Remembering the Challenger disaster

Taylor Lundy | Anchor Staff

Twenty-eight years ago, the world watched in awe and horror as NASA’s second space shuttle, Challenger, exploded off the coast of Cape Canaveral, Fla. It is estimated that about 17 percent of Americans were watching the launch live, due to the popularity of Christa McAuliffe, who would have been the first teacher ever to go into space.
A mere 73 seconds into its flight, the shuttle broke apart in a fiery explosion and the world was stunned to silence as the seven crew members were all killed. Even here at Rhode Island College, faculty and staff remember the event clearly.
Jeanne Morris, the secretary for the Special Education Department, remembers watching the disaster live on television.
“What struck me, was that they had all the students (from McAuliffe’s class) watching the event. It was supposed to be a historic day, and it turned into torment that the kids will probably never forget,” said Morris.
Physics professor Steven Rivers remembers the event vividly as well.
“I was a graduate student when the Challenger disaster occurred. I don’t remember if I saw it live, but it was shortly after the accident at the latest because I was still at home that morning. I had to go in to work to teach that afternoon and it all seemed so surreal. There were no DVR’s or World Wide Web yet, so many of us stayed glued to our TV sets when we could.”
Rivers commented that in another camera angle, it was easy to tell that the external fuel tank had exploded, and that one of the booster rockets had strayed away from the shuttle itself. Even with the disaster played over and over again on television, it was still hard to believe.
“For a while many of us had hopes that through some miracle the crew had survived.”
The disaster began after an O-ring seal in its right rocket booster failed at liftoff. The O-ring failure caused a breach in the rocket booster joint it had sealed, allowing pressurized hot gas from within the rocket motor to come into contact with the adjacent booster attachment hardware and external fuel tank. This led to the separation of the right booster’s aft attachment and the structural failure of the external tank. The rest was broken up by aerodynamic forces.
The disaster caused a 32-month halt in the shuttle program, and the formation of the Rogers Commission, a special force appointed by U.S. President Ronald Reagan to investigate the accident. The Rogers Commission discovered that NASA’s organizational culture and decision-making processes had been large contributors to the accident. NASA managers had known contractor Morton Thiokol’s design of the rocket boosters contained a potentially heinous flaw in the O-rings since 1977, but failed to address it.
NASA also disregarded warnings from engineers about the dangers of the low temperatures of that morning and the potential effects it could have on the shuttle and the launch. However, the Rogers Commission did not bring attention to the fact that the vehicle was never certified to operate in temperatures that low. The O-rings, as well as many other critical components, had no test data to support being able to perform a successful launch in such conditions.
The Challenger disaster is exactly that, a disaster. However, since the horrifying explosion, procedures have gone into place to make sure such a heinous event never happens again. Even if NASA has halted their exploration program, there are still those who honor the ones who never had the chance to explore at all.

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