Challenger 20 Years Later -
The Rest Of The Story

By Ted Twietmeyer
Challenger launching Spacelab in 1985
The Challenger crew was Christa McAuliffe (Teacher in Space), Dick Scobee (Commander), Mike Smith (Pilot), Ron McNair (Mission Specialist), Judy Resnik (Mission Specialist), Ellison Onizuka (Mission Specialist), and Gregory Jarvis (Payload Specialist).
It happened on Jan. 28, 1986. It was another "11" day (Jan. + 2 + 8 = 11) event. Richard Feynman led the commission technically to investigate the accident. A show on the History Channel titled "Challenger: The Untold Story" aired just five days before 20th anniversary of the "accident."[1] 
Is the above date is just another coincidence with "11?"
Note the following Commission hearing date:
Feb. 11th 1986
WILLIAM P. ROGERS, Chairman, Presiding
NEIL A. ARMSTRONG, Vice Chairman
AL KEEL, Commission Executive Director [2]
But we must first clarify what an "accident" is. An accident is something that no one planned for or intended to happen. If you are driving your car, see a pedestrian step off a curb, step on the gas and run them over - is that an "Accident?" If you point a gun at someone and pull the trigger, is that an "Accident?" If you launch a spacecraft at temperatures you KNOW will result in death and disaster, is that also an "Accident?"
Christa McAuliffe was the first civilian to fly aboard the shuttle. NASA wanted her to show that space travel will be routine, and had a competition for her position on the vehicle she didn't know about. Christa heard on a car radio one night that Reagan was conducting a search of primary and secondary schools for an American to fly aboard the vehicle. She delayed sending in her application until the last minute. Challenger will take it's last flight one year later.
Engineers knew the shuttle wasn't a perfect machine and has had numerous mechanical problems. It was the most complex machine ever built, and was to be the successor vehicle to the Apollo program. Morton Thiokol, a company who's name was almost unknown to the public before the "accident" manufactured the segmented solid rocket boosters. Each one uses two rubber O-ring seals. (This begs the question to be asked - why use rubber when the temperature to burn the rubber is exceeded by more than 1,000 degrees? This was not discussed.)
Leaking gas was already known to occur by at least one Thiokol engineer, Roger Boisjoly (pronounced "boy-shzo-lay.") His analysis of photos from earlier launches proved that the hot gases went past the primary and secondary O-rings to the outside. Together NASA and Morton Thiokol discussed launching that fateful morning, against Thiokol's advice. It would turn out later, that NASA launched in spite of Thiokol's engineers strongly advising not to. We shall see how this came about later.
Flight 51C is the first of 5 planned launches with a tight schedule. (This author was told by a NASA engineer in 1985 that NASA was planning on TWO launches EVERY month. I laughed at the time already aware of seemingly endless technical problems the program had. I also received some ugly silent looks in return for that.) The commander Dick Scobee had extensive experience as a pilot. A senator and a sultan prince were also scheduled to fly aboard Challenger later in 1986. But Dick Scobee had reservations about vehicle safety. Christa won the space competition, and it was generating national interest. She only had one chance to get it right, and with her husband as cameraman she made a video tape to send to NASA. Christa made it through to the next round of just 100 contestants, and was eventually selected from more than 11,500 applicants.
The vehicle was designed to be large enough to carry military satellites, which was far larger than what NASA originally wanted. An original design called for the boosters to be mounted below the shuttle for safety reasons, and not on the sides.
William Rogers chaired the commission, which was also staffed with military officers. Richard Feynman was involved in the development of the A-bomb with a Nobel Prize for physics. Noted for being a bit eccentric and also brilliant, he was also undergoing treatment for cancer. He didn't want the job in his condition when he received the phone call. He told his wife he didn't want any part of Washington politics. (What better way to do a cover-up, than to pick someone to chair the commission who will die soon and take the secrets with him?) His wife encouraged him to do it, and he gave in.
Two days later the press was swarming everywhere around Feynman at the hearing, looking for answers from anyone. When a reporter asked Feynman about a cover-up, he responded, "the other day I heard engineers talking about a pressure-induced vorticity oscillation." Early on in the hearing, the commission turned its attention to the boosters. Roger Boisjoly's lawyers told him not to offer any information other than what was asked for, but he decided to talk freely anyway. He was high up in Thiokol's "Structures section." He told the commission that "Both primary and secondary O-rings can fail, causing a catastrophic failure." The booster segments were transported in many segments to Kennedy Space Center from Utah on a number of railroad cars. They were assembled before flight into two boosters. Roger became concerned that competitors would solve their problem for them, causing them to lose the NASA contract.
EVERYONE KNEW the joint that failed was defective according one engineer's on-camera testimony. But there would be no stopping that launch on that cold day. It was the cold which was blamed on the disaster. The shuttle design has more than 700 components that are rated "Criticality 1" - meaning that any one of them failing will most certainly kill the crew. Jud Lovingood, a NASA engineer stated "Everyone knew about engine cracks and numerous other problems for years... but we didn't think a disaster would happen."
Reagan made jokes about the launch in a press conference, saying "t   Take notes, there will be a quiz..." Dick Methia was also a competitor for Christa's seat in the final 10 candidates. He spoke highly of her saying "she laughed often, even to a group not ready to laugh." The physical testing was extensive. He also stated "It was the flight of a lifetime and we both knew it."
