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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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  • Mythbusters (Score:2, Insightful)

    by NieKinNL ( 690492 ) on Friday January 27, 2006 @04:50AM (#14577032)
    This is a case for the mythbusters, obviously. I think Kari would do nicely for this one, or well, any myth for that matter..)
  • Nitpicking (Score:1, Insightful)

    by bclark ( 858016 ) on Friday January 27, 2006 @04:54AM (#14577052)
    The article says that people who claim to remember seeing it live didn't actually see it live, because most networks just showed a tape replay after cutting away. So technically it's not live, but still, most of these people saw the events just after they happened. It also says that the shuttle didn't explode, but then describes what happened as a huge fireball. I can see how people might describe it as an explosion. So the crew may not have died instantly, but they were probably unconscious until the cabin fell back to the Earth, so it doesn't make too much of a difference to them or to anyone. I gave up reading at this point, but there don't seem to be any major revelations. It was a tragedy, and the important lessons learned from the loss of lives are what I hope live on.
  • Selective outrage? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 27, 2006 @05:04AM (#14577082)
    Today, in every mid-size town, more people will die in traffic accidents than got killed in the Shuttle. Today, in most counties, more people will be murdered than got killed in the Shuttle.

    Today, more people will choke on a marshmellow and die than got killed in the Shuttle

    Yes, people died and they should have lived. So do all the other that die today. Are they not as worthy to remember? At least the astronauts did something to further mankind.

  • by prockcore ( 543967 ) on Friday January 27, 2006 @05:05AM (#14577084)
    Being gratitously reminded of it is not appreciated.

    It's not gratuitous. It's the 20th aniversary, and it is important to make sure that history is as accurate as possible.
  • by dreadlord76 ( 562584 ) on Friday January 27, 2006 @05:09AM (#14577095)
    >>Yeah, I could have done without seeing this story.
    >>The fate of the crew was just awful.
    >>Being gratitously reminded of it is not appreciated.

    The Genocide was Awful. So many Jews died
    The rape of Nanjing was Awful. So many Chinese were killed.
    The Bombing of Hiroshima was awful.

    Please don't mention them or print stories about them. We don't need to be reminded of them, or learn from them, to prevent repeating of our earlier mistakes.

  • by mumblestheclown ( 569987 ) on Friday January 27, 2006 @05:11AM (#14577097)
    The fate of the crew was just awful.

    Not any worse (and in fact, probably much "better") than many airline disasters, including TWA800, Alaska 261, and a litany of others.

  • No explosion? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Vellmont ( 569020 ) on Friday January 27, 2006 @05:16AM (#14577111) Homepage
    What kind of strange definition of explosion does this guy have?

    the shuttle's fuel tank tore apart, spilling liquid oxygen and hydrogen which formed a huge fireball at an altitude of 46,000 ft.

    That kind of sounds like an explosion to me. Maybe to a demolitions expert it doesn't meet some specialized technical definition of "explosion", but I don't see how that's really relavent. Talking about how the actual orbiter didn't explode is really starting to split hairs here.
  • by Morgaine ( 4316 ) on Friday January 27, 2006 @05:17AM (#14577112)
    >> 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.

    That's the bit that annoyed me most.

    The very idea that non-technical management can override or disregard technical advice provided by professionals in their specialist technical area is a complete travesty.

    And imposing a flawed managerial direction by applying social pressures (bullying/bamboozling) to brush dissenters under the carpet just made it worse. All highly unprofessional.

    I know that it's the way that business works these days, with the management thinking that it is somehow "above" the technical people who deal with the technology on which the enterprise is founded, but it's an insane model in a world that is becoming ever more technical every day.

    As non-technical management becomes ever more clueless about technical issues with each passing day of technical progress, businesses who don't accept overriding technical direction at management level are treading the path towards having their own "Challanger disasters". It's a misguided approach.
  • by Channard ( 693317 ) on Friday January 27, 2006 @05:21AM (#14577124) Journal
    'Memory can change the shape of a room; it can change the color of a car. And memories can be distorted. They're just an interpretation, they're not a record, and they're irrelevant if you have the facts.'
  • by Alioth ( 221270 ) <no@spam> on Friday January 27, 2006 @06:03AM (#14577235) Journal
    "More people die getting hit by cars a day..." is a particularly pointless comparison: hundreds of millions travel by car every day, whereas only a handful of astronauts fly per year.

