“Seared into our memory.” There are images of tragedy we experience that are so emotionally devastating our memory of them does not fade with the passage of time. January 28, 1986. Thirty years ago. I was in a coffee shop near Hansen Planetarium, grabbing a quick cup-to-go with a coworker.
We were in a hurry. The Space Shuttle Challenger was scheduled to launch that morning. As we stood in line we discussed how commonplace these launches had become. There had already been 24 shuttle launches, today would be Challenger’s 10th, so why should this launch be any different? Only CNN was broadcasting the launch live.
But there was a difference. The crew for this mission included Christa McAuliffe, an energetic high school Social Studies teacher from Concord, New Hampshire. She was 37, married, and had two children. NASA had selected her through an intensely competitive process involving more than 40,000 applicants to become America’s first “Teacher in Space.” Her classroom lessons emphasized the critical but rarely appreciated impact that “ordinary” people have had throughout history.
A man in the coffee shop, overhearing our conversation, asked me as I was walking out the door, “You think this’ll be the first story on the news tonight?”
My reply, delivered somewhat cynically, was “Only if it blows up.” I will never forget that I said those words.
The line to buy coffee had delayed us and we arrived back at work later than planned. Walking through the front doors I saw my coworkers huddled silently around a TV that had been set up in the lobby. Many were crying.
Challenger had blown up 71 seconds after launch.
There it was, replaying over and over in a macabre loop, the ascending rocket suddenly blossoming into a huge, horrifying fireball. We were seeing seven people die. As we watched some of us wondered out loud if the US space program wasn’t dying with them.
That summer the presidential commission created to investigate the disaster placed the blame on the failure of an O-ring in one of the shuttle’s two Solid Rocket Boosters. Each SRB was created by stacking four segments of rocket propellant and sealing their steel cases together using huge rubber-like O-rings to prevent the rocket’s flames from leaking out of the joints during the launch.
Technically speaking, the O-ring did not “fail;” it had been used in an environment that was well outside of its performance specifications, These included a low temperature limit beyond which the O-ring would not be able to hold a seal. Just as your garden hose becomes stiff and can crack if you try to flex it in the winter, these O-rings could only be counted on to seal the rocket boosters if they were not too cold.
Prior to this launch the coldest air temperature for a shuttle launch had been 53° F. The specified minimum safe temperature for the O-rings was 51° F.
The temperature on the launch pad that morning was 30° F.
The night before launch there had been an urgent teleconference between engineers at Utah’s Morton Thiokol Corporation, which manufactured the SRBs, and NASA program managers. The subject of the call was the unusually cold weather in Florida and how it might affect the launch.
Thiokol engineers stressed that no research existed to understand the performance of their boosters, especially the critically important O-rings, at such cold temperatures. Not only had no launch ever been attempted when it was this cold, in the previous instances of “cold air” launches, the coldest of which was still 15° warmer than currently measured on the launch pad, there had been evidence of worrisome O-ring damage.
This launch had already been postponed multiple times due to other factors, including weather. Schedule-obsessed managers within NASA wanted this launch to proceed without further delay.
The engineers in Utah pleaded with NASA to wait for warmer weather, causing the NASA manager in charge of the SRB program to exclaim, “My God, Thiokol, when do you want me to launch — next April?”
NASA decided to proceed with the launch. With two dozen successful launches behind them, NASA managers were feeling confident.
Almost immediately after ignition rocket exhaust from the right SRB began to leak past one of the O-rings. Video taken of the launch showed a jet of flame, hotter than a cutting torch, shooting sideways from the SRB and into a huge fuel tank containing liquid hydrogen. The explosion was inevitable.
Seven remarkable Americans died: Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis and Judith Resnik.
In the aftermath NASA was forced to suspend all shuttle launches for nearly three years while it underwent rigorous top-to-bottom scrutiny, reorganization, and perhaps most importantly, agency-wide soul-searching. “Launch Fever” entered the national vocabulary. The differences between “Engineering Culture” and “Management Culture” were, and continue to be, extensively examined.
On January 28th, 2016, at 9:39 AM, I’m going to be at that same coffee shop, remembering an event from thirty years ago that is forever seared into my memory.
“Per aspera, ad astra.” Through hardship to the stars.