The Challenger Disaster
I have previously written about it, but no history of shuttle program will be complete without one of its low points: the Challenger Disaster.
Hours after the Challenger disaster, President Ronald Reagan addressed the nation. The astronauts had “slipped the surly bonds of Earth … to touch the face of God,” he said, quoting the poet-aviator John Gillespie Magee. But a more memorable quote that day was that of the mission control; as the shuttle exploded with seven astronauts onboard, an oddly detached commentary came: “Flight controllers here are looking very carefully at the situation. Obviously a major malfunction.”
Writing in the Washington Monthly five years before the disaster, Gregg Easterbrook warned that the shuttles’ solid rocket boosters were not safe. On that fatal day, the cold air created a rupture in a seal on one of the boosters, letting a jet of flame escape and igniting the fuel. The last words from Challenger were “We are go at throttle up!” — this application of maximum thrust turned out to be a fatal act.
It was assumed that some survived the initial explosion but subsequently perished during descent and impact. The crew’s remains were flown from Kennedy Space Center to Dover Air Force Base for formal identification. The above photo was taken at that poignant moment as seven fellow astronauts accompanied the caskets on the journey. The crew was buried in the Arlington National Cemetery. NASA buried all the remains of the Challenger in an old missile silo and sealed it with tons of concrete so the debris would never be auctioned off or commercially exploited.
The subsequent investigation, the Rogers Commission, was a revelation; engineers who knew about the boost-joint problem asked NASA not to launch that day and were ignored. NASA and its private contractors had at first failed to recognized the design flaw, then “failed to fix it and finally treated it as an acceptable flight risk”. In short, the commission noted that it was an “accident rooted in history”.
But interestingly, the committee recommended that essentially nothing change. No one was fired; no additional safety systems were added to the rocket boosters whose explosion destroyed Challenger; no escape-capsule system was even discussed. Easterbrook wrote, “Post-Challenger “reforms” were left up to the very old-boy network that had created the problem in the first place.”