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The Challenger Accident

On January 28, 1986 America was shocked by the destruction of the space shuttle Challenger, and the death of its seven crew members. A decade after this national tragedy, the World Wide Web hosts a variety of resources reviewed at this Challenger Accident homepage, created by the Space Policy Project of the Federation of American Scientists.

Challenger Accident Memories - Where were you when you learned of the Challenger accident? What did you think or feel? How did it change your attitudes towards spaceflight, or did it? Please add your thoughts and memories.

Interactive Online Conference


NASA dilemma: Shuttle efficiency vs. Safety
"John Pike is the director of the Space Policy Project for the Federation of American Scientists, a Washington, D.C. based organization that conducts studies and monitors legislation on science and technology issues. In that capacity, he has followed on a daily basis the U.S. space program, including the safety issue in connection with the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger on Jan. 28, 1986. Pike discussed the space program with Sentinel editorial board member John C. Bersia."

LIFE Magazine -- Friday, January 26 -- Stories commemorating the loss of the Challenger. The site features "Christa's Dream Lives On," the current issue's cover story, and "America Steps Boldly Back Into Space." In addition, the site includes a historic collection of LIFE space covers and a "Link Page" to other WWW space sites.

51-L MPEG - 869k (the original video clip of the accident) mpeg_img.jpg - 5.9 K

Challenger Remembered
A brief montage of images and sounds from the Challenger accident, from the CNN video vault [1250k Quicktime .mov file -- takes about 6 minutes to download at 28.8 -- just barely worth the effort]

Administrator Goldin Issues Statement on Challenger Observance
NASA news release, January 16, 1996. "... human beings have always taken great risks to reap great rewards. Space flight is inherently dangerous and every member of the NASA team understands those risks."

NASA news release, January 22, 1996."The NASA Kennedy Space Center, FL, and community organizations associated with the space program will commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Challenger accident on Sunday, Jan. 28, and Monday, Jan. 29. Planned events will emphasize the future and acknowledge the extraordinary efforts of the contractor and civil service team which has safely launched 49 shuttle missions since that time."

Can It Happen Again?

NASA news release, January 22, 1988. " In response to various reviews of NASA safety and quality programs conducted in the aftermath of the Challenger accident and associated recommendations for improvements, NASA has acted to elevate agency emphasis on safety and implement organizational changes to strengthen SRM&QA programs.... There has been a 30 percent increase in NASA personnel assigned to SRM&QA functions since January 1986."

Shuttle safety questioned
Ian Patrick Metro Editor Avion Online Summer 1995. "Discovery's safety was brought into question by an examination of the solid rocket boosters retreived after the launch of the space shuttle Atlantis two weeks prior to the launch of Discovery.... Burning rocket propellant had burned one of the primary O-ring seals in one of the booster rockets of Atlantis. This problem was not discovered until four days after Discovery's launch.... The problem was particularly worrisome due to the fact that it was a similar leak that had caused the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986."

The Garcia Letter
This 29 August 1995 letter to the President from a long time NASA manager contains interesting information and important observations that many people are not aware of. The author concludes that the current policy of cutting the shuttle workforce and privatizing the shuttle is jeopadizing the safety of future missions. Although this is not the official view of NASA, it does reflect the views of some of the workers. On October 12, 1995, Dr. J. Wayne Littles, Associate Administrator of NASA for Space Flight, and Frederick Gregory, Associate Administrator for Safety and Mission Assurance, sent a response to Garcia. He sent a rebuttal to their reply on January 23, 1996.

Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel Kennedy Space Center May 14 - 16, 1996 Trip Report
At NASA RIF Watch "The multiplicity of changes and uncertainty -- transition to a single contractor, downsizing, reinventing NASA, increased workload, loss of significant personnel capabilities and low-morale have bred an environment which is ripe for human error. Distraction is commonplace and workers have begun to turn their career thoughts outside of the Shuttle/Space Station programs. The environment, however, suggests that inadvertent errors are likely to increase, and these errors will eventually have safety implications."

Challenger STS 51-L

1988 News Reference Manual
NASA Kennedy Space Center"The Space Shuttle is developed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. NASA coordinates and manages the Space Transportation System (NASA's name for the overall Shuttle program), including intergovernmental agency requirements and international and joint projects. NASA also oversees the launch and space flight requirements for civilian and commercial use. The Space Shuttle system consists of four primary elements: an orbiter spacecraft, two Solid Rocket Boosters (SRB), an external tank to house fuel and oxidizer and three Space Shuttle main engines." WARNING -- huge file, not for the bandwidth challenged

Challenger (STA-099, OV-99)
NASA Kennedy Space Center "Challenger, the second orbiter to become operational at Kennedy Space Center, was named after an American Naval research vessel that sailed the Atlantic and Pacific oceans during the 1870's. The Apollo 17 lunar module also carried the name of Challenger ... Challenger joined NASA fleet of reusable winged spaceships in July 1982. It flew nine successful Space Shuttle missions. On January 28, 1986, the Challenger and its seven-member crew were lost 73 seconds after launch when a booster failure resulted in the breakup of the vehicle."

