New York Times noted on the day after the disaster that "neither Jay Greene, flight director for the ascent, nor any other person in the control room, was made available to the press by the space agency." In the absence of reliable sources, the press turned to speculation; both The New York Times and United Press International ran stories suggesting that a fault with the external tank had caused an explosion, despite the fact that NASA's internal investigation had quickly focused in on the solid rocket boosters. "The space agency," wrote space news reporter William Harwood, "stuck to its policy of strict secrecy about the details of the investigation, an uncharacteristic stance for an agency that long prided itself on openness."


On the night of the disaster, President Ronald Reagan had been scheduled to give his annual State of the Union Address. He initially announced that the address would go on as scheduled, but then postponed the State of the Union Address for a week and instead gave a national address on the Challenger disaster from the Oval Office of the White Housemarker. It was written by Peggy Noonan, and finished with the following statement, which quoted from the poem "High Flight" by John Gillespie Magee, Jr.:

Three days later, President Reagan with his wife Nancy traveled to the Johnson Space Centermarker to speak at a memorial service honoring the astronauts where he statedIt was attended by 6,000 NASA employees and 4,000 guests,as well as by the families of the crew. During the ceremony, an Air Force band led the singing of "God Bless America" as NASA T-38 Talon jets flew directly over the scene, in the traditional missing-man formation. All activities were broadcast live by the national television networks.

The families of the Challenger crew organized the Challenger Center for Space Science Education as a permanent memorial to the crew. Fifty-two learning centers have been established by this non-profit organization.

In Huntsville, Alabamamarker, a city known for its strong association with NASA, the newest public middle school in the Huntsville City Schools system was named Challenger Middle School.

The City of Palmdalemarker, the birthplace of the entire shuttle fleet, and its neighbor City of Lancaster, Californiamarker, both renamed 10th Street East, from Avenue M to Edwards Air Force Basemarker, to Challenger Way in honor of the lost shuttle and its crew. This was the road that the Challenger, Enterprise, and Columbia all were towed along in their initial move from U.S.marker Air Force Plant 42marker to Edwards AFB after completion since Palmdale airport had not yet installed the shuttle crane for placement of an orbiter on the 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft.

In addition, the City of Lancaster has built Challenger Middle School, and Challenger Memorial Hall at the former site of the Antelope Valley Fairgrounds, all in tribute to the Challenger shuttle and crew.
The Space Shuttle Challenger Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery, where some remains were buried

In 2004, President George W. Bush conferred posthumous Congressional Space Medals of Honor to all 14 astronauts lost in the Challenger and Columbia accidents.

Recovery of debris

In the first minutes after the accident, recovery efforts were begun by NASA's Launch Recovery Director, who ordered the ships used by NASA for recovery of the solid rocket boosters to be sent to the location of the water impact. Search and rescue aircraft were also dispatched. At this stage, however, debris was still falling, and the Range Safety Officer (RSO) held both aircraft and ships out of the impact area until it was safe for them to enter. It was about an hour until the RSO allowed the recovery forces to begin their work.

The search and rescue operations that took place in the first week after the Challenger accident were managed by the Department of Defensemarker on behalf of NASA, with assistance from the United States Coast Guard, and mostly involved surface searches. According to the Coast Guard, "the operation was the largest surface search in which they had participated." This phase of operations lasted until February 7. Thereafter, recovery efforts were managed by a Search, Recovery, and Reconstruction team; its aim was to salvage debris that would help in determining the cause of the accident. Sonar, divers, remotely operated submersibles and manned submersibles were all used during the search, which covered an area of 480 square nautical miles (1600 km²), and took place at depths of up to 1200 feet (370 m). On March 7, divers from the USS Preserver identified what might be the crew compartment on the ocean floor. The finding, along with discovery of the remains of all seven crew members was confirmed the next day and on March 9, NASA announced the finding to the press.

