Thirty years ago, the Challenger space shuttle exploded just 73 seconds after it launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The accident killed all seven people aboard, and shocked the nation, many of whom watched the explosion live on television.
Soon after the disaster, members of a commission put together to examine the accident concluded "that the loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger was caused by a failure in the joint between the two lower segments of the right Solid Rocket Motor. The specific failure was the destruction of the seals that are intended to prevent hot gases from leaking through the joint during the propellant burn of the rocket motor."
But others contend that the Challenger explosion was caused by something more ominous (and insidious) than a technical error: safety concerns were bumped for the optics of the mission, and because lower-level employees felt pressure to perform from their boss. And one astronomer, Joseph Lorenzo Hall, thinks it's happened more than once.
In 2003, Hall linked the Challenger disaster to that of the Columbia space shuttle, which disintegrated as it returned to Earth that year. The seven people aboard the Columbia were killed.
According to Hall, both the Challenger and Columbia accidents were the result of organizational problems intrinsic to NASA. Hall wrote in his paper that the Challenger launch was preceded by a long night filled with bureaucratic mishaps. Engineers at the solid rocket booster contractors were concerned that parts of the boosters, called O-rings, wouldn't function well in the cold. They told their managers, who recommended a late-night conference call to discuss options. Things got muddy after that:
The circumstances surrounding this conference call reek of organizational failure. The engineers had very little time to assemble their presentation on why cold temperatures should be a concern for O-rings. The ground crew had to start pumping liquid fuel into the main fuel tank by midnight that night to launch the following morning. Why was not the launch postponed? Perhaps because the O-ring problem was not considered to be of much concern. Perhaps because this flight had Sharon Christa McAuliffe on it, an educator and civilian. President Reagan was to give his State of the Union address the following night and had planned on using the launch in his speech arguably to highlight the ‘‘operational’’ nature of the Space Shuttle and the educator astronaut in a time of significant educational spending cuts.
An investigation following the Challenger disaster by the Miami Herald's Tropic magazine uncovered similarly distressing message manipulation and caution thrown to the wind by NASA: namely, that the spacecraft's astronauts more than likely survived the explosion and died diving 12 miles deep into the Atlantic; a possibility the agency apparently hadn't plan for.
Halls asserts these problems were repeated ahead of the Columbia mission. He wrote that engineers who feared a failed landing weren't able to go through with procedures they thought might clarify whether the Columbia would be at risk when returning to Earth:
Engineers were discussing what to do given abnormal landing gear deployment. Unfortunately, it appears that the upper management in NASA shut down the imaging request in the belief that the foam incident did not pose a ‘‘flight safety’’ risk and because of questionable imaging quality. Further, NASA would have had to declare an emergency or high priority investigation to be able to re-task committed instruments. There are also some unverified indications that the request may have been quashed because the requesters did not go ‘‘through the proper channels." This shows that some of the hierarchical and bureaucratic structure of NASA—also present in the Challenger launch decision—directly conflicts with the intuitions of NASA engineers.
After the Challenger exploded, Dr. McCurdy asked 700 NASA engineers, scientists and administrators if they agreed or disagreed with two statements: "Since I came to work for the agency, NASA has lost much of its in-house technical capability," and "NASA has turned over too much of its basic engineering and science work to contractors." The first statement drew agreement from 63 percent of the employees; 78 percent agreed with the second. Numerous management changes were instituted at the agency as a result of the Challenger inquiry, but there is wide agreement that those two concerns received little attention.
NASA space shuttle disasters are few compared to successful launches, and it's hard to accurately judge in retrospect the calls that were made in the moment. But it's important to remember that even the most extraordinary tragedies can be caused by ordinary mistakes.
Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.