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Investigating the Challenger disaster

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Seventy-three seconds into its seemingly routine mission, the Space Shuttle Challenger tore apart. The crew of seven perished as the spacecraft disintegrated 46,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean. The Challenger disaster is etched in the memory of many and they can tell you where they were on January 28th, 1986 when they watched the calamity on television.

According to NASA’s post disaster investigation the culprit behind this tragedy was a seemingly minor component: rubber O-rings. These rings were crucial in sealing the segments of the solid rocket boosters that provided the initial burst of power for liftoff. However, cold temperatures on launch day caused the O-rings to stiffen, compromising their ability to form a complete seal. Hot gases then leaked through the gap, causing a fiery breach that ultimately led to a catastrophic structural failure.

The disaster exposed flaws in NASA's decision-making process. Engineers had voiced concerns about the O-rings' performance in cold weather, but management overruled them, prioritizing launch schedules over potential risks.

Experts say the tragedy could have been averted. Had NASA administrators heeded the engineers' warnings and delayed the launch for a warmer day, the O-rings might have functioned properly. Additionally, a redesigned O-ring joint with improved resilience to colder temperatures could have prevented the leak.

The Challenger explosion forced NASA to prioritize safety and improve communication channels between engineers and management. It also grounded the Space Shuttle fleet for a significant period of time while critical safety measures were implemented. The loss of the Challenger crew serves as a stark reminder that space travel is always dangerous and, at times, deadly. But the risks can be minimized by prioritizing safety and meticulously addressing potential risks in complex technological endeavors.

Adam Higginbotham is the author of CHALLENGER: A True Story of Heroism and Disaster on the Edge of Space. He has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Wired, GQ, and Smithsonian. He is the author of Midnight in Chernobyl.

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*This interview will be recorded on Monday, May 13, 2024.


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David Martin Davies can be reached at dmdavies@tpr.org and on Twitter at @DavidMartinDavi