By May 1, enough of the right solid rocket booster had been recovered to determine the original cause of the accident, and the major salvage operations were concluded. While some shallow-water recovery efforts continued, this was unconnected with the accident investigation; it aimed to recover debris for use in NASA's studies of the properties of materials used in spacecraft and launch vehicles. The recovery operation was able to pull 15 tons of debris from the ocean; 55% of Challenger, 5% of the crew cabin and 65% of the satellite cargo is still missing. Some of the missing debris still washes up on Florida shores, such as on December 17, 1996, nearly eleven years after the incident, when two large pieces of the shuttle were found at Cocoa Beachmarker. Under Title 18, United States Code, Section 641 it is against the law to be in possession of Challenger debris and any newly discovered pieces have to be turned in to NASA. All debris is currently maintained in a sealed former underground missile silo at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Launch Complex 31marker.

On board Challenger was an American flag, dubbed the Challenger flag, that was sponsored by Boy Scout Troop 514 of Monument, Coloradomarker. It was recovered intact, still sealed in its cargo bag.

Funeral ceremonies

The remains of the crew that were identifiable were returned to their families on April 29, 1986. Two of the crew members, Dick Scobee and posthumously promoted Capt. Michael J. Smith, were buried by their families at Arlington National Cemeterymarker at individual grave sites. Mission Specialist Lt Col Ellison Onizuka was buried at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacificmarker in Honolulumarker, Hawaiimarker. Unidentified crew remains were buried communally at the Space Shuttle Challenger Memorial in Arlington on May 20, 1986.

Rogers Commission investigation

Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident, also known as the Rogers Commission after its chairman, was formed to investigate the disaster. Beyond identifying the cause of the accident as a failure in the O-rings, the report also considered the contributing causes of the accident, including the failure of both NASA and Morton Thiokol to respond adequately to the design flaw and the decision-making process involved in the launch decision. The commission concluded that the Challenger disaster was "an accident rooted in history."

U.S. House Committee hearings

The U.S. House Committee on Science and Technology also conducted hearings, and on October 29, 1986 released its own report on the Challenger accident. The committee reviewed the findings of the Rogers Commission as part of its investigation, and agreed with the Rogers Commission as to the technical causes of the accident. However, it differed from the committee in its assessment of the accident's contributing causes.

NASA response

After the Challenger accident, further shuttle flights were suspended, pending the results of the Rogers Commission investigation. Whereas NASA had held an internal inquiry into the Apollo 1 fire in 1967, its actions after Challenger were more constrained by the judgments of outside bodies. The Rogers Commission offered nine recommendations on improving safety in the space shuttle program, and NASA was directed by President Reagan to report back within thirty days as to how it planned to implement those recommendations.

In response to the commission's recommendation, NASA initiated a total redesign of the space shuttle's solid rocket boosters, which was watched over by an independent oversight group as stipulated by the commission. NASA's contract with Morton Thiokol, the contractor responsible for the solid rocket boosters, included a clause stating that in the event of a failure leading to "loss of life or mission," Thiokol would forfeit $10 million of its incentive fee and formally accept legal liability for the failure. After the Challenger accident, Thiokol agreed to "voluntarily accept" the monetary penalty in exchange for not being forced to accept liability.

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. George Martin, formerly of Martin Marietta, was appointed to this position. Former Challenger flight director Jay Greene became chief of the Safety Division of the directorate.

The unrealistically optimistic launch schedule pursued by NASA had been criticized by the Rogers Commission as a possible contributing cause to the accident. After the accident, NASA attempted to aim at a more realistic shuttle flight rate: it added another orbiter, Endeavour, to the space shuttle fleet to replace Challenger, and it worked with the Department of Defense to put more satellites in orbit using expendable launch vehicles rather than the shuttle. In August 1986, President Reagan also announced that the shuttle would no longer carry commercial satellite payloads. After a 32-month hiatus, the next shuttle mission, STS-26, was launched on September 29, 1988.

