The Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster 1986

Melissa Mizukami

History 408 Fall 2005

 

            ¡°I've always had great faith in and respect for our space program. And what happened today does nothing to diminish it. We don't hide our space program. We don't keep secrets and cover things up. We do it all up front and in public. That's the way freedom is, and we wouldn't change it for a minute. We'll continue our quest in space. There will be more shuttle flights and more shuttle crews and, yes, more volunteers, more civilians, more teachers in space. Nothing ends here; our hopes and our journeys continue.¡±[1] That poignant excerpt was from President Ronald Reagan¡¯s address on the sudden and tragic loss of the space shuttle Challenger. The day was January 28, 1986 and the explosion killed all seven astronauts aboard. The event horrified America and the loss shook NASA¡¯s manned space program to its core. Not only would the storied space agency have to mourn the loss of good friends, but they would have to prepare themselves to answer some very serious questions. How did things go so terribly wrong? Though this question was on the forefront another question loomed large. Would the American public continue to support NASA after Challenger?

Though Americans were initially distraught and shocked by the shuttle accident, a majority expressed the sentiment President Reagan did in his Challenger address: the hopes and journeys of America¡¯s space program must go on. Despite having witnessed the explosion of Challenger and the ensuing deaths of seven astronauts, the American public continued to strongly support the space program. To expand on this sentiment I will first discuss the history of the space shuttle, and the pre-flight and flight day activities that led to the accident. Next I will talk about the desire the families of the Challenger crew felt to press forward in space exploration and why they believed so strongly to do so. Then I¡¯ll discuss the major support Americans expressed for the continuation of the space program after Challenger and what their reasons were behind it. Subsequently I will talk about the steps that were taken to find the cause of the explosion, what was done to eradicate further disaster and the public opinion of NASA¡¯s manned space program today. And lastly I will discuss how the Challenger accident relates to the history of American technology in terms of how it contradicts the view that accidents like these are a major detriment in Americans¡¯ enthusiasm for technology.

            The Space Shuttle concept was first envisioned in the 1960¡¯s during the height of the Apollo spacecraft, to be used after the Apollo program was retired. The configuration of the final product was made in March 1972.[2] The new shuttle included the Orbiter, an expendable external fuel tank which carried liquid propellants for the Orbiter¡¯s engines and two Solid Rocket Boosters which were recoverable.[3] The shuttle would be reusable, unlike the Apollo spacecraft which was discarded after every flight, and would be used for transporting cargo into space.[4] From the beginning the shuttle program flew perfectly, and missions to low-earth orbit became routine. Astronauts Francis R. Scobee, Michael J. Smith, Judith A. Resnik, Ellison Onizuka, Ronald E. McNair, Gregory Jarvis, and teacher S. Christa McAuliffe were assigned to mission STS 51-L. 51-L¡¯s mission objectives centered on the deployment of a tracking data relay satellite and a Halley¡¯s Comet experiment.[5] The night before launch temperatures were unusually cold and engineers expressed concern regarding the cold weather effects on the boosters of the shuttle. The launch temperature was outside their operation specifications and the cold weather could pose a safety hazard to the joint rotation and o-ring seating of the shuttle.[6] Despite discussing the risks involved, management decided the engineers¡¯ data was inconclusive and approved the launch. On launch day the mid morning weather at Cape Canaveral was ¡°the coldest on which NASA had ever attempted to launch a manned spacecraft.¡±[7] The seven astronauts boarded the shuttle in the early Florida morning and at 11:38 am the shuttle began its ascent.[8] The space shuttle reached an altitude of 50,800 feet and was 7 nautical miles down range from the launch site when a brilliant glow was seen on one side of the external fuel tank.[9] Within seconds it grew into a gigantic fireball and without warning exploded in the mid-morning sky breaking into pieces and falling to the ocean. ¡°Screams of horror rose from thousands of watchers. Families of the crew looked at the scene in disbelief, unable at first to comprehend what they were seeing.¡±[10] Within 73 seconds of liftoff the space shuttle Challenger, and its seven crew members, were lost.            Though their lives were forever changed the day Challenger exploded, the families of the shuttle crew expressed a strong desire that space exploration carry on. But having experienced such deep personal loss what were the reasons behind their hopes of continuing the space program? "Space flight serves as an outlet for our human need to learn and expand," the families wrote in a statement. "What's out there will make our lives better on earth and help satisfy mankind's natural curiosity to explore and push the borders of the known universe.¡±[11] The families saw the inherent need for people to explore freely and without walls or barriers. They knew this because they saw it within the seven astronauts they loved and cared so much about. June Scobee Rodgers, wife of the late Dick Scobee, said ¡°¡­you can't pick up a cell phone and talk without thinking about space exploration benefiting us, or an MRI at a hospital or new opportunity for energy. It's all derived from space exploration.¡±[12] The families were aware of the strength behind America¡¯s technology and NASA. But the families didn¡¯t just feel space exploration should go on because of the human need to learn and expand. They also supported the space program because it symbolized the legacy of the seven crew members. The Challenger families stated: ¡°So that their lives were not lost in vain, we must rededicate ourselves to the exploration of space and to keep the dream alive."[13] They did this by opening a center for children to be educated on space exploration. The Challenger Center, which originated in Houston, Texas and has since grown to 30 centers all over the country, was intended to keep the memory of the seven astronauts alive and provide a lasting legacy by encouraging young children to study math and science and one day explore space the way their loved ones did.[14] When the next shuttle mission, following Challenger, was ready to launch the families issued a statement saying: ``The Challenger mission will continue so long as our nation explores new horizons and passes on the knowledge gained to our children.¡±[15]

