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NASA Space Science

7 Myths About The Challenger Disaster 629

Lester67 writes "James Oberg at MSNBC has put together an excellent recap of the 7 myths surrounding the Challenger shuttle disaster. I remember that day clearly, but as the author points out, I didn't see it live, nor did a large chunk of the people said they did (Myth #1). Although there are no surprises on the list, regression may have caused you to forget a few of them (#3)."
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7 Myths About The Challenger Disaster

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  • Feynman's report (Score:5, Informative)

    by 19061969 ( 939279 ) on Friday January 27, 2006 @05:12AM (#14577101)
    Obligatory link to Richard Feynman's [] report on the disaster [].

    The Challenger disaster was quite shocking, even more so when I realised that the crew were probably alive (if not conscious) all the way until their capsule hit the ground. It's incredible that something could survive that disintegration but very sad that there was no way to get the capsule safely back to earth.

    Richard Feynman's report is a fantastically clear and lucid account of his opinions. The man was one of the greatest communicators of science, and after reading this, you will see why. The most astonishing bit is that he discusses some less than simple things in such a way as to make them easily understood. It's a model of clarity, and I recommend it.

  • by gowen ( 141411 ) <> on Friday January 27, 2006 @05:14AM (#14577104) Homepage Journal
    The most fascinating report on the Challenger disaster remains Richard Feynman's dissent on the official line of the Rogers Report (on whose committee he served). Read it here [].
    "If a reasonable launch schedule is to be maintained, engineering often cannot be done fast enough to keep up with the expectations of originally conservative certification criteria designed to guarantee a very safe vehicle. In these situations, subtly, and often with apparently logical arguments, the criteria are altered so that flights may still be certified in time. They therefore fly in a relatively unsafe condition, with a chance of failure of the order of a percent (it is difficult to be more accurate).

    Official management, on the other hand, claims to believe the probability of failure is a thousand times less. One reason for this may be an attempt to assure the government of NASA perfection and success in order to ensure the supply of funds. The other may be that they sincerely believed it to be true, demonstrating an almost incredible lack of communication between themselves and their working engineers."
    Whether you consider that "political interference" is a different matter.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 27, 2006 @05:19AM (#14577116)

    Out of curiosity did you actually read the article?

    Quoth the article:

    "Claims that the disaster was the unavoidable price to be paid for pioneering a new frontier were self-serving rationalizations on the part of those responsible for incompetent engineering management -- the disaster should have been avoidable. NASA managers made a bad call for the launch decision, and engineers who had qualms about the O-rings were bullied or bamboozled into acquiescence. The skeptics' argument that launching with record cold temperatures is valid, but it probably was not argued as persuasively as it might have been, in hindsight. If launched on a warmer day, with gentler high-altitude winds, there's every reason to suppose the flight would have been successful and the troublesome seal design (which already had the attention of designers) would have been modified at a pace that turned out to have been far too leisurely."

  • Re:No explosion? (Score:5, Informative)

    by FireFury03 ( 653718 ) <> on Friday January 27, 2006 @05:36AM (#14577169) Homepage
    What kind of strange definition of explosion does this guy have?

    A (low) explosion is basically an over-pressure of the inside of a sealed container to the point that it breaks catestrophically. (High explosives are obviously different). That's not what happened here - the fuel tank ruptured (not caused by an explosion) and the resulting fuel spill just burnt in the air. That's really no different to if your car fuel tank ruptures and the petrol catches fire, it doesn't explode it just burns. Similarly if you set fire to gun powder in an unconfined space it just burns (quickly), it doesn't explode.

    The craft then broke apart due to overpressure on the *outside* of the craft (caused by it turning broad-side in a supersonic airstream). If anything that probably constitutes an implosion, certainly not an explosion.
  • by Daikiki ( 227620 ) <daikiki&wanadoo,nl> on Friday January 27, 2006 @05:46AM (#14577192) Homepage Journal
    Other way around. The first paragraph of the article was copied into wikipedia in the last few hours. The article was published yesterday.
  • by atrocious cowpat ( 850512 ) on Friday January 27, 2006 @06:02AM (#14577233)

