The Challenger Disaster
The Challenger Disaster By: Kathy Neuner & Jeremy Rider Executive Summary Many factors must be examined to find the underlying reason for the horrible disaster of the space shuttle Challenger. We will cover both the technical causes to the disaster and the communication breakdown with NASA. We will also look at the outside pressure that NASA was receiving from the media, congress and the military. Recommendations for NASA and anyone in the communication field will be given. These recommendations will help to avoid any further problems with communication in any organization.
The O-rings failed to properly seal the gap in the joint seal. Failure of the Orings was the ultimate mechanical cause to the explosion of the Challenger. Communication breakdown between NASA employees and between NASA and MortonThiokol was also a major problem. The lack of communication ultimately caused the Challenger to explode. The decision to launch the Challenger on that cold morning in January was made on incomplete information. NASA’s management, and anyone else that knew of the many possible problems that could have happened, were the final causes of the disaster.
Symbolic Mission On January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger was to make a historic and symbolic journey into outer space. With seven crewmembers on board, the Challenger the highly anticipated launch captivated the attention of many Americans. Not only was the shuttle going into space, but it was also taking an average American with it, a school teacher. Christa McAuliffe was going to give school lessons to students from space. Her lessons were highly anticipated by schoolchildren everywhere. Children were anxious to learn from space, and adults everywhere were fascinated; it was likely to capture the mind of the nation.
This mission was a symbol of safety. This mission crossed boundaries that had never been explored before; it was a pledge of hope for science. Christa McAuliffe was a regular everyday person. She was not an astronaut; she was a schoolteacher. The launch was believed to represent safety. If NASA were going to let a woman schoolteacher go into space, space travel was surely safe. The Challenger mission was also a symbol of the American dream. The mission represented our economic, social, political and scientific success. It was supposed to make Americans feel more comfortable with the thought of pace travel. The Challenger was also going to help NASA build its reputation and show that they were good for our country. 2 The morning of January 28, 1986 was going to be the beginning of a new era of space travel. It was going to be the start of understanding and liking the idea of traveling into space. The mission was going to be a teaching tool for schoolchildren everywhere; they were going to learn from outer space. But as the space shuttle Challenger was launched something awful went wrong. With the world watching the historic event, the Challenger exploded after launch.
The mission quickly went from a new beginning of understanding to a mission of grief and disaster. Structure The solid socket booster (SRB) is the part of the shuttle that housed the portion of the Challenger that malfunctioned. The SRB holds the rocket fuel and essentially powers the shuttle into outer space. The SRB is supposed to direct downward all of the exhaust gasses, which in turn propels the rocket upward. After liftoff the SRB disconnects from the shuttle and parachutes to earth where it will be used in later launches.
The SRB is a cylindrical shell that is protected by a layer of insulation. Within this shell there are joint seals. (Figure 1) These joints are made up of zinc chromate putty and two O-rings, the primary and the secondary. Putty is supposed to protect the O-rings from extreme temperature and gasses. The putty is able to protect the O-rings because it is an insulator between the gaps of the joint seal. The O-rings are elastic rings that are meant to contract and expand in order to fill the gaps in the joint seal. It is imperative that the O-rings properly seal these gaps in the joint seal.
If the Orings do not properly seal these gaps it is possible for exhaust gasses to get into the internal structure of the joint field. The extreme temperatures of the exhaust gasses are too high for the internal joint, known as the Tang and Clevis, to handle. The Tang and Clevis are the two main parts of the joint. They are mating sections that are held together with one hundred seventy-seven pins. Without the O-rings, the Tang and Clevis are not able to withstand the extreme pressure of exhaust gasses. 3 Figure 1. Cross section view of field joint located in the Solid Rocket Booster
Four Technical Problems First let’s look at the four mechanical aspects of the Challengers problems, blow holes, O-Ring erosion, joint rotation, and the response of O-Rings during low temperature. The condition of the primary seal is essential to the successful operation of the rocket booster. Engineers had to make sure that the seal was not damaged, so they increased the pressure of the leak test to above the pressure that the putty could withstand. This was supposed to make sure the O-ring was correctly covering the gap without the help of the putty.