    The Space Shuttle is not safe by any stretch of imagination: so far, the track record is an average of one total loss for every 50 flights. (Would anyone ever drive if there was one fatal car accident for every 50 car journeys, or would anyone ever fly if an airliner went down on average once per 50 flights?)
  • say what? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Quadraginta ( 902985 ) on Friday January 27, 2006 @06:12AM (#14577263)
    I should remind you, that America in the 1980's had lots of social conflict lying just below the surface.

    It did? Gosh, I don't remember that. And I'm old enough to have voted for Reagan. Twice.
  • This comment is a great example of what is wrong with Slashdot's moderation system. As I write this the parent comment has a +5 insightful score - a comment that is clearly written by somebody who has not read the article and has no knowledge of the subject.

    Had the poster had a knowledge of the Challenger disaster they should know that the problem was caused by an O-ring failure due to the temperature at launch being significantly below the designed operating temperature of said O-ring. The "two sticks of dynamite between a tank of incredibly flammable gasses" comment is childish at best, but really just demonstrates a lack of understanding. That kind of launch configuration has been used successfully before and since.

    It is completely irrelevant to comment that more people die by getting hit by cars than rockets, and making such a comparison shows a clear lack of insight.

    It was a big deal because it was a big screw-up - not so much as a distraction from "social conflict", although it will inevitably had some distracting effect and been exploited for that by the media and politicians as all such events are. The real issue and lesson is that NASA had systematic problems that meant that the engineers who knew there was a massive risk of mission failure were ignored. This was all exposed in the Challenger investigation - most clearly by the investigations of Richard Feynman.

    This +5 comment is exactly why I want to be able to browse at +10.
  • composite aging? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Quadraginta ( 902985 ) on Friday January 27, 2006 @06:43AM (#14577337)
    Columbia's crew died because small pieces of foam falling off tanks got to be routine, and eventually after 100 missions a big one fell off...

    You know, I've always wondered what part composite aging might have played. Materials scientists tend to know little about how composite materials like the RCC panels age, especially in the harsh environment they had to endure -- radiation, violent temperature swings, et cetera -- and especially over the 20 years or so between Columbia's fabrication and the accident. Plus, unlike metals, composites are a bit notorious for showing no outward signs at all that they are about to fail, for looking perfectly sound even when they are so rotten that they'll suddenly and catastrophically fail under stresses they easily stood before.

    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.

    If Columbia's accident was the result of this kind of failure, it's a lot harder to blame the designers, engineers, and even management for failing to prevent it -- because it involved the emergence without any warning of a completely unforeseeable materials failure mode. Essentially, the impact of the foam was a trivial hazard, easily withstood by the airframe for almost all of the 20 years Columbia flew. And then, by incredibly bad luck, the aging of the RCC material made the stuff just suddenly become ridiculously fragile, to the point where an oversize bird turd could crack it. And it did so with no outward signs of weakness at all.

    That would make Columbia's accident pretty much a pure act of God, beyond the ability of mortal men to foresee and prevent. Indeed, I think one of the lessons of Columbia should probably be that these things still happen, that materials and systems can fail in totally unforeseen ways, even with the best engineering talent and the best management will in the world.
  • by Shivetya ( 243324 ) on Friday January 27, 2006 @06:47AM (#14577344) Homepage Journal
    While the non-technical managers overriding the decisions of the technical staff here would never lead to loss of life it still occurs and is still very frustrating.

    Many of us can spend more time refuting a non-tech than actually performing the work. It can take more time refuting even most uninformed opinion than the entire projects takes from planning to completion. I have had projects stopped just before release because of some "wild hair" objection by someone higher up only to later unexplicably finding it released.

    Its jealously for the most part. Not direct but that is what it still is. They need to feel superior somehow so they mask ignorance with authority. By pulling "rank" they have effectively shown the technical staff whose boss as if it makes right.

    Fortunately there are times where their idiocy gets noticed by someone higher up who realizes the issue raised is nothing more than strutting and they get boxed up for a while. But eventually they pop their heads up again when the coast is clear and it is back to step one.