    Edward Tufte wrote an excellent analysis [] on how crucial information about possible problems was buried in incompetently presented data.
  • by georgewilliamherbert ( 211790 ) on Friday January 27, 2006 @06:12AM (#14577264)
    Again we have semantics being put forth as fact. Most people would find little discrepancy between a person being subjected to violent trauma, going unconscious or into extreme shock, and dying within a minute and dying instantly. Nothing happens instantly anyway.
    The crew were not subjected to particularly violent trauma from the breakup. Nor did the breakup knock them unconscious. All evidence available to us indicates that the cabin was generally intact, didn't get torn apart, wouldn't have tumbled violently enough to cause serious injury to properly strapped in seated astronauts. They went unconscious, we presume, because it had been damaged enough that the air leaked out, and they were at 65,000 feet by the time they started back down again, and you pass out if you breathe air at 65,000 foot pressure levels.

    We don't know if everyone eventually passed out; the emergency air packs they had might have kept them conscious, and some of those were turned on. And they all might have woken back up on the way down as air pressure increased again. But we really don't know. The flight recorder stopped when the power went off in the breakup.

    We know the breakup didn't kill them all, or knock them all unconscious, because if it had then they couldn't have turned on the air packs.

    The design of the booster, while possessing flaws subject to improvement, was neither especially dangerous if operated properly, nor the result of political interference.
    This statement is complete poppy-cock. Any rational person would recognise the inherent danger in strapping themselves to the side of an enormous tank of liquid oxygen and lighting it.
    The LOX tank didn't kill anyone. And you don't light the LOX tank.

    Jim was referring to the solid rocket boosters.

    Replacement of the original asbestos-bearing putty in the booster seals was unrelated to the failure.
    unrelated? surely this is the wrong word to use for a part that has been proven by more than one panel of highly respected scientists to be inherently flawed.
    The putty seal problems existed before the change in materials was made. The problem was unrelated to that change happening. It is a myth that the problems appeared after the change.

    Please read more carefully.

    There were pressures on the flight schedule, but none of any recognizable political origin.
    This is simply delusional, and requires no further comment
    Claims were repeatedly made that the White House pushed on NASA to get them to launch in time for Reagan to do a live linkup chat as part of the State of the Union.

    Phone logs, extensive interviews both with the White House staff and the NASA staff, repeated inquiries have shown that there is no factual evidence or ancedotal claim by anyone inside either the WH or the NASA program or its contractors that there was any such WH pressure.

    If it happened, they erased all the evidence.

    Things which are alledged and have no evidence are at best a myth or conspiracy theory. Calling it a myth, when it's been specifically repeatedly proven to have no factual evidence on the record anywhere, is a prefectly fair claim.

    Your entire response seems to boil down to I believe these myths so they must be true!. The irony is astounding.

  • by God of Lemmings ( 455435 ) on Friday January 27, 2006 @06:28AM (#14577297)
    This article omits some very important facts related to how events
    occurred. Specifically within the contractor that produced them.
    Anyone who has taken an engineering ethics course should have seen this material already:

    google's cache of n&gl=us&ct=clnk&cd=1 []

    Slightly more damning is that the engineers from the contractor attempted to have the launch delayed and were overturned by the management.
    another google cache. &gl=us&ct=clnk&cd=1 []
  • by mbone ( 558574 ) on Friday January 27, 2006 @06:55AM (#14577363)
    I take exception to this one

    There were pressures on the flight schedule, but none of any recognizable political origin.

    BS. I worked at NASA at the time, and I knew that there were politcal pressures on the flight schedule before the launch. One thing that he conveniently doesn't mention is that the State of the Union address was that night. It is a fact that Reagan wanted to salute the first teacher in space. That was common knowledge. Only an idiot would think that the NASA higher-ups would not feel pressure to launch in those circumstances. (I never heard of any plans to link the flight crew to the speach, which I cannot recall being done for any SOTU with anyone; this sounds like a straw man to me).

    What I will give him is that I personally doubt that this pressure took the form of the White House calling up Houston. (There is certainly no evidence of that.) But they didn't have to.
  • I remember... (Score:2, Informative)

    by cbirkett ( 904502 ) on Friday January 27, 2006 @06:55AM (#14577364) Homepage
    "...obviously a major malfunction."
  • by snub ( 140826 ) on Friday January 27, 2006 @07:24AM (#14577422)
    I worked as a contractor to NASA from STS-6 (well before Challenger) through the disaster and for several years afterward. I was an engineering manager on the payload side rather than the oribiter itself but I was heavily involved in all phases of prepration and launch. That qualifies me to say: this guy doesn't know what he's talking about.