Lastly, the families of the Challenger crew supported the continuation of the manned space program because they knew the wishes of their loved ones would be that space exploration continues.[16] In a statement issued on the one year anniversary of Challenger the families of the crew reflected, saying ¡°If they were alive and could speak to all Americans, we believe the Challenger crew would say this: Do not fear risk. All exploration, all growth is a calculated risk. Without frontiers, civilizations stagnate. Without challenge, people cannot reach their highest selves.¡±[17] They believed the crew did not risk their lives for aimless adventure, but rather to pay tribute to the nation that gave them opportunity in which space exploration was an extension of.[18] Grace Corrigan, the mother of teacher astronaut Christa McAuliffe did not want that enthusiasm to die. She said the astronauts knew of the risks involved in spaceflight but also knew of the good it did to mankind to explore and discover new things. ¡°If we didn't continue, they would have died in vain."[19] Though the grief and pain of the Challenger families remained deep they stayed loyal to space exploration because it was space exploration that symbolized the hopes and dreams of those who perished.   

            Despite the horror and anguish felt on the day Challenger took its final flight, the American public stayed strong to the concept of space exploration. According to an article by Karlyn Bowman of the American Enterprise on Public Policy Research website 80 percent of Americans felt the shuttle program should continue post-accident.[20] Of the teachers who applied for NASA's ¡°Teacher in Space¡± program, only a modicum withdrew their applications after the accident, while hundreds more added their names to the list.[21] Americans supported space exploration because they felt the need for man to discover science and introduce new cures and inventions to the American psyche. Pat Smith who was nominated to be part of the ¡°Teacher in Space¡± program believed that humans have such a distinct need to discover. She believed that the human spirit strives to improve the lives of others as well as discovering new medicines and technology such as the pacemaker and fire suits which were both derived from space. [22] Every day, in a variety of ways, American lives are touched by space technology. According to the Ottawa Sun since 1976, about 1,400 documented NASA inventions have benefited U.S. industry, improved the quality of life and created jobs for Americans.[23] House Science Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner voted for the International Space Station since 1984 because he supported the human exploration of space and wanted scientists to have the new research opportunities it presented.[24]

To many Americans, the Apollo program helped change the way of life in America, especially in health care. Some of the inventions contributed by the Apollo program include a kidney dialysis machine that was developed as a result of a NASA chemical process that could remove toxic waste from used dialysis fluid.[25] Another NASA contribution was a medical CAT scanner that searches the human body for tumors or other abnormalities.[26] Many Americans saw these medical inventions and their improvements in society as a reason for their support towards the continuation of the space program. Another reason Americans embraced the idea of continuing the space program was the same reason the families of the crew wanted to continue on: humanities inner need to explore. Astronaut Dr. William Thornton who flew on Challenger in 1983 and 1985 believed strongly in discovering new horizons. "The real reason for going into space is to expand our knowledge. There is something in man that will keep him going over the next hill, and space is the next big hill." "I don't know what we are going to find, but neither did the explorers who launched off in their boats centuries ago.''[27] To this day the horrific vision of Challenger exploding in the mid-morning air is vivid to many Americans, but it represented how vital space exploration is to mankind.