Blow holes were tiny tunnel-like holes that were left in the zinc chromate putty of the rocket booster insulation. The putty was supposed to protect the O-rings from the hot exhaust. The holes were a result of pressurized test known as the leak check port. The leak test left engineers worried; they didn’t think that the pressure was high enough to identify any problems with the seals. The high pressure of this test was too much for the putty; it blew holes through the putty before it was able to seal the opening. These holes allowed focused exhaust gasses to reach the primary Oring during launch.
Engineers knew that the blow holes were a concern, but they continued to do the high pressure test. They thought that the holes were less of a threat than if the primary O-ring was faulty or flawed in any way. 4 The blow holes led to the erosion of the primary O-ring. The gasses and extreme temperature that were allowed to pass through the holes were causing the O-ring to break down. Engineers knew that this was a threat. They had inspected the joints with the putty and O-rings after each use and found that the primary O-ring erosion was about twelve percent.
After the pressure increased during the leak test, the erosion rate increased to eighty-eight percent. Now not only was the primary O-ring greatly damaged, the secondary O-ring was also beginning to erode due to the high temperature of the gasses. Managers decided that this erosion was acceptable and continued to perform the leak test. Joint rotation is caused by the misalignment of the Tang and Clevis. When the shuttle is ignited the pressure on the case walls is about 1000 pounds per square inch. The pressure causes the walls to expand and bulge out.
This bulge causes the misalignment of the Tang and Clevis resulting in joint rotation. The joint rotation quickly increases the gap size that the O-rings must seal. The increased gap size is a problem for the O-rings. The O-rings are unable to appropriately seal the increasing gap quickly enough to keep it sealed properly. Do to joint rotation the O-rings are pushed and stretched to their limits. O-ring resilience is the ability of the O-ring to go back to its natural size after it has been stretched. As the O-ring gets colder it becomes stiffer.
On the day of the launch the outside temperature was 36 degrees, fifteen degrees colder than the next coldest launch. The cold temperature caused the O-rings to be unable to expand and contract quickly. The slow reaction time of the O-rings made it impossible for them to fill the gap caused by joint rotation. The O-rings had been previously tested and found to be five times more responsive in seventy-five degree weather than in thirty-degree weather. The cold weather could have been a huge factor in the improper functioning of the O-rings.
Combinations of these four problems are to blame for the mechanical aspect of this disaster. First, the exhaust gasses were able to penetrate through the zinc chromate putty by way of the blow holes. The exhaust gasses began to eat away at the primary Oring seal. Joint rotation caused an increasing gap size for the O-ring to cover. A combination of joint rotation and O-ring resiliency caused the secondary O-ring to not correctly seal. Since the second O-ring was not able to properly seal the gap, the exhaust gasses were allowed to enter the entire joint.
The extreme temperature of the exhaust gasses caused the joint to rupture and the Challenger to explode. Organizational Pressure Pressure outside of NASA was also a major factor in the shuttle launch. Three main organizations contributed to this pressure: the military, Congress, and the media. These three sources wanted NASA to launch the Challenger as quickly as possible. Although these three outside sources of pressure were not the technical reason for the Challenger disaster, they were factors in the untimely launch of the shuttle. 5 The military had recently given NASA the job of launching military satellites.
This job was previously held by the Air Force. NASA felt that a delay in the launch would disappoint the military. NASA wanted to keep the military happy since they were one of their largest clients. The Air Force would have loved to have had the responsibility of launching the militaries satellites returned to them in the case that the military were unhappy with NASA. Congress is the second contributing factor to the outside pressure. NASA was operating way over budget and way below the number of flights promised. NASA felt a lot of pressure to launch and launch quickly.
