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Thirty-two years ago today, the first in-flight deaths of NASA astronauts tragically occurred after a launch that wasn’t supposed to happen. Some have proposed that the accident was a result of NASA and their contractors being pressured for public relations reasons. The truth is that their deaths were caused by trying to make space a business venture.

Seven astronauts killed in the Challenger accident

STS-51-L crew: (front row) Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee, Ronald McNair; (back row) Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnik.

 Death By Impact

On 28 January 1986, seven astronauts in the Space Shuttle Challenger (STS-51-L) died as their crew compartment slammed into the Atlantic Ocean after falling 12 miles in two and a half minutes. They were not killed in the breakup of the Shuttle, nor did they become unconscious from the depressurization of the crew compartment, as suggested by NASA. Some, if not all astronauts, were aware that they were about to die and knew there was nothing they could do to avoid it.

Trail of Causes

The technical primary cause of the accident was weather-related. The Space Shuttle was not to be launched at temperatures below 4° C (39° F) and had never been launch at temperatures below 12° C (54° F.) A few hours before the launch the temperature had fallen to -8° C (18° F.)

The technical fault caused by the weather were rubber O-rings at each of the joints of the solid rocket boosters (SRB.) The O-rings needed to be warm enough to expand to seal the joint to avoid burning gases from blowing out between the sections of the solid rocket booster. The concern was that the power of the burning fuel would rupture the joint at launch and cause an uncontrolled blast of hot gases to escape causing an explosion on the launch pad.

Known Problem to NASA

After previous Space Shuttle launches some of the recovered solid rocket boosters had shown ‘blow-by’ of the O-rings. That meant that the O-rings had not completely sealed the SRB joint and could have potentially compromised the safety of the crew had the blow-by breached to the exterior of the joint.

Engineers at Morton Thiokol, the Utah contractor that designed and built the solid rocket booster, had felt that NASA was ignoring their concerns about the issues regarding the SRB joints. In an emergency teleconference meeting held the night before the launch, the engineers made it clear that the temperatures were unacceptable.

NASA decision-makers did not like the ‘no-launch’ answer and suggested that if they didn’t launch the next day, the company would be blamed for the delay. Morton Thiokol managers caved into NASA and overruled their own engineers. They gave a go for launch. Just prior to the reversal of the recommendation the general manager of Morton Thiokol said to the Vice President of Engineering, “…take off your engineering hat and put on your management hat…” It was the moment that sealed the fate of the seven Challenger astronauts.

Run NASA Like a Business

Previous space projects at NASA had been focused on spaceflight. The goal of NASA and its contractors were to safely put humans in space.

That changed after we reached the Moon. We had done the impossible and now space was less interesting and too expensive. The deflation of post-Moon public support forced NASA to find a justifiable reason to move forward. The decision was that NASA must end the exploration of space and build the ‘business’ of space. The Space Shuttle was intended to make the United States leaders in space commerce.

The Space Shuttle was built to be a reusable, frequent-launch spacecraft that would make traditional, single-use rockets too expensive and unreliable for commercial customers to use. The idea of running NASA like a business became the core value of the organization.

Delays, Delays, Delays

By January of 1986, NASA far behind its business goals. It was not launching the Shuttle frequently enough, nor was the reusability function creating the desired savings. STS-51-L was a critical point in making NASA run like a business. Delays in the launch of previous Shuttle (STS-61-C) had pushed back the STS-51-L flight twice. The launch had been pushed back four more times because of weather and equipment malfunctions.

On the Business Stage

Business is like theatre. It doesn’t matter what is going on backstage because the only thing that counts is what the audience can see. Backstage, NASA was in crisis, but if they could launch STS-51-L, they could maintain the perception that they had everything under control.

There were several public image opportunities if the launch occurred on the 28th that would be lost if it was delayed again. For Challenger and NASA, the teleconference on January 27th had only one possible business outcome. It must be launched. The engineers at Morton Thiokol didn’t know that they were up against a business mentality when they met on that night. Nor did the managers at Morton Thiokol or NASA know that they were about to kill seven astronauts. To them, it was just business-as-usual.

Events in Motion

Once the decision was made to launch events were set in motion.

  1. The cold temperatures caused the O-rings to become rigid. After the SRB’s were ignited a puff of hot gases blew through the O-rings at a point near the large external fuel tank.
  2. The joint temporarily sealed itself off from the debris of the exhaust of the burning fuel.
  3. As the Shuttle rose after launch it hit the worst wind shear ever experienced by a Shuttle and the debris sealing the O-ring broke free allowing the hot gases to burn through the joint.
  4. The flame from the joint acted as a blowtorch cutting into the external fuel tank and finally igniting the hydrogen fuel.
  5. The resulting hydrogen fuel explosion ripped the External Tank into pieces, pushing the Shuttle away.
  6. The Shuttle rolled out of its nose-forward position and was blown apart by aerodynamic forces.
  7. The crew compartment broke free of the Shuttle and continued to ascend until it lost momentum and began to fall down toward the ocean. It did not suddenly depressurize, but likely, depressurized slowly. The astronauts were jolted by the breakup, but not severely injured.
  8. At least three of the astronauts turned on personal oxygen after as the crew compartment fell. One did not, and the equipment for the other three astronauts was not found.
  9. The crew compartment fell and eventually hit the ocean, killing the seven astronauts on contact.
  10. NASA created a story that the astronauts were killed instantly, even after they knew that the events during the accident did not support the story. 

End of the NASA Manned Space Program

The Space Shuttle didn’t fly again for almost three years. It would resume flight for an additional 13 years, but it failed to meet the objectives of making space a business venture. The accident exposed the inherent issues of running a space program like a business and political pressure undermined the concept of a manned space program.

In 2011, NASA ended the United States manned space program with the last launch of the Space Shuttle. Since the last Shuttle launch, NASA has worked hard at pretending to have a manned space program by paying Russia to send U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station and producing videos of the development of the next generation of manned spacecraft. The reality is that NASA no longer can put a human in space, at won’t at any time in the near future.

Below is Vintage Space’s take on the cause of the Challenger disaster.