            After an extensive investigation the cause of Challenger¡¯s explosion was the failure of an ¡°O-ring¡± seal in the solid-fuel rocket on the shuttle¡¯s right side.[28] The faulty design of the seal coupled with the unusually cold weather, let hot gases leak through the joint.[29] The space shuttle program was grounded until after the Space Shuttle Challenger Commission¡¯s investigation. NASA management implemented stricter regulations in terms of safety and quality control and shuttle designers made several modifications.[30] Shuttle missions resumed on September 28, 1988, with the flight of the shuttle Discovery and all remained safe until February 1, 2003 when the space shuttle Columbia broke up during re-entry.[31] Although the loss brought back memories of Challenger, Americans¡¯ support for the space program remained high and does remain high today.[32] Their reasons continue to be the desire for human exploration and reaching unknown horizons.[33] 

            Despite the pain and tragedy of losing 7 astronauts the Challenger explosion did not cause a detriment in Americans¡¯ enthusiasm for technology. History has proven that the exploration of the unknown poses a risk, but it has also shown that those risks have created some of the most technologically advanced systems in the world.[34] They have created jobs, new industries, and a new way of life.[35] Mark Byrnes of Politics and Space Image Making by NASA says that NASA bolsters American national pride, national prestige, national strength (both military and economic) and peaceful international relations.[36] Though there were dissenting opinions on the continuation of the space program the majority really just felt that the space program needed a new resolve towards safety. One of the major reasons that the public gained a strong technological enthusiasm toward the space program and space exploration after Challenger was the investment NASA made in dedicating themselves to be safer. People began to be more enthused about the shuttle program when they saw the amount of work and effort that was put into making the shuttle safer.[37] After seeing Challenger explode the culture of America changed, not because it feared for the safety of those who embraced exploration, but because continuing on despite the risks inevitably defined heroism and changed humanity.[38]   

            President Reagan believed deeply in continuing on the exploration of space, the families of the Challenger crew believed deeply in continuing on and Americans believed deeply in continuing on. They all saw the benefits associated with the exploration of space, and in a larger sense the exploration of the unknown. They believed so strongly in the space program because they saw man¡¯s innate need to discover new horizons as well as the scientific advancement it provided to humanity. Also it became the legacy of the brave Challenger 7, who themselves would never have wanted the dedication of exploration to have stopped after their untimely deaths. Human exploration is a risk, it always has been and it always will be. It is a sentiment President Reagan deeply conveyed to the children of America. ¡°I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes, painful things like this happen. It's all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It's all part of taking a chance and expanding man's horizons. The future doesn't belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we'll continue to follow them.¡±[39]


 

Bibliography

 

Borentstein, Seth. ¡°Families Fulfilling Vision of Challenger Astronauts Creates ¡®Living Memorials,¡± The Record (Bergen County, N.J.), Jan 28, 1996, A11. http://0-proquest.umi.com.opac.library.csupomona.edu:80/pqdweb?did=57992309&sid=11&Fmt=3&clientId=17860&RQT=309&VName=PQD

 

Bredeson, Carmen. The Challenger Disaster Tragic Space Flight. New Jersey: Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1999.

 

Broken Arrow School District, ¡°Columbia Shuttle Tragedy Hits Close to Home for BAPS Teachers,¡± available from http://www.ba.k12.ok.us/NewBAPage/columbia.html, accessed on November 10, 2005.

 

Brown, Karlyn.  ¡°Ashcroft's Positive Rating Down 17 Points since December 2001,¡± available at American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research website http://www.aei.org/publications/pubID.19114,filter.all/pub_detail.asp, accessed on November 17, 2005.

 

Byrnes, Mark. Politics and Space Image Making by NASA. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1994.

 

¡°Challenger Explosion Left Nation Gasping in Disbelief,¡± Houston Chronicle, July 30, 2001, available from http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/first100/968621.html,  accessed October 8, 2006.