    There was enormous pressure to launch on time. Did the President call the Launch Director and tell him to launch? No, of course not. But NASA's budget depended on getting those launches off and beleive me that is a big motivator.

    Did stupid managers ignore the advice of engineers? Not really. Remember that you're dealing with the "fog of war". Nobody knows anything 100% for sure and nobody communicates 100% perfectly. Incomplete data, poorly constructed PowerPoint slides, fear of rocking the boat, preconceived ideas, all contribute to this. Would someone intentionally put the astronauts lives at risk? Of course not, but in the absence of clear information most people just go with what the group wants to do.

    Did the astronauts accept the risk? I knew many astronauts (OK actually it was 5 or 6) and they were some of the smartest people I have ever met. They TOTALLY accepted the risk of what they were doing. Just as much as a Marine going into battle accepts the risks. In this case though they were even more educated and aware of the odds. The astronauts I knew usually had multiple degrees, dozens of certifications, and 1000s of hours of training. They knew exactly what they were doing.

  • Re:composite aging? (Score:2, Informative)

    by rahrens ( 939941 ) on Friday January 27, 2006 @08:19AM (#14577583)
    Somebody correct me if I'm wrong, but I think I read somewhere that the shuttle tiles are always being replaced - not all at once, but the underside would be inspected, inch by inch after every flight, and tiles showing any signs of wear or damage are replaced.

    I would think that the leading edges of the wings would be areas that would lend themselves to fairly frequent replacements, given the forces those tiles would be subjected to.

    I think one thing that clearly came out of the investigation of the Columbia accident is that the failure of NASA to have ANY kind of inspection routine or any ability to replace damaged tiles in flight was a management failure on the order of what caused Challenger's demise. I think that would pretty clearly take it out of the realm of the acts of spiteful deities...
  • by gmb61 ( 815164 ) on Friday January 27, 2006 @08:39AM (#14577664)
    I was vacationing in Florida at the time and saw it live and in person. It was the first and only shuttle launch I've ever seen. It's true that although it looked like an explosion, it didn't really sound like one. It's kind of hard to describe what it sounded like, kind of like the sound of rushing air, not the boom of an explosion. What I remember most about that day was the bitter cold. I was born and raised in Southern California, and so I wasn't used to cold like that. I didn't have any gloves and I remember getting frostbite on my fingers while trying to hold my camera. I also remember the voice of the mission control announcer sounded very stressed as he first told us that they had "lost contact with the orbiter", then "rescue units are moving into position". They locked down Kennedy Space Center for one hour and nobody was allowed to enter or exit. I also remember watching all the little bits and pieces falling to Earth afterwards. Stuff was falling out of the sky for what seemed like half an hour. It looked a little like the very last shot in the movie Independence Day. I don't think I will ever forget that day.
  • You didn't need a TV. It should be noted that almost all shuttle launches are visible for most of Florida, and the sonic boom during reentry shakes the entire State. If you lived in Florida, you could see the smoke for hours. And it was common practice at most business, schools, and homes to go out an watch the shuttle take off.

    I was six at the time. It was clearly visible from Central Florida, even though that's not where it happened. It was a BIG explosion.

    So "everyone saw it" may be wrong, but "millions of people saw it" is certainly correct, and probably "almost everyone in Florida" saw it" is not necessarily wrong.

    And it was obvious what happened. The small flame thing in the sky (which is all we actually see during shuttle launches) turned into much larger cloud of something.

    The refutation of myth #2 is a bit questionable. Pieces went everywhere. They were found all over the place. And the size of the thing in the sky was big enough to be visible all over the state. Sure, there was no "bang," but it did explode.
  • Re:Explosion (Score:3, Informative)

    by cloak42 ( 620230 ) on Friday January 27, 2006 @08:56AM (#14577732) Homepage
    This is erroneous. At the proper film speed, you can have both a fast shutter speed AND wide depth of field. If you have ISO800 or ISO1600 film in your camera, it's quite easy to get a 1/1000 second photo and have the aperture completely shut. Hell, given enough light, you could do that with 400 speed film, but that's cutting it close.
  • by FatSean ( 18753 ) on Friday January 27, 2006 @09:46AM (#14577951) Homepage Journal
    Every car I've ever owned in the USA had the gas tank under the trunk/boot. Several feet BEHIND the passenfer. I find it very hard to believe that the gas tank manages to get repositioned UNDER the passenger compartment before rupturing and burning. Most colissions from the rear compress the auto but do not fold it up. Neither do side impacts general distort the chassis such that the user is OVER the tank.

