This Day in Aviation History – January 28, 1986 – “Challenger, go at throttle-up”

aviation history

28 years ago today those words were followed by the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger and the death of all 7 crewmembers.

Francis R. Scobee, Commander
Michael J. Smith, Pilot
Ronald McNair, Mission Specialist
Ellison Onizuka, Mission Specialist
Judith Resnik, Mission Specialist
Greg Jarvis, Payload Specialist
Christa McAuliffe, Payload Specialist

The spacecraft disintegrated over the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of central Florida at 11:38 EST (16:38 UTC). Disintegration of the vehicle began after an O-ring seal in its right solid rocket booster (SRB) failed at liftoff. The O-ring failure caused a breach in the SRB joint it sealed, allowing pressurized hot gas from within the solid rocket motor to reach the outside and impinge upon the adjacent SRB attachment hardware and external fuel tank. This led to the separation of the right-hand SRB’s aft attachment and the structural failure of the external tank. Aerodynamic forces broke up the orbiter.

The crew compartment and many other vehicle fragments were eventually recovered from the ocean floor after a lengthy search and recovery operation. The exact timing of the death of the crew is unknown; several crew members are known to have survived the initial breakup of the spacecraft. The shuttle had no escape system, and the impact of the crew compartment with the ocean surface was too violent to be survivable.

The disaster resulted in a 32-month hiatus in the shuttle program and the formation of the Rogers Commission, a special commission appointed by United States President Ronald Reagan to investigate the accident. The Rogers Commission found NASA’s organizational culture and decision-making processes had been key contributing factors to the accident.  NASA managers had known contractor Morton Thiokol’s design of the SRBs contained a potentially catastrophic flaw in the O-rings since 1977, but failed to address it properly. They also disregarded warnings (an example of “go fever”) from engineers about the dangers of launching posed by the low temperatures of that morning and had failed in adequately reporting these technical concerns to their superiors.

What Rogers did not highlight was that the vehicle was never certified to operate in temperatures that low. The O-rings, as well as many other critical components, had no test data to support any expectation of a successful launch in such conditions. Bob Ebeling from Thiokol delivered a biting analysis: “[W]e’re only qualified to 40 degrees …’what business does anyone even have thinking about 18 degrees, we’re in no man’s land.'”

As a result of the disaster, the Air Force decided to cancel its plans to use the Shuttle for classified military satellite launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, deciding to use the Titan IV instead.

Many viewed the launch live because of the presence of crew member Christa McAuliffe, the first member of the Teacher in Space Project, who would have been the first teacher in space. Media coverage of the accident was extensive: one study reported that 85 percent of Americans surveyed had heard the news within an hour of the accident.

I remember the event vividly.  The world was taught another lesson not to take the act of leaving the planet as a trivial event.

(details from Wikipedia)