Remembering the Challenger 35 years later – Author Chris Edwards

The Space Shuttle Challenger disaster was a fatal incident in the United States’ space program that occurred on January 28, 1986, when the Space Shuttle Challenger (OV-099) broke apart 73 seconds into its flight, killing all seven crew members aboard. The crew consisted of five NASA astronauts, and two payload specialists. The mission carried the designation STS-51-L and was the tenth flight for the Challenger orbiter. The Challenger disaster should best be remembered for the sacrifice of seven astronauts who died in the accident-  Judith ResnikDick Scobee, Capt. Michael J. SmithEllison Onizuka,  Ronald McNairChrista McAuliffe, and Gregory Jarvis.

But for those currently in leadership positions, it should also be remembered as a colossal failure of process – a process designed by the best and the brightest. By the people who sent men to the moon. That was a sobering thought on January 28, 1986, and it remains so today.

The space shuttle Challenger disaster remains one of the most evocative events of the American 20th Century—and for more than just the obvious reasons.

Certainly, the 35th anniversary of this tragedy returns to mind a multitude of images, memories and emotions that prompt pause. But it also reminds us of the crucial importance of informed decision making and risk oversight which are as relevant today as they were on January 28, 1986.

As some will remember, the specific, highly technical cause of the Challenger accident was the notorious “O-Ring”; i.e. the failure of the pressure seal in the aft field joint of the right solid rocket motor. The failure was due to a faulty design unacceptably sensitive to a number of factors, including the effects of cold temperature (launchpad temperature was 36 degrees on January 28).

But more important to remember is the decidedly non-technical contributing cause: the multiple risk management errors that fatally flawed the Challenger launch decision. As documented by the presidential review commission, these were not errors arising from system complexities, but rather from the erosion of once-effective and redundant safety protocols. 

Space, space exploration and the benefits are not without risk. The risk is worth the reward however we should never sacrifice safety protocols and redundancy further the governments legislative branch has a responsibility of checks and balances in oversight to ensure safety is in place, contracts are not awarded unfairly and the value to the American people in life and treasure is never taken for granted.

Our hearts continue to bleed for the errors of that fateful day but our quest for what is out there amongst the stars should always continue…

Space Shuttle Challenger lifts off – January 26, 1986

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