Challenger: 25 years later, a still painful wound

Jan 27, 2011 By MARCIA DUNN , AP Aerospace Writer
In this Jan. 28, 1986 file photo, the space shuttle Challenger explodes shortly after lifting off from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. (AP Photo/Bruce Weaver, File)

For many, no single word evokes as much pain. Challenger.

A quarter-century later, images of the exploding space shuttle still signify all that can go wrong with technology and the sharpest minds. The accident on Jan. 28, 1986 - a scant 73 seconds into flight, nine miles above the Atlantic for all to see - remains NASA's most visible failure.

It was the world's first high-tech catastrophe to unfold on live TV. Adding to the anguish was the young audience: School children everywhere tuned in that morning to watch the launch of the first schoolteacher and ordinary citizen bound for space, Christa McAuliffe.

She never made it.

McAuliffe and six others on board perished as the cameras rolled, victims of stiff O-ring seals and feeble bureaucratic decisions.

It was, as one grief and trauma expert recalls, "the beginning of the age when the whole world knew what happened as it happened."

"That was kind of our pilot study for all the rest to come, I think. It was so ghastly," said Sally Karioth, a professor in Florida State University's school of nursing.

The crew compartment shot out of the fireball, intact, and continued upward another three miles before plummeting. The free fall lasted more than two minutes. There was no parachute to slow the descent, no escape system whatsoever; NASA had skipped all that in shuttle development. Space travel was considered so ordinary, in fact, that the Challenger seven wore little more than blue coveralls and skimpy motorcycle-type helmets for takeoff.

In a horrific flash, the most diverse ever - including one black, one Japanese-American and two women, one of them a Jew - was gone. The name of NASA's second oldest shuttle was forever locked in a where-were-you moment.

"You say 'Challenger' and then we see that figure of smoke in the sky," said Karioth, who teaches death and dying classes.

There has been a growing list of calamities since then.

Waco. Oklahoma City. Columbine. 9/11. . Katrina. Virginia Tech. And now, Tucson.

With so much carnage, another space catastrophe wouldn't have the same impact as Challenger, Karioth noted. "We're used to everybody dying now," she said.

The death of a young, vivacious schoolteacher, combined with NASA's stubborn refusal to share information about the accident and the realization that America's space program was fallible, added to the nation's collective pain.

President Ronald Reagan's poetic tribute soothed the day's raw emotions.

"The crew of the Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives," Reagan told a grieving nation after canceling that night's State of the Union address. "We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and 'slipped the surly bonds of Earth' to 'touch the face of God.'"

NASA safely had launched shuttles 24 times before, and a sense of routine and hurry-it-up had crept in. The space agency wanted to pull off 15 missions in 1986. Repeated delays with Columbia on that year's first flight and then with Challenger were spoiling the effort.

The first federal Martin Luther King holiday had just been observed. NASA's Voyager 2 probe, flying farther than any previous spacecraft, had swung past Uranus, discovering 10 new moons. "That's What Friends Are For," the AIDS charity anthem, topped the music charts. And a 37-year-old schoolteacher from Concord, N.H., was about to rocket into orbit.

"Imagine a history teacher making history," McAuliffe observed before the flight. She got an apple from a technician atop the ice-encrusted launch pad, before boarding Challenger one final time.

In the 20s at daybreak, the temperature had risen only into the mid-30s by the time Challenger blasted off at 11:38 a.m. "Go at throttle up," radioed commander Francis "Dick" Scobee.

What happened next was unthinkable, his widow says.

"It was really a shock wave that went across our country and around the world," June Scobee Rodgers said in an interview this week with The Associated Press. "People witnessed the loss of Challenger over and over on their televisions."

Dick Scobee. Michael Smith. Ellison Onizuka. Judith Resnik. Ronald McNair. Christa McAuliffe. Gregory Jarvis. The first of the shuttle astronauts to die on the job.

Seventeen years later, almost to the day, seven more astronauts were killed, this time at the end of their mission. Instead of booster rockets and freezing launch weather, fuel-tank foam insulation was to blame. The similarities between Challenger and Columbia, though, were haunting. Another multiethnic crew lost, more poor decision-making, an intolerant work culture, drum-beating pressure to launch.

This week, as NASA observes the 25th anniversary of the Challenger disaster, the shuttle fleet is grounded once more. Fuel tank cracking is the latest culprit.

NASA hopes to get Discovery flying by the end of February. Endeavour - Challenger's replacement - will follow in April. It will fly with or without commander Mark Kelly, who's tending to his wounded wife, Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot Jan. 8 in Tucson. Atlantis will close out the 30-year shuttle program with a summertime flight, No. 135.

Shuttle program manager John Shannon prefers not "to compare and contrast" the Challenger era and now. But he points out that he's felt "zero pressure" to rush the remaining flights, even though "we kind of get beat up a little bit" in some quarters for all the delays.

