Tonight’s broadcast of National Geographic’s “Seconds to Disaster” series took a look at the Challenger disaster. This covered the usual stuff like the cold-sensitive O-rings in the solid rocket boosters, but added in something that I either missed the first time around or forgot, which was the presence of winds close to 200 miles per hour above 30,000 feet. Analysis of the footage taken of the 73-second flight of the Challenger showed puffs of smoke escaping the right-hand (IIRC) solid rocket booster while the Challenger was getting off the launch pad. These puffs stopped seconds after they began. After the Challenger hit the high-altitude high wind, a flame appears at that point on the solid rocket booster. The show’s expert speculates that aluminum slag blocked the gap left by the non-functioning O-ring a few seconds into the launch, and held all the way up to the level where Challenger encountered high winds, where the stress could have dislodged the slag.
The show concludes that if the Challenger had not met that region of high wind, it may have been possible that the slag blockage might have held the remaining fifty seconds or so to the point of solid rocket separation, and the rest of the mission could have been completely uneventful.
Seeing the program took me back to those days. Something not really broached in the program was the political situation at NASA. 1986 was in the midst of the Reagan era, and programs like space exploration and education were high on the list of things that the administration was eager to find reasons to cut back funding, the better to “cut taxes” with. And President Reagan had linked the two together by proposing that NASA send a teacher into space on a shuttle mission. While many saw this as touching symbolism, I was more cynical, seeing it instead as a stunt to distract attention away from the fundamental hostility of the administration to public education. So when it came to the decision to launch Challenger despite the objections of the Morton-Thiokol engineer on the spot, the NASA managers had more on their minds than just the technical issues. They were under pressure to perform, to deliver a timely launch of the already-delayed Challenger mission. As the Wikipedia article relates, Reagan’s State of the Union address was originally scheduled for the night of the launch. Was that entirely out of mind of the NASA managers making the decision to launch that day?
So I think that the NatGeo program did a nice job of covering the technical issues, showing what went wrong and when, but was a bit skimpy on putting that into the wider context of why NASA managers might have made the bad choices they did. Another gap was that I didn’t hear any mention of Richard Feynman’s participation in the investigation that followed.