NASA Kennedy Space Center "January 28, 1986,11:38:00 a.m. EST. First Shuttle liftoff scheduled from Pad B. Launch set for 3:43 p.m. EST, Jan. 22, slipped to Jan. 23, then Jan. 24, due to delays in mission 61-C. Launch reset for Jan. 25 because of bad weather at transoceanic abort landing (TAL) site in Dakar, Senegal.... Explosion 73 seconds after liftoff claimed crew and vehicle. Cause of explosion was an O-ring failure in right SRB. Cold weather was a contributing factor."

NASA JSC Digital Image Collection. "Each Shuttle mission produces 2000 to 5000 photographic images. Over 250,000 images have been captured, digitized, and stored ...

Heretofore Unpublished Photos of the Challenger Tragedy
Shuttle Products International "Our Grandmother had never seen an unobstructed view of the launches so we invited her to accompany us. We happened to bring a rather inexpensive 110 camera with a few unused xposures remaining..... A few seconds into the launch, we realized that something seemed to be wrong. At this point, we didn't realize exactly what was happening, so we just kept snapping pictures."

Engineering Considerations

Rogers Commission Report
Jim Kingdon's Space Page. The NASA KSC website has Another copy with the complete table of contents of the Report. The preface from the report by The Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Accident (created by Executive Order 12546 of February 3, 1986) "The mandate of the Commission was to:
  1. Review the circumstances surrounding the accident to establish the probable cause or causes of the accident; and
  2. Develop recommendations for corrective or other action based upon the Commission's findings and determinations.
The Commission urges that NASA continue to receive the support of the Administration and the nation.The agency constitutes a national resource that plays a critical role in space exploration and development. It also provides a symbol of national pride and technological leadership."

Causes of the Challenger Accident
From Chapters III and IV of "Report of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident," U.S. Government Printing Office, 1986 -- in the Space Educator's Handbook NASA Report Number S677

Feynman and the Challenger disaster
Feyman Online "After the Challenger shuttle, and its crew, was destroyed in a fiery, catastrophic explosion in 1986, NASA appointed certain individuals to be part of a committee that was to find the cause of the disaster. When he was asked to be a part of this committee, Feynman, rather reluctantly, accepted. Little did he know that he would discover the exact cause of the explosion.... "

Personal observations on the reliability of the Shuttle
Appendix to the Roger's Commission Report on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident by R. P. Feynman from Middle of Nowhere "It appears that there are enormous differences of opinion as to the probability of a failure with loss of vehicle and of human life. The estimates range from roughly 1 in 100 to 1 in 100,000. The higher figures come from the working engineers, and the very low figures from management.... Let us make recommendations to ensure that NASA officials deal in a world of reality in understanding technological weaknesses and imperfections well enough to be actively trying to eliminate them. They must live in reality in comparing the costs and utility of the Shuttle to other methods of entering space. And they must be realistic in making contracts, in estimating costs, and the difficulty of the projects. Only realistic flight schedules should be proposed, schedules that have a reasonable chance of being met. If in this way the government would not support them, then so be it. NASA owes it to the citizens from whom it asks support to be frank, honest, and informative, so that these citizens can make the wisest decisions for the use of their limited resources. For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled." [Another less bandwidth intensive copy is hosted at Robert Andrew Lentz's Space Resources]

Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident
At the conclusion of its investigation, the records of the Commission were transferred to the National Archives and Records Administration for permanent preservation. The records of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident in the custody of the National Archives exist in several media - the electronic records (i.e., the computer-readable datasets) are in the custody of the Center for Electronic Records.

The Challenger Disaster
MIT Ethics Center for Engineering & Science "Roger Boisjoly had over a quarter century's experience in the aerospace industry in 1985 when he became involved in an improvement effort on the O-rings which connect segments of Morton Thiokol's Solid Rocket Booster, used to bring the Space Shuttle into orbit.... For his honesty and integrity leading up to and directly following the shuttle diaster Roger Boisjoly was awarded the Prize for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility from the American Association for the Advancement of Science."

