Accident Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

After nearly twenty-five years of safe spaceflight, a stunned nation witnessed the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger and the deaths of its crew.

Summary of Event

On the morning of January 28, 1986, an explosion pierced the unusually crisp winter air above Cape Canaveral and disrupted the most promising technological enterprise then under way in the United States. The destruction of the space shuttle Challenger—and the loss of its seven crew members—was swift and catastrophic. As a result of the subsequent investigation of the accident, many observers concluded that U.S. efforts to sustain an ambitious space program were in need of serious reevaluation. Challenger (space shuttle) accident Space shuttle program;Challenger Disasters;Challenger (space shuttle) accident National Aeronautics and Space Administration;space shuttle program [kw]Challenger Accident (Jan. 28, 1986) [kw]Accident, Challenger (Jan. 28, 1986) Challenger (space shuttle) accident Space shuttle program;Challenger Disasters;Challenger (space shuttle) accident National Aeronautics and Space Administration;space shuttle program [g]North America;Jan. 28, 1986: Challenger Accident[06010] [g]United States;Jan. 28, 1986: Challenger Accident[06010] [c]Science and technology;Jan. 28, 1986: Challenger Accident[06010] [c]Spaceflight and aviation;Jan. 28, 1986: Challenger Accident[06010] [c]Disasters;Jan. 28, 1986: Challenger Accident[06010] Jarvis, Gregory McAuliffe, Christa McNair, Ronald E. Onizuka, Ellison Resnik, Judith Scobee, Dick Smith, Michael

Challenger had been expected to study Comet Halley and launch a sophisticated tracking and data-relay satellite. This twenty-fifth shuttle mission was the first scheduled in an ambitious year, when planned missions included a satellite that would study Jupiter, the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope, Hubble Space Telescope at least four missions sponsored by the Pentagon, and countless commercial payloads. The reputations of the shuttle and of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) were on the line.

In the days prior to the launch, the mission seemed plagued by bad weather. After several delays caused by doubtful forecasts, the crew entered the shuttle on January 27, only to leave again because a handle on the crew entry/exit hatch jammed, and replacing it took so long that the launch was scrubbed for a third time. The morning of January 28 did not seem much more promising. With early-morning temperatures hovering near the freezing mark, engineers expressed concern. No shuttle had ever been launched while the temperature was only a few degrees above freezing, but after consultations with senior advisers, shuttle mission director Jesse Moore gave the green light. At 11:38 a.m. on that clear, cold Florida day, Cape Canaveral reverberated to the familiar roar of main engine ignition, followed by clouds of smoke and flame from the solid rocket boosters. In a matter of seconds, Challenger cleared the tower and began the roll that would carry the craft to the east across the ocean. Spectators watched while a calm voice from the public-address system narrated the launch.

Unknown to anyone in the shuttle’s cabin or on the ground, there was already a jet of flame hungrily licking around the giant orange fuel tank from the right-hand booster rocket. “Challenger, go with throttle up,” reported mission control. “Roger, go with throttle up,” came the reply from Commander Dick Scobee. Those were the last words received from any of the seven astronauts. Astronauts and cosmonauts Seconds later, the shuttle suddenly disappeared amid a cataclysmic explosion that ripped the fuel tank from nose to tail. The delta-winged craft that had been perched on the side of this tank was torn free by the blast and disintegrated in midair. Scobee had time to open his radio channel but was cut off before he could speak. Pilot Michael Smith, suddenly aware that something was terribly wrong, exclaimed, “Uh oh.” Some of the crew activated emergency oxygen supplies, but with no effect. Although the crew’s cabin seemed to have remained largely intact, the aerodynamic pressure exerted on the passengers killed any who survived the explosion. The remnants of the craft plummeted nine miles into the ocean.

In the viewing area, relatives and friends of crew members as well as other spectators, including schoolchildren, could only watch spellbound as the hideous white cloud grew in the otherwise cloudless sky. Adding to the tension, the calm voice of the public-address announcer continued reading off the altitude and velocity. Then everyone’s worst fears were confirmed. “Flight controllers here looking very carefully at the situation,” continued the still-calm voice on the PA, “obviously a major malfunction. We have no downlink. We have a report from the flight dynamics officer that the vehicle has exploded.”

Significance

The Challenger accident was the worst disaster in nearly twenty-five years of manned spaceflight and the first time U.S. astronauts had been lost during a mission; it sent a shock wave throughout the nation. A presidential commission was swiftly set up to investigate the accident. Rogers Commission Chaired by former U.S. secretary of state William P. Rogers, Rogers, William P. the commission included among its members such dignitaries as Nobel laureate Richard P. Feynman, Feynman, Richard P. former astronaut Neil Armstrong, Armstrong, Neil former test pilot General Chuck Yeager, Yeager, Chuck and the first American woman in space, Sally Ride. Ride, Sally The Challenger accident brought most of the U.S. space program to a temporary halt.

The Challenger crew, who lost their lives in the tragic accident on January 28, 1986 (from left): Ellison Onizuka, Michael Smith, Christa McAuliffe, Dick Scobee, Gregory Jarvis, Ronald E. McNair, and Judith Resnik.

(NASA)

In the weeks of confusion following the accident, NASA administrators struggled to comprehend what had happened. The immediate explanation seemed quite simple and direct: A solid rocket booster was thought to have burned a break through the adjacent wall of the external tank, thereby releasing the tank’s load of hydrogen on a leaking joint in one of the two solid rocket boosters that propelled the shuttle into space.