Roger Launius, a senior curator at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, says: "When we look back 50 years from now on the shuttle program, we are going to view it as this remarkable technological achievement. The one and only reusable human space vehicle in the world. And it had a remarkable run for 30 years. Some tragedies along the way, but enormous successes as well."

For their part, the families of the lost Challenger crew dwell on the good that came out of the accident: a network of education centers. The 48th Challenger Learning Center opens Friday in Louisville, Ky.

On Thursday, Steven J. McAuliffe, widower of Christa McAuliffe, said in a statement that remembrances by people across the country are "both comforting and inspirational to our family."

McAuliffe, a federal judge in Concord, N.H., said, "Christa confidently and joyfully embraced life, no less than her friends and colleagues on Challenger, and no less than the crews of Columbia, Apollo 1, and all of those people who courageously follow their own paths every day. I know Christa would say that that is the most precious lesson - ordinary people can make extraordinary contributions ..."

He said she would be especially pleased by the Challenger Center for Space Science Education. Dick Scobee's widow, June Rodgers, is an educator and founding board chairman of the center.

As she has on every Challenger anniversary, Rodgers will visit a learning center to watch the children in action. First, she will take part in NASA's public memorial service Friday morning at Kennedy Space Center, some 10 miles from Challenger's grave. The remains of the spacecraft - what was retrieved from the ocean - are buried in a pair of abandoned missile silos on Air Force property.

"I wonder if it's because the image is so ingrained in our brains, that it seems like yesterday," Rodgers said.

Almost as many years have passed since the accident, as the span of her 26-year marriage to Dick Scobee.

"Isn't it interesting about the number 25?" she asked softly. "Challenger was the 25th mission. This is 25 years."

A full generation has come and gone.

Explore further: SpaceX rocket explodes during test flight

More information:
NASA: http://history.nasa.gov/sts51l.html
Challenger Center for Space Science Education: http://www.challenger.org/

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gunslingor1
5 / 5 (4) Jan 27, 2011
I do not consider this to be quite as tragic as some. Those who disagree must understand that we are all built differently, and some of us are more than willing to give our lives for the chance at expanding mans horizons... some of us are happy and proud to be sacrificed, if only for a probabilistic chance at pushing those horizons. If you put me back in time as one of the astronauts 5 minutes before launch, I would still go. There are plenty of people like me out there, so I just hope people stopping using these disasters as an excuss not to explore space. Some of us live to sacrifice for our fellow man. On the other hand, the beaurocracy and lack of funding does make me question this belief.
Moebius
3 / 5 (2) Jan 27, 2011
This is the price of exploration. It's dangerous, people are going to die, get over it. They volunteered just like all the other explorers in history and many of them died too, it's what we do. They knew the chance they took. We need to stop the bleeding heart BS, more people are going to die exploring space, it's inevitable and no reason to stop or slow down. We need to speed up if anything.

In my opinion we are too caught up in the safety aspect, it's already too expensive. If we can do more at the expense of a little safety then we should do it, they won't have any problem finding volunteers to go up no matter how dangerous it is. There are better fuels than what we are using now but we don't because they are more dangerous. That's wrong in my opinion, use the most efficient fuel we can find and deal with the danger as best we can. Again, you won't have a problem finding people to go up.
mattytheory
5 / 5 (1) Jan 27, 2011
Moebius, I agree and disagree. Yes, the people that participate in these types dangerous activities are probably well aware of the risks. But, the cost of failure by cutting corners is MUCH more on the back end than just paying up front for preventative measures. There are, of course, the human lives to account for. But there is also the cost of specialized training they go through, the cost of the rocket itself when it has to be rebuilt without any ROI on the first one, etc. If you can buy a product with a safety feature that is 1% of the product price, would you agree that paying the extra $$ is better than buying a new product to replace a defective one?

Also, on a separate note, I think there are much larger tragedies in the world than 7 people dieing in a rocket explosion. Just off hand, and I am pretty sure most people would agree, I can think of other single words that are far more painful: Holocaust/Cultural-Genocide, Slavery, etc.

Hooray for dramatic effect > news!
omatumr
3.7 / 5 (3) Jan 27, 2011
It was a very sad event for the school children who were watching and for those who had hoped to gain good PR for the space program with the next generation by having a schoolteacher on the Challenger flight.

The Challenger disaster also delayed the Galileo Mission to Jupiter by several years.

Hopefully we all gained respect for those who risked their lives for the early exploration of space.

