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Space Exploration

Challenger Disaster

astronaut Neil Armstrong, Challenger Disaster, booster rocket, Christa McAuliffe, Scobee

Challenger Disaster, accident that destroyed the United States space shuttle Challenger 73 seconds after takeoff from the Kennedy Space Center on January 28, 1986. The crew—mission commander Francis R. Scobee; pilot Michael J. Smith; mission specialists Ronald E. McNair, Ellison S. Onizuka, and Judith A. Resnik; and payload specialists Gregory B. Jarvis and Christa McAuliffe, a high school teacher from New Hampshire—died in the accident.

Following the incident, President Ronald Reagan appointed a special commission to investigate the cause of the accident and to develop corrective measures based on the commission’s findings. The commission was headed by former secretary of state William Rogers and included physicist Richard Feynman, former astronaut Neil Armstrong, and former test pilot Chuck Yeager. It found fault with a failed sealant ring and with the officials at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) who allowed the launch to take place despite concerns voiced by NASA engineers.

According to the commission’s report, the disaster was caused by the failure of an O-ring seal in the solid-fuel rocket on the shuttle’s right side. The seal’s faulty design and the unusually cold weather, which affected the seal’s functioning, allowed hot gases to leak through the joint. Flames from inside the booster rocket escaped through the failed seal and enlarged the small hole. The flames then burned through the shuttle’s external fuel tank and through one of the supports that attached the booster to the side of the tank. The booster broke loose and collided with the tank, piercing the tank’s side. Liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen fuels from the tank and booster mixed and ignited, causing the shuttle to tear apart.

The shuttle launch program was halted during the commission’s investigation and was not resumed until shuttle designers made several technical modifications and NASA management implemented stricter regulations regarding quality control and safety. Shuttle missions resumed on September 29, 1988, with the flight of the shuttle Discovery.

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