    I think you are talking out of your ass. You have a point about saftey, but don't lie to get your point accross.
  • by hal2814 ( 725639 ) on Friday January 27, 2006 @10:02AM (#14578039)
    "Every car I've ever owned in the USA had the gas tank under the trunk/boot. Several feet BEHIND the passenger."

    What kind of car are you driving where there's "several feet" between the rear passengers and the fuel tank? Most of the time the tank is now directly under the trunk which is just behind the rear passengers and sometimes in older cars the tank spreads to just under the back seat. FWIW I still remember my Dad's 1977 Chevrolet Scottsdale (which I drove for a while when first turning 16) had a tank right under the driver and passenger bench.
  • by jaypaulw ( 889877 ) on Friday January 27, 2006 @10:04AM (#14578055)
    Piston aircraft have a much higher fatality rate per hour than cars. Commercial aircraft are indeed ridiculously safe. Spacecraft seem pretty dangerous.
  • Re:composite aging? (Score:5, Informative)

    by lbrandy ( 923907 ) on Friday January 27, 2006 @10:46AM (#14578338)
    Here for example is a story about some of the problems the USAF is running into now with the F-15 wing, which is composite and approaching 20 years old in many aircraft, e.g. the linked article notes an F-15 coming apart midflight in 2003 because of a sudden failure of the wing, and yet routine inspections every 200 hours had shown no signs of incipient failure.

    Two points of information: The failure was not part of the wing, but part of the vertical stablizer (the fins). And, secondly, the failure was part of the load-bearing honeycomb, which is not "composite" but mainly aluminum. The 'skin' of the aircraft is composite, and not load-bearing. F15s are all getting structural upgrades (as is noted in the article) to correct this problem, and the air-force has removed the "profile" used that day (which, as i understand, was pretty extreme).

    I worked at Eglin shortly after this happened, and worked with many people involved with that aircraft.
  • by Bertie ( 87778 ) on Friday January 27, 2006 @11:08AM (#14578517)
    Actually, the Honda Jazz, and now the new Honda Civic, has the tank under the front passenger seats, to liberate more luggage space.

    Anyway, when was the last time you saw a car blow up by the roadside, Hollywood-style? It doesn't really happen.
  • by GileadGreene ( 539584 ) on Friday January 27, 2006 @11:14AM (#14578571) Homepage
    That qualifies me to say: this guy doesn't know what he's talking about.

    Uh, James Oberg [] worked in Mission Control at JSC from well before Challenger until well after. I'd say that qualifies him to "know what he's talking about", at least as much as you're qualified by your experiences.

  • by ednopantz ( 467288 ) on Friday January 27, 2006 @11:20AM (#14578637)
    More to the point, the engineers just weren't capable of expressing their concerns in a way that made sense to managers. The managers weren't stupid. They lacked domain knowledge and the engineers couldn't express what they knew in a way that made sense. When they tried charts, they made it worse.

      See Tufte's graphs:

    badly excepted here: []

    reviewed here tufte.shtml []
  • Re:Live at school (Score:2, Informative)

    by Profane MuthaFucka ( 574406 ) <> on Friday January 27, 2006 @12:06PM (#14579124) Homepage Journal
    Read the article. It was a conflagaration, not an explosion. The sudden asymmetrical thrust from the sudden combustion of the fuel threw the shuttle sideways into the airstream, and aerodynamic forces tore it apart. There was no explosion, and certainly no detonation.
  • by fataugie ( 89032 ) on Friday January 27, 2006 @12:37PM (#14579492) Homepage
    Mythbusters did a show on whether or not the crash position (head down between knees, kiss ass goodbye) was invented by the airline companies to break the passengers neck on crashing. The myth was that it was cheaper to pay death benefits to the family than to pay for rehab for a disabled passenger that survived.

