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What went wrong with the Challenger mission, and could it have been prevented?

By: Anisia (Y13)

Challenger was launched on 28th January 1986 at 11:39 at NASA's Kennedy Space Centre in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The launch had been postponed for several days due to a delay in getting the previous shuttle back to the ground, and on launch day by several hours due to thick ice on the launchpad. As the vehicle took off, a leak in the fuel system that had not been detected on the launchpad expanded. 59 seconds later a stream of flames emerged from a hole in the boosters. This grew and gradually eroded the base of the external fuel tank. At the same time, the steering systems tried to compensate for a lag in the engine thrusters, causing the boosters to swivel outwards, and the tank to collapse and explode. Challenger broke up in the explosion just 73 seconds after take-off, at an altitude of 14,000m. The forward section containing the crew cabin was severed in one piece and continued to coast upwards. It is believed that the crew survived the initial breakup, but that loss of cabin pressure rendered them unconscious since they did not wear pressure suits. Their death was probably from oxygen deficiency before the cabin plummeted into the ocean.

The Rogers Commission hearing into the explosion demonstrated that the O-rings that sealed the joints in the booster rockets lost resilience and elasticity at near-freezing temperatures, only working effectively above 53°F. This issue was completely absent from flight-readiness documents. An early morning inspection confirmed that the launch structure was covered in foot-long icicles and the temperature was only 36°F. The Commission reported that there was also poor communication between shuttle managers and working engineers and faulted poor engineering and management. The root cause of the accident was ‘a serious flaw in the decision-making process leading up to the launch.’ Shuttles were seen as a cost-effective way of commercial space travel via multiple launches as they were reusable and cheaper compared to traditional rockets. The astronauts might even have survived the explosion, had they been wearing pressurised suits and there been a launch escape system. This disaster is a sad example of what happens when social, political, and economic desires are prioritised over safety. By January of 1986, America was already bored with space travel. In an effort to rectify this, NASA included Christa McAuliffe, a schoolteacher and mother of two who was chosen to fly as part of NASA’s Teacher in Space program. The program was used to boost PR, as a civilian being sent into space was proof that space travel was now truly open to anyone. The Challenger mission was another example of money and politics being put before safe engineering, and a sad metaphor for the cost of greed.

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