 

CNN, ¡°Challenger Widow ¡®Rejuvenated with Space Exploration,¡± January 28, 2004, available from http://edition.cnn.com/2004/TECH/space/01/28/cnna.scobee.rodgers/ accessed on November 12, 2005.

 

Greene, Nick. ¡°NASA Inventions Benefiting Our Daily Lives,¡± March 8, 2005, available from http://space.about.com/b/a/2005_03_08.htm, accessed November 15, 2005.

 

Letter to America by Challenger families, January 28, 1987, from Challenger Center http://www.challenger.org/about/letter.cfm, accessed on November 20, 2005.

 

Lewis, Richard S. Challenger The Final Voyage. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988.

 

McConnell, Malcolm. Challenger: A Major Malfunction. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1987.

 

¡°Most Support Space Program, Poll Shows,¡± USA Today, February 2, 2003, available from http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2003-02-02-shuttle-poll_x.htm, accessed on November 15, 2005.

 

NASA, ¡°Space Shuttle Basics,¡± February 15, 2005, available from http://spaceflight1.nasa.gov/shuttle/reference/basics/ accessed on November 14, 2005.

 

¡°NASA Spin-offs¡ªApollo Inventions,¡± available from http://space.about.com/od/toolsequipment/ss/apollospinoffs.htm, accessed on November 17, 2005.

 

Reagan, Ronald. ¡°Address to the Nation on the Explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger,¡± January 28, 1986, available from The American Presidency Project, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=37646&st=Challenger&st1= accessed on November 15, 2005.

 

Saltzman, Jonathan. ¡°McAuliffe¡¯s Mother Urges Exploration,¡± Boston Globe, February 6, 2003, http://www.boston.com/news/packages/shuttle/globe_stories/McAuliffe_s_mother_urges_exploration+.shtml, accessed on November 17, 2005.

 

Sensebrenner, James. ¡°Remarks before the Electronics Industries Association,¡± July 15, 1998,  available from House of Representatives site http://www.house.gov/science/pressrel/105-220.htm, accessed on November 17, 2005.

 

Stafford, Ned. ¡°Let¡¯s Clean House,¡± Omaha World-Herald (Omaha, Nebraska), April 24, 1987, 1. http://0-proquest.umi.com.opac.library.csupomona.edu:80/pqdweb?did=33051581&sid=8&Fmt=3&clientId=17860&RQT=309&VName=PQD

 



[1] Excerpt of President Ronald Reagan¡¯s Challenger address, January 28, 1986, available from The American Presidency Project, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=37646&st=Challenger&st1= accessed on November 15, 2005. 

[2] Excerpt from Space Shuttle Basics information, February 15, 2005, available from NASA official website, http://spaceflight1.nasa.gov/shuttle/reference/basics/ accessed on November 14, 2005.

[3] Excerpt from Space Shuttle Basics information, February 15, 2005, available from NASA official website, http://spaceflight1.nasa.gov/shuttle/reference/basics/ accessed on November 14, 2005.

[4] Excerpt from Space Shuttle Basics information, February 15, 2005, available from NASA official website, http://spaceflight1.nasa.gov/shuttle/reference/basics/ accessed on November 14, 2005.

[5] Richard S. Lewis, Challenger The Final Voyage (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), 9.

[6] Lewis, Challenger The Final Voyage, 4-5. 

[7] Lewis, Challenger The Final Voyage, 8. 

[8] Lewis, Challenger The Final Voyage, 15. 

[9] Lewis, Challenger The Final Voyage, 15. 

[10]Lewis, Challenger The Final Voyage, 17. 

[11] Excerpt from Houston Chronicle Challenger explosion left nation gasping in disbelief, July 30, 2001, available from Houston Chronicle website http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/first100/968621.html accessed on November 16, 2005.

[12] Excerpt from CNN interview by Miles O¡¯Brien, January 28, 2004, available from CNN website http://edition.cnn.com/2004/TECH/space/01/28/cnna.scobee.rodgers/ accessed on November 12, 2005.

[13] Excerpt from Houston Chronicle Challenger explosion left nation gasping in disbelief, July 30, 2001, available from Houston Chronicle website http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/first100/968621.html accessed on November 16, 2005.

[14] Carmen Bredeson, The Challenger Disaster Tragic Space Flight (New Jersey: Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1999), 39.