To the public, it appeared that the accident was a painful but inevitable consequence of a complex technology. It was assumed that, sooner or later, accidents were bound to happen because of unanticipated technical problems and errors in judgment by managers and operators in the system. However, the Rogers Commission concluded in its investigation report that Challenger’s solid rocket booster problem originated with the faulty design of the booster’s joint and was exacerbated as both NASA and contractor management first failed to recognize the problem, then failed to fix the problem, and finally treated the problem as an acceptable flight risk.

In 1979, contractor Morton Thiokol Morton Thiokol had reported problems in the design of the O-ring used to seal joints in the solid rocket booster. Although engineers at Morton Thiokol concluded that the flaws posed no significant problem, engineers at NASA expressed real concern. Concerted attention was not given to the problem, however, until 1985, when joint failure was noticed on two returning shuttle flights. Still, the failure of the O-rings was not attributed to temperature extremes. Neither Morton Thiokol nor NASA responded adequately to internal warnings about the faulty seal design, nor did either make a timely attempt to develop and test a new seal after the initial design was shown to be deficient. Instead, Morton Thiokol and NASA management accepted O-ring failure as unavoidable and an acceptable flight risk.

The Rogers Commission’s conclusions that administrators at NASA were informed of the problematic joint early enough for NASA’s agencies to have responded appropriately suggested that this accident was neither unanticipated nor inevitable. The commission called for a more active role for astronauts and engineers in assessing and approving launches. Other recommendations included a complete redesign of the solid rocket booster joints, the study of astronaut escape systems and greater safety margins for shuttle landings, and a realistic flight schedule that was more consistent with available resources, placed safety as its top priority, and reduced the risks to astronauts’ lives as much as possible.

Perhaps NASA officials miscalculated the risks by underestimating the dangers associated with the flawed seal joint. Still, the Challenger accident not only revealed organizational problems within NASA but also became a vivid reminder of the consequences of savage budget reductions. The space shuttle program had ended a six-year U.S. drought in space and was to be a stepping-stone to spectacular scientific progress and profitable new manufacturing facilities in space. From its inception, however, the program had endured budget reductions at the expense of production standards. Meanwhile, under the impetus of a presidential directive, NASA was pressing ahead as quickly as possible to meet demands for the Strategic Defense Initiative Strategic Defense Initiative and an operational space station by the early 1990’s, as well as the demands of its civilian and scientific customers.

After two years of investigations and an agonizing reorganization, NASA resumed the space shuttle program. However, after the Challenger accident, NASA faced greater scrutiny than in the past as well as growing numbers of critics. The tragic breakup of the shuttle Columbia over Texas in February, 2003, in which seven astronauts died, again suspended the program for more than two years as NASA endured another round of severe criticism, an internal shake-up, and a painstakingly long return to a flight program designed to include more safety measures. Challenger (space shuttle) accident Space shuttle program;Challenger Disasters;Challenger (space shuttle) accident National Aeronautics and Space Administration;space shuttle program

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Casamayou, Maureen Hogan. Bureaucracy in Crisis: Three Mile Island, the Shuttle Challenger, and Risk Assessment. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1993. Critique of the politics of government agencies presents an assessment of the Challenger incident that is helpful for understanding the collapse of communication between NASA’s engineers and Morton Thiokol.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Feynman, Richard P. “Richard P. Feynman’s Minority Report to the Space Shuttle Challenger Inquiry.” In The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman, edited by Jeffrey Robbins. Cambridge, Mass.: Perseus Books, 1999. One presidential commission member—a Nobel laureate in physics and widely renowned scientist and teacher—presents his explanation of what caused the accident.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Handberg, Roger. Reinventing NASA: Human Spaceflight, Bureaucracy, and Politics. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2003. Focuses on changes in NASA’s role following the terrorist attacks on the United States of September 11, 2001, but begins with a historical overview of the agency that includes discussion of the impacts of the Challenger disaster. Includes illustrations, selected bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Harland, David M. The Space Shuttle: Roles, Missions, and Accomplishments. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1998. Covers the complete history of the shuttle program up to the late 1990’s, with sections on weightlessness and exploration in addition to information on the shuttle’s operations. Includes glossary, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lindee, Susan, and Dorothy Nelkin. “Challenger: The High Cost of Hype.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 42 (November, 1986): 16-18. Examines the role of media pressure in the events that led to the Challenger accident. Suggests that NASA’s reputation with the public might have compelled officials to rush to a decision to launch.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Logsdon, John M. “The Decision to Develop the Space Shuttle.” Space Policy 2, no. 2 (1986): 103-112. Scholarly article provides authoritative insight into the development of the space shuttle program.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Miller, Christine M. “Framing Arguments in a Technical Controversy: Assumptions About Science and Technology in the Decision to Launch the Space Shuttle Challenger.” Journal of Technical Writing and Communication 23, no. 2 (Spring, 1993): 99-115. Scrutinizes the structure of NASA’s decision-making process.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">

    Report of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident. Springfield, Va.: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 1986. Provides the most complete view of what caused the accident and what happened as a result of the tragedy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schwartz, Howard S. Narcissistic Process and Corporate Decay: The Theory of the Organization Ideal. New York: New York University Press, 1990. Assesses corporate cultures through the use of several case studies, including one concerning NASA.

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Spacelab 1 Is Launched Aboard the Space Shuttle

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First Permanently Manned Space Station Is Launched

Astronauts Repair the Hubble Space Telescope

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International Space Station Is Manned

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