On 28 January 1986, the Challenger space shuttle was launched from the Kennedy Airbase, Florida. Beforehand, a series of events led to a fatal disaster for the shuttle and the seven astronauts aboard. NASA was planning on designing a fully reusable space shuttle, but due to budget constrains, a partially reusable shuttle was accepted. It had severe technical flaws.
NASA was under pressure for a rapid launch of the shuttle. It was a high publicity project for the government due to the “Teachers in Space”-programme, and the launch had already been delayed. It was decided to launch the shuttle on 28 January though the temperatures were anticipated to drop below certain threshold levels. Engineers from the company producing the rocket boosters were very concerned about this decision, as they had never tested the boosters under such low temperatures and were not sure how they would react. They warned NASA, but NASA overruled the warning.
As the shuttle was launched, the cold prevented the O-rings in the boosters to react properly. During ignition, they vaporized due to the hot combustion gasses. Flames arched out of the joint and struck the external tank, which was ignited. The Challenger exploded.
The pictures of the shuttle turning into a cloud of smoke on the clear blue sky went around the world. The reasons why this particular accident made such an impression on people are many. The presence of a female, civilian teacher on board was probably very important. The Challenger was meant to be the space flight that brought common people closer to space, but its ending was an image of nemesis.
After the accident it was time for introspection at NASA. Most of the responsible executives left the organisation, and the communication lines were changed to give the astronauts more influence on the decisions.
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Links and references:
United States Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident, 1986. Report to the President. Washington DC, The Commission.
Studies in Ethics, Safety, and Liability for Engineers from the University of Texas:
Entry in the free encyclopedia on Challenger: