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Challenger disaster at 30: Did the tragedy change NASA for the better?

In the years since the disaster, space historians have tried to determine whether real reform ever came, and whether it could be said that NASA changed for the better.
By Brooks Hays   |   Jan. 27, 2016 at 6:30 AM
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WASHINGTON, Jan. 27 (UPI) -- Since humans first set their sights beyond the upper atmosphere, 22 astronauts have died during space missions or test flights. There have been more space-related fatalities, more than 150, if you count ground crews killed in launch accidents and astronauts who perished during land-based tests gone wrong.

No fatalities were more dramatic than the seven that happened on Jan. 28, 1986, when the space shuttle Challenger broke up in mid-flight, its fatal and fiery disintegration televised for millions of traumatized American viewers.

On the same day as the tragedy, UPI chronicled the history of spaceflight accidents -- recalling the deaths that came before.

At the bottom of the story, those killed that fateful January day were listed.

Lost in the Challenger disaster were commander Francis 'Dick' Scobee, 46, co-pilot Michael Smith, 40, Judith Resnik, 36, Ellison Onizuka, 39, Arnold McNair, 35, satellite engineer Gregory Jarvis, 41, and Christa McAuliffe, the 37-year-old Concord, N.H., social studies teacher picked from 11,000 candidates to be the first private citizen in space.

Many expected the tragedy at the end of that 1986 timeline to be a turning point for NASA and the history of space exploration. But would the disaster trigger a decline or inspire return to glory?

In the wake of the accident, retired astronauts predicted their former employer to rebound.

"I don't think this will deter anybody," Alan Bean, the fourth man to walk on the moon, told UPI at the time. "Astronauts with the program now are shocked and saddened, but I am sure they are going to put their minds to trying to find out what happened and put their minds back to the exploration of space."

A federal commission appointed by President Ronald Reagan blamed the disaster on faulty O-rings, ringed rubber seals meant to contain highly pressurized gases from rocket propellants inside the boosters. The failed O-rings allowed a gas leak and flame to compromise the rocket's gas tanks and booster joints, throwing the rocket and shuttle off course and causing the spaceship's fatal breakup due to abnormal aerodynamic forces.

The Rogers Commission also determined that NASA officials had known about potential problems with the O-rings and ignored the concerns of engineers during the years and even days prior to the accident.

NASA promised reforms.

In the years since the disaster, space historians have tried to determine whether real reform ever came, and whether it could be said that NASA changed for the better -- that was the agency's intention.

Certainly, NASA became more scrutinized. It opened itself up to an increased level of external oversight. And for a while, it became more conservative in its pace of scheduled launches and decision making.

As UPI reported in the year following the disaster: "The fiscal 1988 budget calls for a 76 percent increase -- to $16.2 million -- for safety, reliability and quality assurance programs."

The space shuttle program resumed flights in 1988, after NASA engineers made some 200 changes to the rocket, shuttle and rocket boosters.

Things seemed to have returned to normal. And with the return to normal came the same hastened and unrealistic launch schedule, the same budget constraints and the same complacency in regard to oversight and safety.

In 2003, another deadly accident, the breakup of the Columbia shuttle, made the judgment of space experts and historians unnecessary. If NASA had changed for the better in the wake of the Challenger disaster, the positive results were short-lived.

The 2003 accident that killed another seven astronauts was blamed on a piece of foam insulation ripped from the shuttle, which tore a hole in the wing. Investigators determined that officials had known about the foam problem and that dislodged insulation had caused debris damage on at least half a dozen previous shuttle flights.

A known and dangerous risk had been accepted as routine -- or "tolerated," as post-disaster reports noted -- and ignored.

"Last year," Wayne Hale, the shuttles' deputy program manager, wrote in 2004, "we dropped the torch through our complacency, our arrogance, self-assurance, sheer stupidity and through continuing attempts to please everyone. Seven of our friends and colleagues paid the ultimate price for our failure."

Thirty years after the Challenger disaster and nearly 13 years after the Columbia tragedy, it's difficult to know how much NASA has changed from the outside looking in. As it did in the aftermath of the Challenger disaster, NASA said it had learned its lesson from Columbia.

The shuttle's insulation problem was fixed and the program returned astronauts to space. NASA initiated several efforts to "change the culture" and re-emphasize safety. Employers were encouraged to speak up, and managers were told to listen to any and all safety concerns.

"We've got a lot of work to do," then-NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe told UPI in 2004. "We can never eliminate the risk (of spaceflight) but we can minimize it."

Today, NASA is working on its next space flight vehicle, Orion, which the agency hopes will carry astronauts to asteroids, Mars and beyond in the coming decades. Engineers and officials say they specifically accounted for and improved upon the space shuttle's flaws while designing Orion.

"We're hoping nothing ever goes wrong, but if it does, we've taken every possible step to keep the crew safe and give them every possible fighting chance they can have," Dustin Gohmert, NASA crew survival engineering team lead at Houston's Johnson Space Center, told Space.com. "It's especially important to us that were here during the Columbia accident, because they were our friends, too."

The pressures of a busy and overloaded launch schedule have largely been outsourced to the private sector. And with the retirement of the shuttle program, manned space travel in the United States has been put on indefinite standby.

Accidents continue. A handful of NASA-funded but privately built unmanned rockets have failed -- a few of them fiery spectacles, but no deaths. NASA says they now have a safety-first culture with processes in place to better field and address safety concerns.

If bureaucracy breeds complacency, it might be said that private commerce encourages risk. In 2014, the in-flight breakup of the SpaceShipTwo VSS Enterprise -- the private project of venture capitalist Richard Branson -- resulted in the death of one pilot and serious injury of another. The aim of Branson and his Spaceship Co. is not to explore the cosmos or conduct science but to develop a space tourism industry -- a business model that involves taking thrill-seeking millionaires and billionaires on brief but expensive trips to the edge of space and back.

Perhaps the only thing that can be said with any certainty about spaceflight safety in the aftermath of NASA's two infamous disasters, is that it remains exceedingly dangerous.

But the risks remain tolerable. NASA remains publicly popular, and Congress continues to support the agency's deep space ambitions.

"[The] next generation of spaceflight vehicles continue, in my opinion, to be high risk," Bryan O'Connor, NASA's top safety official and a former astronaut, told USA Today. "Getting up and back is the hardest thing, and, oh, by the way, while you're up there it's not that benign either."

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