    Sometimes I think the motto of most companies is, "We make money inspite of ourselves"
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 27, 2006 @06:53AM (#14577359)
    You know what it is, too? They might have been "bullied or bamboozled into acquiescing", but that means the engineers did, in fact, acquiesce! That means clearly none of them had a mathematical proof of certain disaster, or they would have said, "NO, I know this is certain disaster, and you can fire me if you want but I won't let it happen." In fact, it means more than that: it means none of them thought, on the whole, that there was certain enough risk that they should stand up for what they knew. As a manager, I would say if any engineer had reasonable proof of a 10% chance of failure (for example, 10% of simulations with the O-ring faults show catastrophe), then this person would not let the mission proceed even at risk of termination. It is fair to say that there was good communication surrounding that 1% or whatever: the engineers objected vehemently, the managers saw that the risk as 7 deaths per 1000. The correct comparison is war: what general would call off a major battle because some engineer says he thinks it will cost seven in a thousand of his soldiers! A manager thinks: At seven in a thousand, I can do ten of 'em and still lose only 70 men in 1000. Holy cow!

    Also, you gotta' remember: no one survived the middle ages. No one will survive the "space age". Life moves on, everybody dies. Is it worth doing something dangerous before we do? Answer: sometimes.
  • by nagora ( 177841 ) on Friday January 27, 2006 @06:55AM (#14577361)
    The number of people who did observe this, numbers in the high hundreds of thousands at least; that hardly qualifies as few,

    Compare with the number of people who remember it, that is very few indeed.

    a quick look on Wiktionary shows it to have as one common meaning to destroy violently or abruptly which is certainly what happened to the shuttle.

    Which shows why Wiktionary is a pile of junk like Wikipedia. That description could applied to a car hitting a wall at 100mph, or me stamping on a can. The shuttle did not explode, the external fuel tank did but with very little force. The shuttle was mostly destroyed by aerodynamic stress caused by this event. In either case the shuttle was destroyed from without, as opposed to an explostion which is an internal event ("expand suddenly with a loud noise owning to a release of internal energy" - Concise OED, a real dictionary).

    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.

    Almost three minutes is not instantly and, as was pointed out, there is some evidence that people were moving inside the cabin at least enough to activate some emergency equipment. The shuttle cabin was not destroyed by either the fuel tank explosion or the disintegration of the shuttle body and in fact the only reason the crew may not have been conscious is the de-compression idea which itself is unproved. There is no reason to believe that the crew were subjected to violent trauma which put them into extreme shock; that's just a figment of your imagination. NASA have been quiet about this point but in fact at the time of recovering the wreckage they did say that they thought some of the crew had been conscious when the cabin hit the water.

    Any rational person would recognise the inherent danger in strapping themselves to the side of an enormous tank of liquid oxygen and lighting it.

    And any rational person would recognise that the word "especially" in this context denoted relative danger rather than some absolute scale.

    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.

    Read the article again; he's not talking here about the O-ring that failed.

    This is simply delusional, and requires no further comment

    Wrong on both counts.

    It is difficult to know where to start with this statement.

    Well, since you clearly agree that the disaster was avoidable, as does the author, I would have thought a good place would have been to say "yes, that's right".

    Well done. Worst post I've read so far this year.


  • Re:Live at school (Score:5, Insightful)

    by hey! ( 33014 ) on Friday January 27, 2006 @08:24AM (#14577600) Homepage Journal
    I remember walking into work (late as usual) with my bike over my shoulder.

    The secretary was sitting at her desk with a odd, hollow expression in her eyes.

    "Is anything wrong?" I asked.

    "It blew up," she responded.

    "What? What are you talking about?"

    "The space shuttle. It exploded." (I know this is not technically correct)

    There was no TV in the office, and graphical terminals/workstations for offices were still five years away from being common, the Internet probably fifteen years away. If it werent' for the fact she liked to listen to music while she filed, we probably wouldn't have heard about it until we went out for lunch. But I remember the moment clearly.

