smoke behind shuttle explosion

Space Shuttle Challenger Accident

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On January 28, 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger blew apart just 73 seconds after lift-off in full view of television cameras. All seven members of the crew died, including Christa McAuliffe, a middle school teacher who had been chosen to be the first civilian in space. The mission, STS-51L, was to have been the 25th mission in the space shuttle program.

The accident gripped a nation that had become used to “routine” space missions. All of the networks broke into their regular schedules and broadcast the events from the Kennedy Space Center live for hour after hour. School children, millions who had been watching the launch in preparation for Christa McAuliffe’s lessons from space, and teacher were stunned. For his part, President Reagan canceled the State of the Union message that he had planned to deliver that evening. Instead, the president took to the airwaves to express his grief and deliver a brief eulogy for the fallen astronauts.

Within a week, the president announced the appointment of a special commission, headed by former Secretary of State William Rogers, to look into the causes. It didn’t take long for the commission staff to pinpoint the technical source of the accident. The launch had taken place during unusually cold weather for Florida and an O-ring in the Solid Rocket Booster (SRB) failed, allowing flaming gas to escape and tear apart the shuttle.

What made the accident difficult to understand was that engineers had raised concerns about the O-rings since the beginning of the shuttle program. O-rings in the SRB had shown erosion on previous missions and engineers at Morton Thiokol, the contractor for the SRB, had formed a task force to investigate the problem six months before the accident.

Indeed, the engineers had even postulated that there could be a relationship between cold temperatures and O-ring failure. When the Morton Thiokol engineers were informed of the cold weather projected for the shuttle launch day, they had called a teleconference to argue for a delay. However in the meeting with engineers from Marshall Space Center and the Kennedy Space Center, the Morton Thiokol engineers reversed themselves and had signed off on the mission.

Why had the mission gone ahead, despite the misgivings of the engineers?Three types of explanation (which are not necessarily mutually exclusive) have emerged. The Rogers Commission framed the issue as being the result of individual error and organizational structure. The Commission’s recommendations emphasized improving communications and creating special safety officers to oversee the security of subsequent missions.

Commission member Richard Feynman, however, issued a minority report that spotlighted NASA management’s inability to make sensible technical judgments of the shuttle’s safety. Feynman claimed that managers were more interested in making political palatable judgments than relying on the technical caution of their engineers. The technology was inherently complex and presented dangers. To claim otherwise was to create unrealistic expectations and put the public in danger.

Ten years after the shuttle accident, a book by Diane Vaughan framed the Challenger in yet another way. Vaughan argued that it was not individuals or organizational structures that had led to the faulty launch decision, but cultural and institutional factors. She noted that the emphasis on production had caused a culture in which there was the “normalization of deviance.” Both engineers and managers at NASA had become so used to anomalies in the shuttle missions that they had learned to ignore them.

Following the accident and the investigations, the space shuttle program was halted for more than two and a half years. The program resumed in September of 1988.

Seventeen years after the Challenger accident, NASA was to experience another catastrophic failure. The shuttle Columbia broke apart on re-entry and all of its crew was lost. Sally Ride, a member of the Rogers Commission and the subsequent Columbia Accident Investigation Board, said that there were clear echoes of the Challenger accident in the failure of the Columbia. Once again, known safety problems had destroyed the ship and the pleas of engineers had been ignored.

This case seeks to examine not only what went wrong, but how it went wrong and the lessons that can be drawn from group dynamics that allowed the will of the group to overtake the concerns of the few.

Published Date: 02/11/2011

Suggested Citation: Jaan Elias and Jeffrey E. Garten, "Space Shuttle Challenger Accident," Yale SOM Case 11-023, November 2, 2011

Keywords: Space Shuttle, Accident