Challenger: What Went Wrong?

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the explosion that destroyed space shuttle Challenger and its seven-member crew. The mission was doomed by poor decision making before liftoff on a cold Florida morning.

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(Soundbite of Challenger launch)

Unidentified Man #1: Engines throttling up. Three engines now at 104 percent.

Unidentified Man #2: Challenger, go with throttle up.

Unidentified Man #3: Challenger going throttle up.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

Twenty years ago today, the space shuttle Challenger took off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

(Soundbite of Challenger launch)

Unidentified Man #1: Flight Controllers here looking very carefully at the situation. Obviously a major malfunction.

ELLIOTT: The craft carried seven astronauts, among them Christa McAuliffe, a schoolteacher and the first ordinary citizen to venture into outer space.

The shuttle exploded just 73 seconds after it launched, killing everyone onboard. Investigators found that the faulty design of O-rings, a type of gasket, caused a leak in one of the two rocket boosters that then ignited the shuttles fuel tank. But the reasons behind the explosion weren't all technical. NPR Science correspondent, Richard Harris, covered the Challenger investigations and joins me now. Hi, Richard.

Mr. RICHARD HARRIS (NPR Science Correspondent): Hi, Debbie.

ELLIOT: Most of us remember the debate over the o-rings but what else did investigators find out about the reasons behind the disaster?

Mr. HARRIS: Well, the o-rings were really imbedded in both the history and the culture of NASA and when you want to get to the root cause it really comes down to that and let me tell you a little bit of the history. Remember NASA was a fabulous agency. It got us to the moon in a very short period of time. They were given a blank check, it was a big space race against the Soviet Union. And so, it was heralded as a this fabulous organization and it also led to a bit of cockiness, frankly in the organization and one of the comeuppances of that was that managers tended to dismiss the concerns of technical people.

ELLIOT: After the Challenger accident, did NASA indeed correct this cultural problem?

Mr. HARRIS: Well, they did for a while because the next 87 flights actually were all successful flights. But it wasn't entirely a cultural change, it was also partly luck because actually during that time as well, other problems, not o-rings, but other problems like o-rings emerged. The classic, of course, was foam falling of the external fuel tank of the space shuttles during life off. That was not supposed to happened.

It was outside what was allowable but people said, well, it keeps happening and hitting the shuttle and nothing bad happens except little digs that we can replace later during repair so let's not worry about it. Well, as we all know, three years ago, the space shuttle Columbia had one of these pieces of foam hit the leading edge of one of its wings and that led to the second space shuttle disaster. The same cultural problem within NASA.

ELLIOT: Now is this a cultural problem that is unique in any way to NASA or is it something broader, something about human nature?

Mr. HARRIS: It's definitely human nature. I mean, if you drive down the road, you wouldn't worry about a little sound you hear in your car figuring, well, I'm used to that sounds, how big a deal is it? People tend to react to what they're used to as opposed to saying, we don't fully understand this, let's get down to the bottom of it. And it's partly a function of the fact that the space shuttle is so enormously complicated that you can't ever expect it to be a hundred percent safe. The question is, is it gonna be 98 percent safe in which case you're gonna have some accidents over the life of the program or 99.9 percent safe in which case maybe you will get lucky and not have an accident?

ELLIOT: What is going on today at NASA to get to that 99.9 percent level?

Mr. HARRIS: I think what's happening is they are going to fly as few shuttle flights as they can possibly manage and then retire the space shuttle. Because it is fundamentally not a vehicle that's ever gonna be terribly safe. It was designed to do too many things at once. Its designed to carry large amounts of freight and people and it was a compromised machine and as a result, the people are close to the rockets and its just inherently dangerous.

ELLIOT: How soon are we likely to see people in space again?

Mr. HARRIS: Well, the next space shuttle flight is scheduled for May of this year if they can get it fixed again. And the space shuttle is supposed to fly through the year 2010 so the shuttle does not have very many flights left in it. The next generation spacecraft is gonna be in 2012, 2014; some place out there, maybe later. So there's gonna be a gap in having human beings go in to space, at least on American spacecraft. Let's remember the Russians have been using essentially the same technology since the 1960s and it works.

ELLIOT: After the Challenger accident, NASA's image took a hard blow and then after the Columbia accident, more and more questions. What is the state of the agency as far as the way it's looked upon by leaders and by the American public?

Mr. HARRIS: Well, I think what NASA has going for it is that there is a strong public interest in some space program and also a strong commercial interest, frankly. The aerospace contractors are always encouraging Congress to fund these things and so on. And let's not forget the wonderful, wonderful things that NASA does with unmanned space programs. We just launched a probe to Pluto and we'll have to wait a few years to see the results of that, but we have a fabulous spacecraft orbiting Saturn right now, taking wonderful pictures, dropped a probe onto one of the moons of Saturn, we have spacecraft approaching Mars, still crawling around on Mars, so that's got a lot of good things to point to also and a lot of public support for those activities.

ELLIOT: NPR Science correspondent, Richard Harris, thank you.

Mr. HARRIS: My pleasure.

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