NASA was supposed to launch twenty-four times a year, this was supposed to help pay for itself. The media was the third source of outside pressure. Media personalities made jokes over the delay of the launch. Every time the Challenger was supposed to launch and didn’t the media would make more and more humorous comments. These comments were a threat to NASA’s credibility, which was already in jeopardy. Communication Breakdown The Space Shuttle Challenger had a lot of different causes for the disaster, including low temperature, failure of the O-Rings, blow holes, O-ring erosion, and joint rotation.
The pressure from the military, Congress and the media were also factors in the disaster. But one of the most significant reasons for the Challenger’s untimely destruction was a lack of communication. Communication was lost throughout the entire organizational structure surrounding the shuttle. There was a lack of verbal and written communication and a lack of understanding between different levels of employees and between different companies. Although the Challenger destruction and the deaths of its crew were due to a technical problem, the ultimate cause of that technical problem was the communication breakdown.
The first communication breakdown was between the engineers, or the lower levels of the shuttle launch, and the administrators, higher people within the organization. The engineers had their own technical language that a normal person would not understand. The engineers had their doubts about the O-rings working properly. They knew that there had been problems with the O-rings in the past. The O-rings are tested and examined after each use, and they had found erosion problems. NASA’s management was warned of this possible problem but did nothing. The engineers were not certain that the O-rings were going to work correctly and fficiently enough to have a successful launch. Managers did not see this as a major problem. They were concerned about not delaying the launch any longer and were also feeling a lot of pressure to launch as soon as possible. The problem with the managers and engineers was that the engineers were on the job workers; they were involved with creating and perfecting the shuttle. The managers didn’t really know what was going on with the shuttle; they didn’t know how it worked. So when the engineers voiced their concerns the managers didn’t realize how important and critical they really were.
The managers may not have completely understood what the engineers were saying. Management and Engineers used different 6 terminology, causing them to be unable to properly understand each other. This caused the managers to muffle the opinions of the engineers. This memo is an example of the loss of communication and valuable information. (Figure 2) It should have been given to the top management but the managers decided to not pass it up the ladder. The memo is from Leon Ray in the Solid Motor Branch to the Distribution department. Mr. Ray reports on the concerns that two companies have about the O-rings.
The top management and the people with the power to stop the launch never saw this memo. Although the O-rings were not seen as a major area of concern for the managers, they were ultimately the most important part of the entire shuttle. If communication problems had been overcome, the Challenger would probably have made a successful launch and the mission would have been a victory. 7 Figure 2 One of the many memos that was not taken seriously or passed up the chain of command. 8 Figure 2 continued 9 The next area of miscommunication was between different companies involved in the space shuttle launch.
Morton-Thiokol was the maker of the O-ring seals that failed to properly work during the launch. The engineers at Morton-Thiokol knew that the O-rings did not work well in cold temperature. Although they did tell NASA that the O-rings could fail to work properly under these conditions, Morton-Thiokol did not do so in a persuasive manner. Morton-Thiokol did not make NASA aware of the grave danger their crew would be in if these O-rings don’t work correctly. Morton-Thiokol should have made sure that their concerns were heard and acknowledged by NASA.
Morton-Thiokol should have done this out of concern for the lives of the crewmembers and their families. Morton-Thiokol was simply afraid to make such a big deal, and they didn’t want to admit that they had made a faulty part or that it might fail. NASA was also to blame. Morton-Thiokol may not have stressed the importance of the possible problems with the O-rings, but once again NASA’s management withheld information. In a memo from Roger Boisjoly to the Vice President of engineering, Mr. Boisjoly expressed his concerns about the managers understanding the seriousness of the O-Ring erosion problem.
The memo states that the failure of the first O-Ring would put strain on the second O-ring. He expresses doubt that the second O-ring would be able to withhold the clevis opening rate and a belief that the O-rings would not be capable of pressurizing properly. The engineers passed this information along to the management, but again they did not continue to pass it up the ladder. My Boisjoly even states that if this failure happens the loss of human lives would be a definite possibility. This is a critical piece of information that was unfortunately withheld.
