Exploration and Settlement

Space: The Final Frontier

What impact did the Challenger disaster have on the U.S. space program?

The immediate effect was that all scheduled launches were scratched, pending the outcome of the government investigation into the disaster. President Ronald Reagan (1911–2004) acted quickly to establish a presidential commission to look into the January 28, 1986, accident, appointing former secretary of state William P. Rogers (1913–2001) as the chair. Rogers conducted a thorough investigation involving public and private hearings, more than 6,000 people, 15,000 pages of testimony, 170,000 pages of documents, hundreds of photographs, and reports of independent technical studies. Additionally, the commission reviewed flight records, film evidence, and the recovered debris.

On June 6, 1986, the commission released its report, citing the cause of the disaster as the failure of the O-ring seals “that are intended to prevent hot gases from leaking through the joint during the propellant burn.” The commission had learned that although both the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Oring manufacturer Morton Thiokol were concerned about the seals (which had also been used on other shuttles), they had come to regard them as an acceptable risk. The commission went on to say that “the decision to launch the Challenger was flawed.” The U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Science and Technology, which had spent two months conducting its own hearings, also concluded that the disaster could have been prevented, citing that “meeting flight schedules and cutting costs were given a higher priority than flight safety.”

With the blame for the disaster placed on NASA’s doorstep, public confidence in the agency plummeted and NASA’s own astronauts became concerned that their lives had been put at risk. However, the commission also made nine recommendations to NASA, including redesigning the solid rocket booster joints, giving astronauts and engineers a greater role in approving launches, reviewing the astronaut escape systems, regulating the rate of shuttle flights to maximize safety, and reforming the shuttle program’s management structure.

A turnover of personnel, which included some astronauts, resulted at the space agency, which spent almost three years rebuilding. It was not until September 29, 1988, that an American shuttle again flew in space.


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