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Space Shuttle

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The Space Shuttle Challenger disaster occurred on January 28, 1986, when Space Shuttle Challenger (mission STS-51-L) broke apart 73 seconds into its flight, leading to the deaths of its seven crew members. The spacecraft disintegrated over the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Cape Canaveral, Florida at 11:38 EST (16:38 UTC). Disintegration of the vehicle began after an O-ring seal in its right solid rocket booster (SRB) failed at liftoff. The O-ring failure caused a breach in the SRB joint it sealed, allowing pressurized hot gas from within the solid rocket motor to reach the outside and impinge upon the adjacent SRB attachment hardware and external fuel tank. This led to the separation of the right-hand SRB's aft attachment and the structural failure of the external tank. Aerodynamic forces broke up the orbiter.
The crew compartment and many other vehicle fragments were eventually recovered from the ocean floor after a lengthy search and recovery operation. The exact timing of the death of the crew is unknown; several crew members are known to have survived the initial breakup of the spacecraft. The shuttle had no escape system, and the impact of the crew compartment with the ocean surface was too violent to be survivable.
The disaster resulted in a 32-month hiatus in the shuttle program and the formation of the Rogers Commission, a special commission appointed byUnited States President Ronald Reagan to investigate the accident. The Rogers Commission found NASA's organizational culture and decision-making processes had been key contributing factors to the accident.[1] NASA managers had known contractor Morton Thiokol's design of the SRBs contained a potentially catastrophic flaw in the O-rings since 1977, but failed to address it properly. They also disregarded warnings (an example of "go fever") from engineers about the dangers of launching posed by the low temperatures of that morning and had failed in adequately reporting these technical concerns to their superiors.
What Rogers did not highlight was that the vehicle was never certified to operate in temperatures that low. The O-rings, as well as many other critical components, had no test data to support any expectation of a successful launch in such conditions. Bob Ebeling from Thiokol delivered a biting analysis: "[W]e're only qualified to 40 degrees ...'what business does anyone even have thinking about 18 degrees, we're in no man's land.'"[2]
As a result of the disaster, the Air Force decided to cancel its plans to use the Shuttle for classified military satellite launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, deciding to use the Titan IV instead.
Approximately 17 percent of Americans witnessed the launch live because of the presence of crew member Christa McAuliffe, the first member of the Teacher in Space Project, who would have been the first teacher in space. Media coverage of the accident was extensive: one study reported that 85 percent of Americans surveyed had heard the news within an hour of the accident.[3] The Challenger disaster has been used as a case study in many discussions of engineering safety and workplace ethics.

