In 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after takeoff from Florida’s coast, an accident that laid bare not only institutional flaws in the application of high technology but also flaws in the public’s understanding of science. Many myths have emerged in the years since the accident, such as that the shuttle exploded—it didn’t, it “was torn apart as it was flung free of the other rocket components and turned broadside into the Mach 2 airstream” (Oberg 2011). Other myths remain, such as that the accident was largely a failure of technology when in fact it was largely a human-caused tragedy.
A new documentary series on Netflix titled Challenger: The Final Flight examines what led up to the accident. Through extensive archival footage and interviews with the families of the crew and engineers involved with the flight, we see a troubled agency that put political pressure above safety.
A Presidential Commission was appointed to study the Challenger shuttle accident and its causes. At first glance the culprit was a mechanical problem: the failure of small O-rings to seal on a solid rocket booster, leading to a catastrophic chain reaction. Yet the real fault for the explosion went far beyond a simple gas leak. The Rogers Commission was very critical of NASA’s procedures, finding serious flaws in the decision-making process that led to the launch.
Engineers at Morton-Thiokol, the company that made the O-rings, warned that seals failed repeated tests under the cold conditions present the morning of the Challenger launch, an unusually cold morning. Engineer Roger Boisjoly, among others, predicted that the O-rings would fail if the shuttle launched in cold weather, and notified his supervisors of this. NASA managers ignored the red flags and went ahead anyway. As tests and engineers had predicted for years, the O-rings burst and the flight—along with its seven astronauts—was doomed.
There are so many components to space technology that, on some level, failure is guaranteed—and expected, hence the presence of redundant and backup systems. The organizations making decisions concerning the Challenger launch (including NASA, Morton Thiokol, and others) had elaborate and specific procedures to assure that accurate data was used in crucial decisions. Instead of this process working correctly, important studies (such as those showing an inverse correlation between O-ring integrity and temperature) were not passed along to those who needed the information, and middle-level decisions were circumvented, primarily for expediency.
Brian Russell of Thiokol, in his testimony before the commission, stated that he did not “realize that there was a formal launch constraint” on the issue of O-ring “blow-by” problems. In other words, he didn’t know that the issue was critical enough to affect the decision to launch. In response, commissioner Robert Rummel replied that the reason that the issue of O-ring safety had been closed out (i.e., prematurely declared resolved) by Russell was “because you don’t want to be bothered. Somebody doesn’t want to be bothered with flight-by-flight reviews, but you’re going to work on it after it’s closed out” (Rogers Commission, 143).
In other cases engineers complained of bureaucracy that impeded their ability to resolve safety issues. The Rogers Commission report quoted one memo from Thiokol engineer S.R. Stein that “We are currently being hog-tied by paperwork every time we try to accomplish anything” (Rogers Commission, 253). In his book Truth, Lies, and O-Rings: Inside the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster, Allan McDonald, director of the Space Shuttle Solid Rocket Motor Project at the time of the accident, notes that “In dozens of emotional talks given around the country following Challenger, Roger Boisjoly had been charging that officials played ‘fast and loose’ with the astronauts’ lives, ‘absolutely abdicating their professional responsibility’ in pressuring Thiokol to reverse its original recommendation not to launch. In Boisjoly’s view, stopping the launch of the shuttle was a ‘no-brainer,’ requiring ‘only common sense’” (p. 603).
If the scientific side of the Challenger disaster was plagued with problems, the social side wasn’t much better. Physicist Richard Feynman was on the commission, and in his Appendix F to the Rogers Commission report he discussed exactly this issue, stating that he believed that the true likelihood of shuttle disaster was about 1 in 100: “Official [NASA] management… claims to believe the probability of failure is a thousand times less. One reason may be an attempt to assure the government of NASA perfection and success in order to ensure the supply of funds. The other may be that they sincerely believe it to be true, demonstrating an almost incredible lack of communication between themselves and their working engineers” (Feynman 1986).
The Challenger accident was fraught with demanding impatience; the liftoff had been delayed several times already, and Americans quickly grew tired of seeing the sleek shuttle sitting impotently on the launching pad. What was promised—and eventually delivered—was action. Society is relatively unconcerned with evaluating the goals of science. NASA administrators were under enormous pressure from both the public and the government to launch the shuttle. Ironically, had the shuttle been delayed yet again to a warmer morning the shuttle would likely have been fine, but the underlying problem still ignored.