    It's odd that it was such an impressive event, especially for the non-geeks among us who probably couldn't name the first American in space, much less debate the wisdom of the Shuttle's redundant computer architecture as some of us did. Yet I think nearly every American felt the loss in a personal way -- not like losing a friend exactly, more like the feeling of vertigo you'd have if you were standing in the middle of a big bridge and suddenly saw one of the girders underneath you fall into the water.

    I think that for many Americans, the instant of learning the disaster was the exact moment the myth of American invicincibilty died. We may have left Vietnam with our tails between our legs, but damn it nobody else put a man on the Moon.

    I think the country has never been the same since that day. Before Challenger, optimism was an American character trait. Afterwards it became an ideology. I think that ironically collapse of the Soviet Union dealt the national psyche a second blow. Challenger destroyed our sense of competence, and the end of the Communist Menace destroyed our sense of shared purpose. I think we got a sense of what we lost on 9/11, which is the closest recent experience to the Challenger disaster. 9/11 was a moment of agony, but although few have dared to admit it, it was also curiously bracing. For a brief time, we knew what we had to do: we were going to kick somebody's ass.

  • by digitaldc ( 879047 ) * on Friday January 27, 2006 @08:30AM (#14577620)
    What other 'Myths' are there going on right now that we are unaware of?

    Are spreading 'Mythinformation' common practice among the news media and government?
    Or just a coincidence or from not having all the facts at the time?
  • Re:live at school? (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 27, 2006 @09:08AM (#14577785)
    There were not enough TV's for ever class room so there were two classes per room and they had us all sitting Indian style on the floor.

    You insensitive clod! I can't believe you would say such an intolerant, hate-riddled thing! Don't you think we've done enough damage?

    You were sitting "criss-cross applesauce", not that other way.

    If you do not think I am serious, wait till your kids go to school.

  • by WidescreenFreak ( 830043 ) on Friday January 27, 2006 @09:51AM (#14577976) Homepage Journal
    Typical Slashdot moderation. Post an anti-Republican, TROLL statement like yours and it gets modded as insightful just because it's anti-Republican.

    If you think that the Clinton years were any less FUD, you must be the proud owner of a very strong pair of prescription, rose-colored glasses. EVERY Presidency is about FUD to one extent or the other regardless of whether or not that president happens to be of your political party or not. That's partly what politicking is all about.

    No, sir, your extremist view ("I have decided for everyone that you're part of the problem because I don't like how you voted!") is the real problem, regardless of which political party is being demeaned or defended.
  • Heh. The classic "I understand it so they will" problem.

    Tech types need to remember that even *if* their audience is as smart as them, their intelligence may well be targeted at a completely different area, leaving them completely unable to understand what you are saying, or only understand enough to be dangerous.
  • by filmsmith ( 608221 ) on Friday January 27, 2006 @10:05AM (#14578072)
    Said the man whose facts were being manipulated by his 'friends'...
  • Re:Live at school (Score:4, Insightful)

    by fshalor ( 133678 ) <> on Friday January 27, 2006 @10:07AM (#14578082) Homepage Journal
    I can't remember whether I was in 3rd or 2nd. But I do remember that we had had a visit from an astronaught a few weeks before telling us about the flight.

    All the rest of what I learned about the challanger D, I learned from Richard Freynman "What do you care what other people think.".

    Great book too. Really nails home the issues about the challanger, top down engineering, and oversights. I think back to his analysis very often.

    It couples with his comment "the eaisiest person to fool is your self" and together they are a vital cornerstone of my safety preparadness.

    People should not have died because of a oring desingned for compression being used in expansion. People should not have died because someone did not properly use a temperature sensor. People should not have died because a practice for ensuring roundness of the SRB's involved comparing three diamaters. ...

    There! Its off my chest. Now I can go to work.
  • by archdetector ( 876357 ) on Friday January 27, 2006 @10:47AM (#14578342)
    Well, effectively, they did. There was nothing that could be done at that point to save them.

    What you say may well be true, since the cockpit I don't think was designed to handle such an impact. However, a 200mph crash is survivable, provided the vehicle, the seat, etc. are designed properly - just watch a season of F1 for proof. I'd be curious to know if the current shuttle cabin has been designed to similar standards.

Each honest calling, each walk of life, has its own elite, its own aristocracy based on excellence of performance. -- James Bryant Conant