Although significant changes were made by NASA after the Challenger accident, many commentators have argued that the changes in its management structure and organizational culture were neither deep nor long-lasting. After the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003, attention once again focused on the attitude of NASA management towards safety issues. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) concluded that NASA had failed to learn many of the lessons of Challenger. In particular, the agency had not set up a truly independent office for safety oversight; the CAIB felt that in this area, "NASA's response to the Rogers Commission did not meet the Commission's intent". The CAIB believed that "the causes of the institutional failure responsible for Challenger have not been fixed," saying that the same "flawed decision making process" that had resulted in the Challenger accident was responsible for Columbia's destruction seventeen years later.


Media coverage

While the presence of New Hampshiremarker schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe on the Challenger crew had provoked some media interest, there was little live broadcast coverage of the launch. The only live national TV coverage available publicly was provided by CNN; although several radio networks were also live. Due to McAuliffe's presence on the mission, NASA arranged for many U.S. public schools to view the launch live on NASA TV. As a result, many who were schoolchildren in the US in 1986 did in fact have the opportunity to view the launch live. After the accident, however, 17% of respondents in one study reported that they had seen the shuttle launch, while 85% said that they had learned of the accident within an hour. As the authors of the paper reported, "only two studies have revealed more rapid dissemination [of news]." (One of those studies was of the spread of news in Dallasmarker after President Kennedy's assassinationmarker, while the other was the spread of news among students at Kent Statemarker regarding President Franklin D. Roosevelt's death.) Another study noted that "even those who were not watching television at the time of the disaster were almost certain to see the graphic pictures of the accident replayed as the television networks reported the story almost continuously for the rest of the day." Children were even more likely than adults to have seen the accident live, since many children—forty-eight percent of nine to thirteen-year-olds, according to a New York Times poll—watched the launch at school.

Following the day of the accident, press interest remained high. While only 535 reporters were accredited to cover the launch, three days later there were 1467 reporters at Kennedy Space Center and another 1040 at Johnson Space Center. The event made headlines in newspapers worldwide.

Use as case study

The Challenger accident has frequently been used as a case study in the study of subjects such as engineering safety, the ethics of whistle-blowing, communications, group decision-making, and the dangers of groupthink. It is part of the required readings for engineers seeking a professional license in Canada and other countries. Roger Boisjoly, the engineer who had warned about the effect of cold weather on the O-rings, left his job at Morton Thiokol and became a speaker on workplace ethics. He argues that the caucus called by Morton Thiokol managers, which resulted in a recommendation to launch, "constituted the unethical decision-making forum resulting from intense customer intimidation." For his honesty and integrity leading up to and directly following the shuttle disaster, Roger Boisjoly was awarded the Prize for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Many colleges and universities have also used the accident in classes on the ethics of engineering.

Information designer Edward Tufte has used the Challenger accident as an example of the problems that can occur from the lack of clarity in the presentation of information. He argues that if Morton Thiokol engineers had more clearly presented the data that they had on the relationship between cold temperatures and burn-through in the solid rocket booster joints, they might have succeeded in persuading NASA managers to cancel the launch. Tufte has also argued that poor presentation of information may have affected NASA decisions during the last flight of Columbia.

Continuation of the Shuttle Program

After the accident, NASA's Space Shuttle fleet was grounded for almost three years while the investigation, hearings, engineering redesign of the SRBs, and other behind-the-scenes technical and management reviews, changes, and preparations were taking place. At 11:37 a.m. on September 29, 1988, Space Shuttle Discovery lifted off with a crew of five from Kennedy Space Center pad 39-B. It carried a Tracking and Data Relay Satellite, TDRS-C (named TDRS-3 after deployment), which replaced TDRS-B, the satellite that was launched and lost on Challenger. The "Return to Flight" launch of Discovery also represented a test of the redesigned boosters, a shift to more a conservative stance on safety (e.g., it was the first time the crew had launched in pressure suits since STS-4, the last of the four initial Shuttle test flights), and a chance to restore national pride in the American space program, especially manned space flight. The mission, STS-26, was a success (with only two minor system failures, one of a cabin cooling system and one of a Ku-band antenna), and a regular schedule of STS flights followed, continuing without extended interruption until the Columbia accident.