    They found that indeed, the crash position helped dissapate g forces and helped you survive a crash. The bad news was that almost certainly you'd end up with broken legs and would end up dieing because you couldn't walk off the plane (smoke inhalation, fire burning you, etc).

    If you get a chance to see that episode, it was quite an eye opener.

  • by Bob 4knee ( 756841 ) on Friday January 27, 2006 @03:01PM (#14581470)
    It was actually worse than that. The engineers were specifically concerned about the O-rings and had argued for cancelling all flights until the system was re-designed. A (management driven) work around established temperature ranges when a launch would be acceptable. These temperature ranges (already a compromise the engineers were opposed to) were violated and the challenger went down.

    I have talked to engineers who were in the final meeting, and on the final conference call. Normally the contractor (Morton Thiokol) has to convince the customer (NASA) that it is safe to launch. Thiokol said "NO" and NASA tried to convince them to say yes (bass ackwards). After the final decision of "no" was reached based on the engineers advice, the conference call link was broken and when it was re-established the Thiokol managers had overridden the engineers and said "OK". IIRC the onsight (Florida) Thiokol manager refused to sign the necessary paper work, inferring what had happened when they were off the line. The next guy down the chain signed anyway, so they launched.

    It was not a matter of management not understanding, it was a matter of the dollars that would stop flowing from NASA to Morton Thiokol if they scrubbed being worth more than the lives of the 7 astronauts.

    An earlier poster had a very insightful analysis of what this meant to the US, and I've often had similar views of what it meant to the engineering profession. At the time I was a newly minted BSEE working for a government contractor. It wasn't geeky to be an engineer, it was actually cool and somewhat respected. This doesn't seem to be the case today.

  • Yes but... (Score:3, Informative)

    by snuf23 ( 182335 ) on Friday January 27, 2006 @03:23PM (#14581782)
    a lot of school kids DID see the launch live. NASA provided live feeds to many schools. It was also broadcast on CNN. Many schools showed the launch on CNN. Why? Because of the teacher in space program. It was a huge public relations event for NASA and was used to encourage kids to get interested in science. My sciene teacher at the time had tried for the spot on the shuttle.
    So maybe it wasn't millions of Americans but it was a healthy percentage of American school kids that got to see the launch live.
  • Re:Bassett (Score:3, Informative)

    by himself ( 66589 ) on Friday January 27, 2006 @04:21PM (#14582476)
    Yeah, he passed away on Tuesday, I think. There was an email that went out to the STA community that was forwarded to me. [I'm a Cretin-Derham Hall alum after having been a Middle Squirrel at STA.]
    Sent: Tue 1/24/2006 3:24 PM
    Subject: Faculty Member Dave Bassett Passes - STA Community Grieves

    The flag in front of Saint Thomas Academy is flying at half staff
    in honor of Professor David M. Bassett, longtime Saint Thomas
    Academy faculty member, who passed away from cancer today.

    A 1962 graduate of Saint Thomas Military Academy, Dave returned to
    the Academy in 1975 as a faculty member teaching various areas of
    the science curriculum. He was a teacher, mentor, advisor, and
    friend to the thousands of students who passed through his
    science labs and the halls of the Academy.

    His colleagues remember Dave for his quick wit, stories, magic
    tricks, talent at the piano, and compassion.

    His father, D. Marvin Bassett, taught at STA from 1945 to 1977.
    Dave had been on medical leave since April, 2005, and will be
    missed by the many thousands of people who were honored to
    know him.

          I know that I feel lucky to have known him. He was among my top five teachers ever. A good man, a very good man.
  • by Ritchie70 ( 860516 ) on Friday January 27, 2006 @05:21PM (#14583143) Journal
    You are the one "talking out of your ass." The gas tank has purposely been repositioned to be forward of the rear axle on most vehicles as a SAFETY FEATURE in case of impact from the rear.
  • Get it right! (Score:2, Informative)

    by RoboProg ( 515959 ) on Friday January 27, 2006 @10:19PM (#14585636) Homepage
    "Evil Ernie"???

    See? That's what this whole constructive memory thing is talking about. Everybody who's seen the pictures knows that it's Evil Bert, not Earnie. Puh!

"I don't believe in sweeping social change being manifested by one person, unless he has an atomic weapon." -- Howard Chaykin