Each of the two Space Shuttle Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) that comprised part of the Space Transportation System was constructed of seven sections, six of which were permanently joined in pairs at the factory. For each flight, the four resulting segments were then assembled in the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center (KSC), with three field joints. The factory joints were sealed with asbestos-silica insulation applied over the joint, while each field joint was sealed with two rubber O-rings. (After the destruction of Challenger, the number of O-rings per field joint was increased to three.)[4] The seals of all of the SRB joints were required to contain the hot high-pressure gases produced by the burning solid propellant inside, forcing it out the nozzle at the aft end of each rocket.
During the Space Shuttle design process, a McDonnell Douglas report in September 1971 discussed the safety record of solid rockets. While a safe abort was possible after most types of failures, one was especially dangerous: a burnthrough by hot gases of the rocket's casing. The report stated that "if burnthrough occurs adjacent to [liquid hydrogen/oxygen] tank or orbiter, timely sensing may not be feasible and abort not possible", accurately foreshadowing the Challenger accident.[5] Morton Thiokol was the contractor responsible for the construction and maintenance of the shuttle's SRBs. As originally designed by Thiokol, the O-ring joints in the SRBs were supposed to close more tightly due to forces generated at ignition, but a 1977 test showed that when pressurized water was used to simulate the effects of booster combustion, the metal parts bent away from each other, opening a gap through which gases could leak. This phenomenon, known as "joint rotation," caused a momentary drop in air pressure. This made it possible for combustion gases to erode the O-rings. In the event of widespread erosion, a flame path could develop, causing the joint to burst—which would have destroyed the booster and the shuttle.[6]
Engineers at the Marshall Space Flight Center wrote to the manager of the Solid Rocket Booster project, George Hardy, on several occasions suggesting that Thiokol's field joint design was unacceptable. For example, one engineer suggested that joint rotation would render the secondary O-ring useless, but Hardy did not forward these memos to Thiokol, and the field joints were accepted for flight in 1980.[7]
Evidence of serious O-ring erosion was present as early as the second space shuttle mission, STS-2, which was flown by Columbia. Contrary to NASA regulations, the Marshall Center did not report this problem to senior management at NASA, but opted to keep the problem within their reporting channels with Thiokol. Even after the O-rings were redesignated as "Criticality 1"—meaning that their failure would result in the destruction of the Orbiter—no one at Marshall suggested that the shuttles be grounded until the flaw could be fixed.[7] During the investigation Sally Ride told Dr.Richard Feynman that the O-rings were not tested under 50 degrees.
By 1985, Marshall and Thiokol realized that they had a potentially catastrophic problem on their hands. They began the process of redesigning the joint with three inches (76 mm) of additional steel around the tang. This tang would grip the inner face of the joint and prevent it from rotating. They did not call for a halt to shuttle flights until the joints could be redesigned, but rather treated the problem as an acceptable flight risk. For example, Lawrence Mulloy, Marshall's manager for the SRB project since 1982, issued and waived launch constraints for six consecutive flights. Thiokol even went as far as to persuade NASA to declare the O-ring problem "closed".[7] Donald Kutyna, a member of the Rogers Commission, later likened this situation to an airline permitting one of its planes to continue to fly despite evidence that one of its wings was about to fall off.
Delays[edit]
Challenger was originally set to launch from KSC in Florida at 14:42 Eastern Standard Time (EST) on January 22. Delays in the previous mission, STS-61-C, caused the launch date to be moved to January 23 and then to January 24. Launch was then rescheduled to January 25 due to bad weather at the Transoceanic Abort Landing (TAL) site in Dakar, Senegal. NASA decided to useCasablanca as the TAL site, but because it was not equipped for night landings, the launch had to be moved to the morning (Florida time). Predictions of unacceptable weather at KSC caused the launch to be rescheduled for 09:37 EST on January 27.[8]
The launch was delayed the next day, due to problems with the exterior access hatch. First, one of the micro-switch indicators used to verify that the hatch was safely locked malfunctioned.[9]Then, a stripped bolt prevented the closeout crew from removing a closing fixture from the orbiter's hatch.[10] By the time repair personnel had sawed the fixture off, crosswinds at the Shuttle Landing Facility exceeded the limits for a Return to Launch Site (RTLS) abort.[11] While the crew waited for winds to die down, the launch window expired, forcing yet another scrub.
Thiokol-NASA conference call[edit]
Forecasts for January 28 predicted an unusually cold morning, with temperatures close to 31 °F (−1 °C), the minimum temperature permitted for launch. The low temperatures had prompted concerns from Thiokol engineers. At a teleconference on the evening of January 27, Thiokol engineers and managers discussed the weather conditions with NASA managers from Kennedy Space Center and Marshall Space Flight Center. Several engineers (most notably Roger Boisjoly) re-expressed their concerns about the effect of low temperatures on the resilience of the rubber O-rings that sealed the joints of the SRBs, and recommended a launch postponement.[12] They argued that they did not have enough data to determine whether the joints would properly seal if the O-rings were colder than 53 °F (12 °C). This was an important consideration, since the SRB O-rings had been designated as a "Criticality 1" component, meaning that there was no backup if both the primary and secondary O-rings failed, and their failure would destroy the Orbiter and its crew.
Thiokol management initially supported its engineers' recommendation to postpone the launch, but NASA staff opposed a delay. During the conference call, Hardy told Thiokol, "I am appalled. I am appalled by your recommendation." Mulloy said, "My God, Thiokol, when do you want me to launch — next April?"[12] One argument by NASA personnel contesting Thiokol's concerns was that if the primary O-ring failed, the secondary O-ring would still seal. This was unproven, and was in any case an argument that did not apply to a "Criticality 1" component. As astronaut Sally Ride stated when questioning NASA managers before the Rogers Commission, it is forbidden to rely on a backup for a "Criticality 1" component. The backup is there solely to provide redundancy in case of unforeseen failure, not to replace the primary component.
NASA did not know of Thiokol's earlier concerns about the effects of the cold on the O-rings, and did not understand that Rockwell International, the shuttle's prime contractor, viewed the large amount of ice present on the pad as a constraint to launch. Due to NASA's opposition, Thiokol management reversed itself and recommended that the launch proceed as scheduled.[12][13]
Ice[edit]
The Thiokol engineers had also argued that the low overnight temperatures (18 °F or −8 °C the evening prior to launch) would almost certainly result in SRB temperatures below their redline of 40 °F (4 °C). Ice had accumulated all over the launch pad, raising concerns that ice could damage the shuttle upon lift-off. The Kennedy Ice Team inadvertently pointed an infrared camera at the aft field joint of the right SRB and found the temperature to be only 8 °F (−13 °C). This was believed to be the result of supercooled air blowing on the joint from the liquid oxygen tank vent. It was much lower than the air temperature and far below the design specifications for the O-rings. However, the 8 °F (−13 °C) reading was later determined to be erroneous, the error caused by not following the temperature probe manufacturer's instructions. Tests and adjusted calculations later confirmed that the temperature of the joint was not substantially different from the ambient temperature.[14]
The temperature on the day of the launch was far lower than had been the case with previous launches: below freezing at 28 to 29 °F (−2.2 to −1.7 °C); previously, the coldest launch had been at 53 °F (12 °C). Although the Ice Team had worked through the night removing ice, engineers at Rockwell still expressed concern. Rockwell engineers watching the pad from their headquarters in Downey, California, were horrified when they saw the amount of ice. They feared that during launch, ice might be shaken loose and strike the shuttle's thermal protection tiles, possibly due to the aspiration induced by the jet of exhaust gas from the SRBs. Rocco Petrone, the head of Rockwell's space transportation division, and his colleagues viewed this situation as a launch constraint, and told Rockwell's managers at the Cape that Rockwell could not support a launch. However, Rockwell's managers at the Cape voiced their concerns in a manner that led Houston-based mission manager Arnold Aldrich to go ahead with the launch. Aldrich decided to postpone the shuttle launch by an hour to give the Ice Team time to perform another inspection. After that last inspection, during which the ice appeared to be melting, Challenger was finally cleared to launch at 11:38 am EST.[13]

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