Doomed from the Beginning -- The Solid Rocket Boosters for the Space Shuttle
The University of Texas at Austin, Studies in Ethics, Safety, and Liability for Engineers, Kurt Hoover and Wallace T. Fowler. "When the Space Shuttle Challenger blew up on January 25, 1986, the nation was stunned. However, the accident did not come as a major surprise to many people associated with the Shuttle program, because these people were aware of the program's history of grandiose promises, funding shortfalls, political handicaps, and technical compromises."

The Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster
Texas A&M University Engineering Ethics "NASA managers were anxious to launch the Challenger for several reasons, including economic considerations, political pressures, and scheduling backlogs.... The failure of the O-ring was attributed to several factors, including faulty design of the solid rocket boosters, insufficient low-temperature testing of the O-ring material and the joints that the O-ring sealed, and lack of proper communication between different levels of NASA management."

Actions to Implement the Recommendations of The Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident
Executive Summary, July 14, 1986. "On March 24, 1986, the Associate Administrator for Space Flight outlined a comprehensive strategy, and defined major actions, for safely returning to flight status.... NASA will report to the President on the status of the implementation program in June 1987."

Galileo -- The Rocky Road to Rendezvous
Discovery Channel Online Archive "Galileo is one of the lingering, albeit indirect, casualties of the 1986 space shuttle Challenger accident, which killed seven astronauts. After the explosion, NASA decided that the Centaur rocket booster, which was supposed to send Galileo on a direct course to Jupiter, was too dangerous to fly aboard the shuttle. As a result, Galileo's launch was delayed until 1989, and the spacecraft had to take a circuitous gravity-assisted course that required six years to reach Jupiter instead of two, putting it even further behind schedule."

Cultural Significance

Children of the eighties
Adam Zuwerink's World
     I am a child of the eighties. That is what I prefer to be
     called. The nineties can do without me.....

     I went to Cub Scouts. I got my arrow-of-light, but never
     managed to win the Pinewood Derby. I got almost every skill award
     but don't remember ever doing anything.
             The world stopped when the Challenger exploded.
             Did a teacher come in and tell your class?

Ethics and Leadership
Who Cares Online "When the space shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986, killing the seven astronauts aboard, Rachel McCrea heard the news over morning announcements in her eighth-grade English class. Eight years later, 22-year-old McCrea examined the ethical implications of NASA's decisions prior to the tragedy as a participant in the Ethics and Leadership Program (ELP) in Seattle, WA."

President Reagan's Speech on The Challenger Disaster
The Ronald Reagan Home Page. Ronald Reagan -- Oval Office of the White House, January 28, 1986

By John Gillespie Magee "The full text, and sad origin, of the poem whose lines were often quoted in memory of the Challenger Seven."

The Prophecies of Nostradamus vs D. Cannon: A Reply
Some folks think Nostradamus foresaw Challenger, and others don't. The Challenger references are about a third of the way into this document.

The Challenge of "Challenger"
Los Angelse Times February 25, 1990 "On the morning of Jan. 28, 1986, much of the nation tuned into coverage of the Challenger space shuttle launch and watched in horror as the shuttle exploded within seconds of takeoff, snuffing out the lives of its seven astronauts. .. The lives of those five men and two women and the technical problems that plagued the mission from the outset are the subject of "Challenger," a three-hour movie ... on ABC."

Remembering the Shuttle, Forgetting the Loom: Interpreting the Challenger Disaster
Ann Larabee Postmodern Culture V.4 n.3 (May, 1994) " One of the lessons of the Challenger disaster was that in complex closed environments, catastrophe is inescapable and its victims--even friendly school teachers--have no viable means of ejection.... The 1980's witnessed an unprecedented number of such media-fed disasters--core breeches in nuclear reactors, sinking ships, oil spills, chemical leaks. With a nearly continuous spectacle of large-scale technological calamity ... the mass media declared the 1980's, the "age of limits." ... As a public hearing on body-technology relations, the commission report attempted to restore confidence in even minor sub-systems, to reinstate a national faith in technological existence, made safe through vigilance and the most minute surveillance ... The strict control of information surrounding the bodies of the lost Challenger astronauts and payload specialists had purposes beyond delicacy and respect for the crew's loved ones...."