[15] Excerpt By Seth Borentstein, Knight-Ridder News ServiceThe RecordBergen County, N.J.: Jan 28, 1996. pg. a.11 http://0-proquest.umi.com.opac.library.csupomona.edu:80/pqdweb?did=57992309&sid=11&Fmt=3&clientId=17860&RQT=309&VName=PQD

[16] Excerpt By Seth Borentstein, Knight-Ridder News ServiceThe RecordBergen County, N.J.: Jan 28, 1996. pg. a.11 http://0-proquest.umi.com.opac.library.csupomona.edu:80/pqdweb?did=57992309&sid=11&Fmt=3&clientId=17860&RQT=309&VName=PQD

[17] Excerpt from Letter to America by Challenger families, January 28, 1987, from Challenger Center  http://www.challenger.org/about/letter.cfm, accessed on November 20, 2005.

[18] Excerpt from Letter to America by Challenger families, January 28, 1987, from Challenger Center  http://www.challenger.org/about/letter.cfm, accessed on November 20, 2005.

[19] Jonathan Saltzman on Space Exploration, February 6, 2003, from Boston Globe http://www.boston.com/news/packages/shuttle/globe_stories/McAuliffe_s_mother_urges_exploration+.shtml, accessed on November 17, 2005.

[20] Karlyn Brown on Challenger, September 3, 2003, available from the American Enterprise on Public Policy Research site, ¡°Ashcroft's Positive Rating Down 17 Points since December 2001,¡± http://www.aei.org/publications/pubID.19114,filter.all/pub_detail.asp, accessed on November 17, 2005.

[21] Malcolm McConnell, Challenger: A Major Malfunction (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1987), 28.

[22] Excerpt from Broken Arrow press realease from Broken Arrow site http://www.ba.k12.ok.us/NewBAPage/columbia.html accessed on November 10, 2005.

[23] Excerpt from NASA Spinoffs, from About website http://space.about.com/od/toolsequipment/ss/apollospinoffs.htm, accessed on November 17, 2005.

[24] Excerpt from James Sensebrenner testimony on Space program, June 26, 1998, available from House of Representatives site http://www.house.gov/science/pressrel/105-220.htm, accessed on November 17, 2005.

[25] Excerpt to Nick Greene on Space Exploration, March 8, 2005, available from About, ¡°NASA Inventions Benefiting Our Daily Lives,¡± http://space.about.com/b/a/2005_03_08.htm accessed on November 15, 2005.

[26] Excerpt from NASA Spinoffs, from About website http://space.about.com/od/toolsequipment/ss/apollospinoffs.htm, accessed on November 17, 2005.

[27] Omaha World - HeraldOmaha, Neb.Apr 24, 1987.  pg. 1 http://0-proquest.umi.com.opac.library.csupomona.edu:80/pqdweb?did=33051581&sid=8&Fmt=3&clientId=17860&RQT=309&VName=PQD

[28] Lewis, Challenger The Final Voyage, 94.

[29] Lewis, Challenger The Final Voyage, 92.

[30] Lewis, Challenger The Final Voyage, 216-18. 

[31] Excerpt to Nick Greene on Space Exploration, March 8, 2005, available from About, ¡°NASA Inventions Benefiting Our Daily Lives,¡± http://space.about.com/b/a/2005_03_08.htm accessed on November 15, 2005.

[32] Excerpt from Most Support Space Program poll, February 2, 2003, available from USA Today site http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2003-02-02-shuttle-poll_x.htm, accessed on November 15, 2005.

[33] Excerpt from Most Support Space Program poll, February 2, 2003, available from USA Today site http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2003-02-02-shuttle-poll_x.htm, accessed on November 15, 2005.

[34] Excerpt from NASA Spinoffs, from About website http://space.about.com/od/toolsequipment/ss/apollospinoffs.htm, accessed on November 17, 2005.

[35] Excerpt from NASA Spinoffs, from About website http://space.about.com/od/toolsequipment/ss/apollospinoffs.htm, accessed on November 17, 2005.

[37] Lewis, Challenger The Final Voyage, 216.

[39] Excerpt of President Ronald Reagan¡¯s Challenger address, January 28, 1986, available from The American Presidency Project, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=37646&st=Challenger&st1= accessed on November 15, 2005.