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  • Print publication year: 2014
  • Online publication date: June 2014

2 - The naked launch: assigning blame for the Challenger explosion


We always remember where we were when we first heard about a momentous event. Those over forty-five years old know what they were doing when they heard that John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. Similarly, anyone who was watching television remembers where they were at 11:38 a.m. Eastern Standard Time on 28 January, 1986 when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded. The billowing cloud of white smoke laced with twirling loops made by the careering Solid Rocket Boosters proclaimed the death of seven astronauts and the end of the space programmme's ‘can do’ infallibility.

Unlike the inconclusive Warren Commission that inquired into Kennedy's death, the Presidential Commission chaired by William Rogers soon distributed blame. There was no ambivalence in their report. The cause of the accident was a circular seal made of rubber known as an O-ring. The Challenger's Solid Rocket Boosters were made in segments, and the O-rings sealed the gap between them. A seal failed and the escaping exhaust gas became a blow torch which burned through a strut and started a sequence of events which led to the disaster.