Challenges with the Challenger (Fall 2018)

Challenges with The Challenger

Jodi Hancheroff, Layne Young, MJ Turner, December Hayes, Ameer Hamza Awan, & Hashim Awan

Figure 1: Credit –

     The Space Shuttle Challenger Mission was an event which changed the world of space travel. This catastrophic event has brought about relevant advancements to technology in the modern-day astronomical realm, which is why it is such an important topic to discuss. This space mission was arguably not a complete failure, due to examples that will be later explored.  There were several events leading up to the tragedy which has prompted many conversations amongst scientists and astronauts for decades and will continue to do so for years to come. As curious citizens, we wonder what went wrong, how it went wrong, and where to go next? We are left to wonder, how could the failed Space Shuttle Challenger Mission possibly have led to scientific advancements in the field of space missions?


     On January 28th, 1968, the Challenger Space Mission changed the world of science. It was an extremely cold and icy day, fittingly dreary. This event was being televised for the exciting deal that was the World’s first civilian teacher in space – Sharon Christa McAuliffe. Viewers from around the world tuned in with anticipation. Her, along with six other astronauts, were set for the exciting expedition, hoping to ameliorate modern day science and technology.

Figure 2: Credit-

     This mission had several main objectives. Many projects were planned for the proposed seven-day long venture. Amongst these, were the deployment of the Tracking Data Relay Satellite-2 (TDRS-2), flying off the Shuttle-Pointed Tool for Astronomy (SPARTAN-203), a free-flying module with two ultraviolet spectrometers and two cameras, as well as a set of televised lessons for the Teacher In Space Project (TISP)1. This information comes from an academic online resource in which scholars with NASA publish detailed objectives and overviews of many different space missions.

     Seventy-three seconds is all that it took to go wrong. Due to a rushed inspection of the flawed solid-fuel rocket booster, the Challenger’s fuel tank was ignited, and the shuttle was completely destroyed. The shuttle crashed into the Atlantic Ocean, and all seven crew members were killed. This was the first time American astronauts had died in flight, and it was being broadcasted for the world to watch. This was particularly disturbing because of the children who were watching, eager to witness the first teacher in space. One can only assume the immediate aftermath of pandemonium and anxiety.

The main reasons as to why this mission went awry, is due to a very rushed program on NASA’s part. Due to this flawed decision making, shuttle programs were grounded for three years to analyze every last technical piece. There is wide speculation that a part of the reason for the rushing had to do with the American government.

Figure 3: Credit –

      Specifically, the Reagan Administration. According to Richard C. Cook, higher-ups from NASA knew of the potential failure in O-rings but decided to take the chance regardless.2 Cook had previously worked within NASA and had done research prior to the launch of the Challenger. He suggests that this swift decision-making was seemingly made because of the speech that was supposed to have been given to the State of the Union by the then president. NASA had hoped to not delay this process and was under pressure to succeed.

     Regarding the failure of the O-ring, there are several reasons. These include the faulty design of the solid rocket booster, the insufficient low-temperature testing of the O-ring material and the joints it sealed, and lack of communication between different levels of NASA management. There is a demonstration of the inability of the O-ring to withstand cold temperatures done by Richard Feynman on YouTube under the title Richard Feynman: Challenger Crash O-ring. Feynman shows an audience how the O-ring does not keep its shape while under pressure and immersed in a cup of ice water for an extended amount of time. He explains that there is no resilience for at least a few seconds in the particular material.

     A major problem, which has led to safety advancements, was the lack of an escape pod. The members were not given an opportunity to escape due to this. According to Richard C. Cook, there was evidence that at least three members were alive moments before the crash and after the explosion. This is known due to the three emergency air packs that were activated before the shuttle hit the Atlantic Ocean.3 The question stands, what if there had been an active escape pod? An effective escape pod would likely have changed the fate of the crew, seeing as they are developed to effectively provide an exit route for astronauts in case of emergency. This had led to a major development in these types of backup plans, which are still being used in the modern day.

O-ring Failure

This is a famous moment where physicist Richard Feynman, a member of the Rogers Commission, demonstrated the inability of the o-rings on the Challenger to withstand cold temperatures. He was able to come to a conclusion after doing research into the incident that it was the cold temperature that led to the failure of the o-rings.

Scientific advancements

After the accident, all shuttles were grounded till 1988. In the meantime, NASA made two changes to the program, so they fixed the problem with the o-rings and added an additional ring to each link between the section. They also added the heating pads to make sure they stayed above 24 degrees no matter how cold it was outside. They also spent those years changing the policies and management structure in the hope that a warning against the launch never is ignored again. These changes have helped over the next 17 years.

Significance / Relevance

     The Challenger disaster will forever be a significant part of the history of space exploration. No one who witnessed it will ever be able to forget. The event made headlines worldwide. Many children had watched the launch and subsequent explosion at school. The world was greatly affected by the loss.

     It forced NASA to make major changes to policies and focus. This resulted in the space shuttle program being shut down for nearly three years. New safety regulations and testing procedures were created. Even with all these updated measures, seventeen years after the Challenger debacle, there was a second avoidable fatal shuttle accident, the Columbia, stemming from lax risk-assessment processes. Once again, the shuttle program was interrupted and NASA was forced to reassess its policies. Hopefully, they have learned from their past mistakes and will have no further fatalities arising from the lack of proper safety protocols and communication errors.     

     The Challenger disaster was tragic, but much good has come from it. The Challenger Center for Space Science Education which honours the fallen astronauts and inspires future generations is one of those good things. The enhanced safety protocols protecting current and future astronauts are another. Let Challenger’s legacy be one of education and continued exploration. We should not let the disaster cloud our desire to continue reaching for the stars.   

Figure 4: Credit –


     The Challenger Space Shuttle mission has been challenging to the world of space and science, to say the least. The major tragedy and needless reasons for failure have prompted a conversation amongst society in which we discuss the harsh reality of the dangers surrounding space travel. Nonetheless, the space-traveling community has learned from its mistakes and has implemented the appropriate initiatives to ensure accuracy and safety. This unfortunate and devastating event will not go unspoken of and will always be commemorated as a learning experience in honour of those who have sacrificed their lives in the name of science. The challenges with the Challenger have offered significant advancements to the field of space missions through the development of O-rings, escape pods, safety precautions, etc.

Reference List

1. J., Dumoulin (29 June 2001). (Accessed 8 November 2018)

2. M., Wall (28 January 2016). (Accessed 25 October 2018)

3. R., Cook, The Thomas Paine Corner (2008). (Accessed 25 October 2018)

4. R. Crane, CNN (2016)

(Accessed 25 October 2018)

5. M. Wall, Scientific American (2016). (Accessed 25 October 2018)

6. Challenger Center.
(Accessed 25 October 2018)