With kind regards,
Oliver K. Manuel
Former NASA Principal
Investigator for Apollo
rwinners
not rated yet Jan 28, 2011
The even was sad. The reasons it occurred were criminal. NASA brass simply ignored the recommendations of the engineers under them and the engineers in the companies who supplied the hardware. They got CHEEP and decided to take a chance. After all, their own butts were not in those seats atop that huge bundle of explosives.
If there is a hell, I hope they end(ed) up in it.
Hesca419
not rated yet Jan 28, 2011
I was 6 years old. My entire elementary school was seated on the floor of the gymnasium to watch the launch projected on the wall. It was supposed to be fun. I wanted to be an astronaut, in that 6 year old way. None of us knew what to make from the gout of flame that came out of the shuttle. It didn't make any sense. Shuttles didn't break! It seemed like a prank the adults were trying to pull on us. It wasn't until one of the teachers started to scream that we knew that something had gone wrong, that this was really happening. Then kids started crying and things got chaotic.

Most of my generation had some similar experience. We were exposed to the sheer power of human incompetence and failure very young. It sucked the hope out of space travel and a lot of young, potential scientists. It sapped NASA of its intellectual credibility. Our space program has never been the same.

I'm surprised how sad it still makes me.
Moebius
1 / 5 (1) Jan 29, 2011
Mattytheory, I didn't say cut corners. I'm saying triple redundancy isn't necessarily cost effective. The best possible design and redundancy is enough. I am saying maybe we are trying to be TOO safe and cutting the safety margin from overly safe isn't the same as cutting corners. If our space vehicles had 10 redundant systems, going to 9 isn't cutting corners. We need to get out there and we have limited resources, if we made every mission as safe as possible we couldn't afford it at all. We can afford no space program even less. Our stupid trade policies are enriching China and leaving space to them.
ryggesogn2
1 / 5 (3) Jan 29, 2011
The even was sad. The reasons it occurred were criminal. NASA brass simply ignored the recommendations of the engineers under them and the engineers in the companies who supplied the hardware. They got CHEEP and decided to take a chance. After all, their own butts were not in those seats atop that huge bundle of explosives.
If there is a hell, I hope they end(ed) up in it.

The pressure to launch was not economic, it was political.
The lesson engineers need to take away is to learn how to communicate data more effectively. Had o-ring blowout observed on previous mission had been plotted against temperature, the issue would have shown itself quite readily.
But there was as major disconnect between NASA managers and the engineering staff regarding risk analysis. Probably still is.
Skeptic_Heretic
not rated yet Jan 29, 2011
I don't think you guys realize that Challenger was completely avoidable. The engineering staff were trying to scrub the launch all the way up to the day of due to a known potential failure of one of the seal ring components. The management ignored them and the exact failure predicted occured.
ryggesogn2
1 / 5 (3) Jan 29, 2011
I don't think you guys realize that Challenger was completely avoidable. The engineering staff were trying to scrub the launch all the way up to the day of due to a known potential failure of one of the seal ring components. The management ignored them and the exact failure predicted occured.

The engineers did a poor job of communicating their concerns.
They plotted SRB blowouts by launch, not by launch temperature.
The engineers did not try hard enough and were not prepared to accept the potential political wrath. Govt bureaucrats are not rewarded for making unpopular decision.
Feynman's report is quite illuminating as he was the only one to talk directly to many of the engineering staff.
rwinners
not rated yet Jan 29, 2011
Garbage. The temperature limitations of the joint seals was well known. Other missions had been scrubbed just because of temperature.
rwinners
not rated yet Jan 29, 2011
@Mobius: Bleeding heart or no, what NASA did was destroy a multi billion dollar launch vehicle and tarnish the reputation of the whole of NASA, all to make a launch schedule. There was NOTHING at all critical about that mission.
ryggesogn2
1 / 5 (2) Jan 29, 2011
"The argument that the same risk was flown before without failure is often accepted as an argument for the safety of accepting it again. Because of this, obvious weaknesses are accepted again and again, sometimes without a sufficiently serious attempt to remedy them, or to delay a flight because of their continued presence. "
"The origin and consequences of the erosion and blow-by were not understood. They did not occur equally on all flights and all joints; sometimes more, and sometimes less."
http:/www.ralentz.com/old/space/feynman-report.html
rwinners
not rated yet Jan 29, 2011
"The origin and consequences of the erosion and blow-by were not understood. They did not occur equally on all flights and all joints; sometimes more, and sometimes less."

Again, Garbage. I lived through this and the follow-up. I was well known that cold was an important factor in the seal failures. NASA was warned that it was too cold for the Challenger launch on that day.
ryggesogn2
1 / 5 (2) Jan 29, 2011
"The origin and consequences of the erosion and blow-by were not understood. They did not occur equally on all flights and all joints; sometimes more, and sometimes less."

Again, Garbage. I lived through this and the follow-up. I was well known that cold was an important factor in the seal failures. NASA was warned that it was too cold for the Challenger launch on that day.

You were in on the conversations between NASA and Morton Thiokol before the launch?