Managers did not take the information that the engineers had seriously. Although in the end it was the technical part of the shuttle that failed, the communication process had failed long before the shuttle was ever launched. Communication breakdown is ultimately to blame for the Challenger disaster. The launch should have never happened on that cold morning in January. There was no excuse for the lack of concern and information on the part of Morton-Thiokol. There was also no excuse for the management to withhold valuable and critical information. With the right information NASA would surely have postponed the aunch for a day with ideal conditions. It’s hard to believe that something as small as an O-ring and something as easy as communicating destroyed this symbolic mission. Was this lack of communication really worth the lives of seven crewmembers? Recommendations What could have been done to make the launch and mission of the shuttle Challenger a success? This is a huge question that was asked too late. While the entire nation watched in horror as the shuttle exploded, a few people knew exactly what had happened. The Challenger should have never been launched.
There are many things that could have been done to stop this disaster from happening. Ultimately NASA needed a better form of communicating. 10 NASA needed to be better prepared to handle communication between levels of employment. Although engineer terminology may be different than that of management there is no reason why they couldn’t learn to communicate. NASA should make sure that all levels within its company are able to communicate and understand each other freely and completely. NASA needs to develop a communication training class that everyone involved with a project must attend.
In this class the managers will learn about the terminology that the engineers use as well as the day-to-day operations of the engineers and lower level employees. Management and top level employees will also have to observe the engineers and lower level employees. They must work along side the lower levels of employment. This will help the management and top level employees understand the technical aspects of what goes on inside the space shuttle. The lower levels will also learn about the pressures and work that the management is responsible for.
Engineers and lower level employees will be able to sit in on meetings and will help in discussions that pertain to the technical and mechanical parts of the space shuttle. This class and hands on approach should help to break the gap between the levels of employment. The class, observation and participation will not only make it easier to communicate, it will also give different levels of employment respect and knowledge of others jobs. Another thing that NASA needed is a paper trail. There were memos and documents that were lost or intentionally not passed to top level management.
Every memo that is sent within the organization should also be sent to the top management. NASA needs a zero tolerance policy for not passing important papers up the chains of command. Anyone found hiding information or making decisions themselves should be immediately fired. If this were done there would be no way that something like the Orings could slip through the cracks. If NASA had implemented these recommendations it is very likely that the Challenger would have made a successful flight, on a different day. It is very important for the entire company to be informed and in sync with each other.
A tiny piece of information that is left out can cause catastrophic results. It is sad to know that with the help and information that NASA and Morton-Thiokol had, seven lives could have been saved. As a communication major you are responsible for making sure that all levels are prepared and informed, all of the time. Nothing can be left out. How would you feel if you were one of the people that knew something could have gone wrong but you didn’t stop it? These recommendations are intended to help students in the communication field of study. Students should be able to learn from this disaster.
From the beginning this symbolic mission was supposed to be a teaching tool. Although the mission was not a success and children were not able to learn from outer space, we were able to learn a great deal from the Challenger. We learned the hard way that communication and understanding is the most important part of any relationship. 11 Conclusion The mission of the space shuttle Challenger was supposed to be a symbolic mission. The mission was intended to represent safety in space travel. NASA was allowing a normal everyday teacher to venture into space in order to bring the schoolchildren of the world lessons from outer space.
Horribly, as the entire world watched, the space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after it had been launched. There were many causes to the explosion of the Challenger. NASA’s employees, the engineers and the management, were unable to communicate and understand each other clearly. Another problem area of communication was between NASA and MortonThiokol, the maker of the O-rings. In the end there was a communication barrier that was unable to be overcome. There were also technical problems with the O-rings. The Orings were not responsive enough in cold weather, and could not work properly.
Although technically the O-rings were what caused the shuttle to explode, the communication breakdown should take full responsibility. The explosion of the Challenger and the deaths of seven crewmembers was a huge loss to the nation, but the Challengers mission was not a total failure. The symbolic mission of safe space travel was gone, but a new mission of learning and communication had just begun. The Challenger disaster taught NASA and the world, that communication is the single most important part of any operation. 12