How The Challenger Astronauts Died
Space FAQ 10/13 - Controversial Questions ".... at least some of the crew were not only alive, but conscious, for at least a few seconds after the orbiter broke up. The forces of the breakup were not violent enough for a high probability of lethal injury, and some of the emergency-escape air packs had been turned on manually."[about 2/3 of the way into the document, which seemed to be missing in action as of this update]

What happened to the astronauts after the Challenger explosion?
From Rick Adams "The Challenger's Final Minutes" [which is a comprehensive resources on this matter]. Recently what purports to be a radio transcript of the Challenger crew's last minutes has been showing up on computer bulletin boards.... If the cabin depressurized immediately, the crew would have survived 6-15 seconds; if not, they might have lived 2-1/2 minutes. [the transcript is a hoax]

NASA Challenger Transcript
NASA has completed its analysis of the Challenger operational recorder voice tape. The enclosed transcript 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.

NASA "Kerwin" Report on How the Astronauts Died
"The forces on the Orbiter at breakup were probably too low to cause death or serious injury to the crew... It then descended striking the ocean surface about two minutes and forty-five seconds after breakup at a velocity of about 207 miles per hour. The forces imposed by this impact approximated 200 G's, far in excess of the structural limits of the crew compartment or crew survivability levels. ... It is possible, but not certain, that the crew lost consciousness due to an in-flight loss of crew module pressure. ... Impact damage was so severe that no positive evidence for or against in-flight pressure loss could be found.

Challenger memorial GIF
Smithsonian Associates "The Space Shuttle Challenger memorial in Arlington National Cemetery. Dedicated to the crew of The Challenger was destroyed in a fireball shortly after launch in January 1986. This memorial, near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, depicts the faces of all seven crew."

Astronauts Memorial Foundation, Inc. (AMF)
"The Astronaut Memorial Foundation was established in the aftermath of the Challenger accident to honor the 16 astronauts who lost their lives in the line of duty. The "Space Mirror" at Kennedy Space Center was recognized as a national monument by a joint resolution of Congress."

McNair Scholars Program
"The McNair Scholars Program, named after the late Dr. Ronald McNair, is a federally funded program with approximately seventy sites at universities across the country. The program works with low-income, first-generation college students and underrepresented students, to increase the number of both groups in graduate programs, particularly doctoral studies."

Challenger Center for Space Science Education
Launch your exploration of space here for cool educational simulations, activities, news, and information. Challenger Center focuses specifically on comets, Mars, Earth, the Moon, International Space Station, the Space Shuttle, space probes, and the Solar System in general.

Challenger Learning Center
"The Challenger Learning Center at Wheeling Jesuit College is part of a growing network of centers nationwide established by the Challenger Center for Space Science Education in memory of the crew of the ill-fated 1986 Challenger Space Shuttle"

A Case for General Public Contribution, Awareness, and "The Zero Gravity Oven"
" ... budgets are being reduced, eliminated or held constant. We feel that this is largely due to the inability of the scientific community to capture the imagination of the general public by offering the experience of space flight to everyone, rather than just the lucky few. NASA attempted to support this goal with their Payload Specialist and "Citizen in Space" programs on the early Shuttle flights, but that ended with the deaths of Christa McAuliffe and Gregory Jarvis on Challenger's last flight, STS 51-L. Perhaps, as has been claimed, the current Shuttle design is too dangerous for public space flight to continue, but we feel that to generate and sustain funding for it successor, we must make serious efforts to ensure that it meets the required cost and safety criteria so that we can not only restart public participation, but greatly expand it."

Where Do We Go From Here?

U.S.-Russian Cooperation in Space
Office of Technology Assessment, April 1995. "The emergence of Russia as a major cooperative partner for the United States and other spacefaring nations offers the potential for a significant increase in the world's collective space capabilities." [also available via Acrobat]

The National Space Transportation Policy: Issues for Congress
Office of Technology Assessment, May 1995. "... an analysis of the policy and implementation plans also raises some issues that might be of interest to Congress as it debates space transportation legislation, oversight, and funding. These issues involve decisions on NASA and DOD development programs, the use of foreign launch vehicles and components, the conversion of excess long-range ballistic missiles for use as launch vehicles, and the new role of the private sector in space transportation research and development decisionmaking." [also available via Acrobat]

Privatizing the Shuttle

FY96 NASA Shuttle Budget Request
NASA Headquarters "Because of its unique capabilities, the Space Shuttle remains a key element of America's space program. The Space Shuttle is the first reusable space vehicle and can be configured to carry many different types of space apparatus, spacecraft, and scientific experiments. The Space Shuttle will serve as the primary transportation vehicle for assembling and operating with the international Space Station."

FY96 NASA Safety, Reliability and Quality Assurance Budget Request
NASA Headquarters "NASA's Office of Safety and Mission Assurance (OSMA) and Office of the Chief Engineer (OCE) provide leadership in promoting and ensuring the safety, innovation, and quality of all NASA programs; and improving the practice of engineering in NASA programs."

