- The purpose of Challenger flight STS-51-L on January 28, 1986 was to launch the first Teacher in Space project while observing Halley’s comet for six days.
- Unfortunately, just 73 seconds after launch at the Kennedy Space Center, a structural failure caused the spacecraft to disintegrate, killing all seven crew members on board.
- Netflix will explore that challenger Disaster in a newly published documentation.
The 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster was a shocking tragedy, made all the more devastating when the disintegration of the spacecraft was televised on live. The incident forever changed the way NASA operated its space shuttle program. Now Netflix examines the events before and after the disaster in a new four-part documentary. Challenger: The Last Flight. The series will feature rare archive footage and interviews with former NASA officials, engineers, and the surviving family members of the crew.
And although the disaster has been publicly known for 34 years, many still do not know what exactly caused the incident. Here̵
What caused the Space Shuttle Challenger accident in 1986?
The Challenger accident was caused by a design flaw in the spacecraft’s O-rings. These are mechanical seals that are designed to sit in a groove and then compress between two surfaces, creating a seal at the interface. This seal prevents liquids or gases from escaping. The morning of the 1986 spaceflight was much colder than previous Challenger launches, and the primary O-ring went cold and hard and couldn’t seal properly.
A structural failure occurred when pressurized burning gas from the solid rocket motor reached the external fuel tank, which then disintegrated, causing Challenger to be torn apart. (Many outlets incorrectly reported that the vehicle had exploded at the time.) The cabin the crew was in remained intact during the vehicle’s disintegration, but two minutes and forty-five seconds after the breakup, the cabin hit the ocean surface with one Speed of about 20 mph, which was “well beyond the structural limits of the crew compartment or crew survivability,” as this archived version of the crew death report explains.
Could the Challenger disaster have been prevented?
Unfortunately, it was known that O-rings could fail. In fact, Allan McDonald, former director of the solid rocket motor space shuttle project at Morton-Thiokol, the contractor for the design of the O-rings, had previously raised concerns that sub-zero temperatures could negatively affect the integrity of the rockets’ O- Rings.
Engineer Bob Ebeling also expressed concern about the o-rings, and before the failed launch, he and a group of engineers met with NASA managers from the Kennedy Space Center and Marshall Space Flight Center, where they asked NASA to take the flight to move. NASA reportedly allayed its fears and while Thiokol’s management team initially assisted their engineers, they later reversed course and asked NASA to proceed with the launch.
“NASA decided the start,” Ebeling told United Press International in 2016. “They really wanted to prove to the world that they were right and they knew what they were doing. But they didn’t.” The night before take-off, Ebeling told his wife that Challenger would blow up.
After the disaster, the Rogers Commission was set up to investigate and determine the cause of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. The commission later found that NASA executives had known about the faulty design of the O-rings since 1977 – but they never did anything about it. The report also noted NASA’s flawed internal structure: “This testimony reveals communications errors that led to the decision to bring 51-L to market [the 1986 Challenger flight] based on incomplete and sometimes misleading information, a conflict between technical data and management judgments, and a NASA management structure that allowed internal flight safety issues to bypass key shuttle managers.
How did the Challenger disaster change NASA?
The Challenger disaster grounded NASA’s space shuttle program for about three years, but some important changes were made after the restart. Engineering changes were made to the shuttle, and NASA made efforts to change its work culture to be more transparent. The shuttle program resumed on September 29, 1988 with Space Shuttle Discovery.
In 1986, the Challenger Crew’s friends and families founded the Challenger Center for Space Science Education to honor loved ones in 1986, and the nonprofit is working to expand STEM education to students worldwide.
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