Barbara Morgan, the backup astronaut for McAuliffe who trained with her in the Teacher in Space program and was at KSC watching her launch on January 28, 1986, flew on STS-118 as a Mission Specialist in August 2007.

See also


  1. McConnell, Malcolm. Challenger: A Major Malfunction, pages 150–153.
  2. McConnell, Malcolm. Challenger: A Major Malfunction, page 154.
  3. A major source for information about the Challenger accident is the STS 51-L Incident Integrated Events Timeline developed by the NASA Photo and TV Support Team as part of the Rogers Report ( Appendix N). Numerous other timelines have been written based on this information. A detailed transcript of air-to-ground and mission control voice communications was put together by Rob Navias and William Harwood for CBS News, and integrates a timeline of events:
  4. Archived by the Internet Archive on 2006-05-04.
  5. See, for example, New Orleans Times-Picayune, January 29, 1986, p. 1.
  6. "When a Community Weeps: Case Studies in Group Survivorship - Google Books Result" (page 29 of book), by Ellen Zinner, Mary Beth Williams, 1999, Psychology Press, p.29, webpage: Books-Google-ID-id=8DuhIv8U11oC&pg=PA29.
  7. Bernard Weintraub, "Reagan Pays Tribute to 'Our 7 Challenger Heroes'" (article), New York Times, 1-Feb-1986, page AI.
  8. Jensen, Claus, No Downlink, p. 17.
  9. (1996), Shuttle Challenger debris washes up on shore. Retrieved on July 4, 2006.
  10. Jensen, Claus. No Downlink, p. 355.
  11. Edward Tufte. (1997) Visual Explanations, ISBN 0-9613921-2-6, Chapter 2.


  • (1996), Shuttle Challenger debris washes up on shore. Retrieved on July 4, 2006.
  • Feynman, Richard P. (1986) Appendix F- Personal Observations on Reliability of Shuttle. (plain text)
  • Feynman, Richard P. (1986) Rogers Commission Report, Volume 2 Appendix F- Personal Observations on Reliability of Shuttle. (html)
  • Feynman, Richard P. (1987) Mr. Feynman Goes to Washington - Engineering and Science, Vol. 50 Fall 1987, pages 6–22
  • Feynman, Richard P. with Ralph Leighton, What Do You Care What Other People Think? Further Adventures of a Curious Character, hardcover 256 pages, Publisher: W W Norton & Co Ltd (7-Dec-1988), ISBN 0393026590, ISBN 978-0393026597, or paperback 256 pages, Publisher: Bantam (October 1, 1989), ISBN 0553347845, ISBN 978-0553347845, or paperback 256 pages, Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (January 2001), ISBN 0393320928, ISBN 978-0393320923.
  • Greene, J.H., NASA Johnson Space Center Oral History Project Biographical Data Sheet.
  • Archived by the Internet Archive on 2006-05-04.
  • Jensen, Claus. (1996) No Downlink: A Dramatic Narrative about the Challenger Accident and Our Time. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux. ISBN 0-374-12036-6.
  • McConnell, Malcolm. (1987) Challenger: A Major Malfunction. Garden City, NY: Doubleday. ISBN 0-385-23877-0.
  • Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, Address to the nation on the Challenger disaster. Retrieved on July 4, 2006.
  • Tufte, Edward. (1997) Visual Explanations, ISBN 0-9613921-2-6.
  • Vaughan, Diane. (1996) The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture and Deviance at NASA. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-85176-1.
  • Wallace, Brendan & Ross, Alastair (2006) Beyond Human Error. Florida: CRC Press. ISBN 978-0849327186

External links

  • (Video)
  • CBS Radio news Bulletin of the Challenger Disaster Anchored by Christopher Glenn from 1/28/86 Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.

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