The Kraft Report
This report provides the charter for the current process of "privatizing" the Space Shuttle, cutting the Shuttle workforce by 25%, and dismantling the safety and quality assurance processes put into place following the Challenger accident.

White House Press Briefing
March 27, 1995 -- Dan Goldin steps forward as the poster-boy for "Reinventing" government, and announces major cuts in NASA's budget.
   Q  A question for Mr. Goldin, please.  Mr. Goldin, .....  how
   many people will you have to hire back in the event that there's another
   major shuttle accident, as is predicted by NASA before the space station
   is half completed?  (Laughter.)

   MR. GOLDIN:  First, let me say that before I answer your
   question specifically, this is a new time and a new age, and we no
   longer measure the vitality of NASA by how many employees work on the
   program, and we no longer measure vitality of NASA by whether our budget
   goes up.
                               # # #

   Q  Have you made provisions for the fact that you'll have
   to hire people back if you have a major shuttle accident while you're
   constructing the space station?
   ADMINISTRATOR GOLDIN:  Let me deal with that.  The fact of
   the matter is you don't design in safety by putting people on a program.
   What we are doing is redesigning the shuttle program and we'd like to
   have it become safer.

Space Shuttle: Declining Budget and Tight Schedule Could Jeopardize Space Station Support
General Accounting Office, (Letter Report, 07/28/95, GAO/NSIAD-95-171). "NASA's schedule for meeting the space station's launch requirements appears questionable--particularly in a declining budget environment. To support the first space station launch, NASA must successfully complete numerous shuttle-related development programs on a tight schedule.... The shuttle's modification and launch enhancement program includes plans to defer some recertification activities and forgo full integration testing of the propulsion system." [from the Clear Lake Group site]

Rockwell and Lockheed Martin Form Space Shuttle Joint Venture
Rockwell (August 2, 1995) "Rockwell International Corporation (NYSE:ROK) and Lockheed Martin Corporation (NYSE: LMT) today announced an agreement to form a joint venture organization that is intended to address the National Aeronautics and Space Administrationís (NASA) goal of restructuring the U.S. space shuttle program via a single prime contractor management arrangement. The joint venture company, whose proposed name will be the United Space Alliance (USA), will be a 50/50 partnership, with each partner contributing personnel."

NASA to Pursue Non-Competitive Shuttle Contract with U.S. Alliance
The NASA Newsroom November 7, 1995 " NASA will pursue a non-competitive contract with United Space Alliance to eventually assume responsibility for Space Shuttle operations.... Rockwell International and Lockheed Martin Corporation, which together hold 69 percent of the dollar value of all Shuttle related prime contracts, will form a joint venture, "United Space Alliance," to become the Space Flight Operations contractor."

International Space Station Alpha

International Space Station
NASA Johnson Space Center "The purpose of this bulletin board is to communicate an overview of the Space Station Program as we develop and assemble the first International Space Station. The information in this bulletin board is divided into two categories: one that is open to the Public, and one that is intended for use by the ISS Program Team."

New Launch Vehicles

X-33 Program
NASA Marshall Space Flight Center "The primary objectives of the X-33 program are to: mature the technologies required for a single-stage to orbit - SSTO - rocket; demonstrate the capability to achieve low development and operational cost, and rapid launch turnaround times; and reduce technical risk to encourage private investment in the commercial development and operation of the next-generation system"

The X-33 Home Page for Space Activists
Ann Arbor Space Society, (a chapter of The National Space Society) "The purpose of this WWW document is to provide mostly political and some background technical information on the X-33 SSTO (Single Stage to Orbit) program. It is intended for activists willing to visit their representatives and senators in the United States Congress."

Space Commercialization and the American Commercial Launch Industry
David Y. Oh / MIT Space Systems Laboratory "... the need to cut the budget deficit will severely limit the government's ability to invest in space for any reason, including commercial ones. Fiscal barriers will certainly prevent the development of major new projects except in cases where there is a very clear rationale for their development."

Astronauts or Robots

Astronaut Morphing into a Robot
"... while today's robots may not look or perform as fantastically as those featured in literature or movies, they are the fulfillment of dozens of science fiction visions.... A robot ... is a machine that functions in place of a living agent. Robots are especially desirable for certain work functions because, unlike humans, they never get tired; they can endure physical conditions that are uncomfortable or even dangerous; they can operate in airless conditions; they do not get bored by repetition; and they cannot be distracted from the task at hand." [829k movie, requires Quicktime Viewer, from NASA JSC Space Movie Cinema]

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