11-017 The Challenger Disaster
Wednesday Mar 04, 2015
Lead: In early 1986, after years of almost unblemished success in its space shuttle program, NASA got ready to launch number twenty-five. This time it would welcome the first civilian. Schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe would ride into space on the Challenger.
Intro: A Moment in Time with Dan Roberts.
Content: The winter of 1985-86 was unusually cold on the central Florida Atlantic coast. During the night of January 27th Cape Canaveral was swept with an ice storm, but dawn on the 28th was clear and as the morning continued the sky became a brilliant cloudless blue. After fits and starts, McAuliffe and the other six members of the crew were photographed, climbed aboard the shuttle and prepared for launch.
Seventy-three seconds after lift-off, the Challenger orbiter was blown away from the boosters. Structural failure was complete and all seven crewmembers were killed. In the investigation it was discovered that the shuttle was destroyed by malfunction in the joints in the solid rocket boosters, which normally flexed open at the time launch. This problem was previously recognized by NASA engineers, but was not deemed dangerous because each time before the joints had re-aligned themselves. This time, the ice storm and cold temperatures had made the 0-rings in the joints rigid, and they failed to re-seat themselves, a hole opened, a leak developed and exhaust fumes ignited. Like a blowtorch, flames began to eat away at the struts that supported the starboard booster. It came loose and ruptured the fuel tanks. All of this happened in seconds and the Challenger was doomed.
In the wake of this disaster, NASA suspended all flights until a safety review of the entire shuttle program could be conducted. During this deferment period many flaws were found in shuttle construction, some of which could have led to fatal malfunctions. In addition, NASA revised its management style, which prior to the accident tended to suppress safety concerns from the ranks of engineers in the interests of speed, schedule and public relations.
Research assistance by Allison Maltby, at the University of Richmond, this is Dan Roberts.
Gold, Thomas. “Is NASA an Expensive Failure,” Nature (366, 1993): 723.
McConnell, Malcolm. Challenger: A Major Malfunction. 1987.
United States Congress, Investigation of the Challenger Accident; Hearings Before the Committee on Science and Technology, U.S. House of Representatives, Ninety-ninth Congress, Second Session.
“A Major Malfunction: The Story Behind the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster.” Video Cassette,
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