Natural and Man-Made Disasters


Is it true that the engineers of the Challenger’s O-rings warned NASA that the devices might fail?

Yes, but sadly the advice of the engineers went unheeded: the O-ring manufacturer, Morton Thiokol, gave the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) the go-ahead in the hours before Challenger’s takeoff. On January 27, 1986, the night before the planned takeoff, the temperature at Cape Canaveral, Florida, dropped to well below freezing. Since no shuttle had been launched in temperatures below 53 degrees Fahrenheit, NASA undertook a late-night review to determine launch readiness. As a contractor, Morton Thiokol participated in this process, with their engineers expressing concerns about the O-rings on the shuttle’s solid rocket boosters. They feared the rings would stiffen in the cold temperatures and lose their ability to act as a seal. Since the space agency was under pressure to launch the shuttle on schedule, NASA managers pushed the manufacturer for a go or no-go decision. The managers of Thiokol, who were aware that the O-rings had never been tested at such low temperatures, signed a waiver stating that the solid rocket boosters were safe for launch at the colder temperatures.

Challenger was launched the next morning, at 11:38 A.M. About one minute into the flight, a flame became evident, and seconds later, the spacecraft exploded. All seven crew members died. Investigators later concluded that the tragic accident had been caused by the failure of the O-rings.


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