The documentary focuses its first few episodes on Christa McAuliffe, the high school teacher who was the much-vaunted “Teacher in Space.” But she was only the highest-profile of the astronauts, overshadowing the others. Co-directors “Glen Zipper and Stephen Leckart conceived of it in 2015 while looking to make something personal. Both had seen the disaster as boys but could only remember the name of one astronaut aboard Challenger: McAuliffe. Who were the other six? The more they dug, the more they found extraordinary people: Ellison Onizuka was the first Asian American in space and Ronald McNair was the second African American. Judith Resnik was the second American woman in space and the first Jewish woman. ‘We wanted to humanize these astronauts and wanted you to know these characters and understand the human side of this whole story,’ co-director Daniel Junge said” in an Associated Press interview. Veterans Dick Scobee, Mike Smith, and Gregory Jarvis rounded out the crew.
The series includes intriguing information about how the Reagan administration pressured the investigative committee to avoid embarrassing NASA—an effort that could be fairly characterized as a coverup. It was only after information was leaked to the mainstream press by a brave engineer insider revealing that NASA had been warned about the problem that full pressure was brought to bear on the Rogers commission to get to the truth—public relations be damned.
Institutional arrogance is revealed in the stated purpose of the space shuttle: “to provide routine, economical access to space.” NASA’s assumption that any endeavor as complex and perilous as manned space flight could ever be “routine” or “economical” reveals technological arrogance. Part of the reason that the event was so shocking to the American public is they were insulated from the risks and science. The expectation was that everything would work perfectly, as it always had before, during the previous 55 missions into space over 25 years. Like people who use their cell phones every day, they have no idea how the devices work, they just expect them to work. Yet, as Carl Sagan famously noted, “It is suicidal to create a society dependent on science and technology in which hardly anybody knows anything about science and technology.”
Society’s values play an important role in the perception of technology. We live in a society in which immediate gratification is expected, and convenience is prized. Society is impatient for change; we want and expect things to be done immediately and correctly; we don’t have time for the nuances, complexities, or caveats that are the hallmarks of science. This misunderstanding was fueled in part by NASA itself. The shuttle program was packaged and promoted by NASA and the government as a safe and patriotic venture into space. In fact NASA was so confident that they added McAuliffe on Challenger largely as a public relations tool. The other astronauts on mission 51-L had specific scientific duties; according to McAuliffe’s schedule, her role was to beam down two “lessons from space” to schools across America as an ambassador for the space program. One wonders how the mission could have been taken so lightly that they could have reserved a space for PR stunts.
Fueled by patriotism, a lucky streak, and NASA’s confidence, Americans were coaxed into complacency about the safety of manned space flight. Rockets and space shuttles are incredibly complex machines, with tens of thousands of important parts, all—as the grim joke goes—manufactured by the lowest bidder. Each launch takes years of preparation and hundreds of brilliant, dedicated professionals.
The shuttle program has now been retired, but the question can be asked whether it was worth the cost in dollars and human lives—or whether it should be revived. Without knowing what true risks are, it’s impossible to know. The documentary includes a defense by William Lucas, the director of NASA’s Marshall Space Center, on whose shoulders much of the blame has been laid. He insists to this day that he made the best decision he could, given the information available to him at the time from Thiokol.
NASA is not eager to admit it, but life-threatening crises and potential problems will always go hand in hand with manned space flight. Optimism should be tempered with realism about how inherently dangerous and complicated it is to put humans into space. We have not mastered space flight, and should not fool ourselves into thinking otherwise. As Feynman concluded in his report, “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”
Feynman, R. (1986). Appendix F: Personal observations on reliability of shuttle. World Spaceflight News and National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Report on the space shuttle Challenger accident. Washington, D.C.: Office of Government Publications.
McDonald, Allan, and James Hansen. (2012). Truth, Lies, and O-Rings: Inside the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster. University Press of Florida.
Oberg, J. (2011). 7 myths about the Challenger shuttle disaster. NBC News. Available at http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/11031097/ns/technology_and_science-space/t/myths-about-challenger-shuttle-disaster/#.UFYTD44gyPA.
Rogers Commission, Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident. (1986). World Spaceflight News and National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Report on the space shuttle Challenger accident. Washington, D.C.: Office of Government Publications.
A longer version of this piece appeared on my CFI website column; you can find it here.