In spite of all the levity and over-confidence, Dick Scobee feared that civilians did not understand the risk. Scobee spoke to the final 10 candidates and told them "When you're strapped in, you are sitting on a ton of fireworks." This wiped the smiles off the astronauts faces. NASA claimed the risk was 1 in 100,000 - but Roger put it closer to 1 in 100. The commission found that the night before the launch there was a desperate struggle to stop Challenger from taking off, between Thiokol and NASA.
Despite O-ring problems and damage, launches continued. Roger Boisjoly requested a task force in numerous memos to investigate it, and he became more outspoken about it. He stated that if a team was not formed to solve the problem, that a flight would be lost. He stated his management was being alienated by his tactics. He was told to be more patient with those he worked with. Finally he was told a task force would be formed, on the VERY SAME DAY that Christa was told she won the competition for the seat on the vehicle. The race was on...
The O-ring problem was still not resolved. "After just one month, the task force realized they had no power, no resources and no authority to get anything done" according to Roger. The launch was to proceed as planned.
The first launch attempt was to be on Jan. 26th, 1986. Weather was cool at the traditional pre-launch picnic at the beach house. Everyone played in the water just like children according to his widow. It was a great hour they had together. The night before the Sunday launch, thunderstorms hit the area. On the 27th, the crew boarded the shuttle. But a problem with the access hatch handle jammed delayed the launch.  A hacksaw was used to cut away the handle, but the wind had increased. NASA scrubbed the launch later that day. Reporters lambasted NASA for the delays on not launching on time.
Temperatures down in the low 20's were forecast for that day, but that didn't stop NASA from forging ahead on launch plans. Roger questioned the feasibility of launching at these low temperatures. NASA could cancel anytime, and the next day was predicted to be colder. Roger tried to stop the launch, because he knew the effects of the extreme cold on the rubber O-rings. NASA was running out of time in the launch window to reach orbit safely. They must launch by 12:38PM. Record low temperatures were forecast. NASA calls Thiokol and reaches Roger's colleague, Arnold Thompson. Temperatures were forecast to be 18F. Roger and Arnold alert the management. Thiokol recommends against launching, and will not stop the count-down without hard evidence. They want hard data, and a conference call is planned for that morning at 8:15PM.
No company in the history of NASA has ever tried to stop a launch before.
After a year of memos and calls, Roger was joyously happy to have a chance to be heard. They come to the conference armed with data. At 8:45PM the conference call begins. The Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama is responsible for all rocket and propulsion systems. Several engineers and managers were present at the table in Thiokol's Utah corporate headquarters. They try to tell NASA the grease and the O-rings will not handle the low temperatures, and that both the primary and secondary seals will not function. They advise that no launches should take place below 53F. Roger was elated that he made his point. According to Roger, his elation and joy "Lasted for about 10 seconds" .
Thiokol was severely chastised by NASA for demanding a launch delay. Marshall mentioned that "We have been flying for 5 years, with all of us knowing the condition of the joints at cold temperatures." Things became heated between Thiokol and NASA. With a pending NASA contract, Thiokol was under intense pressure. Roger re-iterated the problem of launching at the low temperatures on the phone call. The managers ignore Roger and his colleagues, and instead have a private closed discussion with NASA without the engineers.
Fourteen charts Thiokol had at the phone conference proved their reason not to launch. But it was to no avail. The VP of engineering was pressured to change his mind and "Take off his engineering hat, and put on his management hat." He then told NASA that "The data predicting blow by (of super-hot gases) was inconclusive." NASA heard silence on the phone after that, which was interpreted by them to be a go ahead to launch. (That silence was the sound of impending death.)
Arnold Thompson said that "I said what I had to say to my management, and that's where it ended. But maybe I should have gotten up and screamed about it."
Roger saw his wife when he got home later that same day. While he was in the garage coming into the house with his hand on the door knob, she asked, "What's wrong?" Roger responded, "Oh nothing honey. I had a great day. We're going to launch tomorrow and kill the astronauts. That's all."
Feynman is shocked that NASA already knew about cold problems with O-ring seals. Feynman learns about the conference call the night before and focuses in on them. He questions the Thiokol chief engineer and asks who their top seal expert is. Roger Boisjoly is named. The chief engineer and most of his staff all state that Challenger should not fly. Now it was stated that some engineers "didn't know" and others were "not sure" about the launch. (Apparently minds are changed when taken out into the light of day.) Feynman had a field day with that. What was clear was that it was NASA management which made the decision to launch. The NY Times breaks the story and it becomes big news.
Now Feynman comes up with a plan to put NASA on trial - Larry Mulloy, manager of solid rocket boosters. In a basic demonstration of physics, Feynman shows a small piece of an actual O-ring held in a small C clamp. It is quite soft and pliable. He then plunges it into a drinking glass filled with icewater while he talks to Malloy. Pulling it out of the icewater a few minutes later, he reveals how the rubber O-ring won't stretch back when the clamp is removed for some period of time.
JANUARY 28th, 1986
On the morning of the launch the astronauts said goodbye to their families, not knowing it would be the last time they would ever see them. At the launch pad, the temperature was dropping fast as predicted by the weathermen. Icesicles 18" long were forming on the shuttle, but still the launch will go ahead as planned. As day breaks, the temperature rises to 30 degrees. A two hour launch hold was inserted to allow the temperature to rise higher. The close-out crew handed Christa (the elementary school teacher) an apple as a symbolic gesture just before closing the crew cabin hatch. The temperature rose to 36F, but it was still 30 degrees colder than any other shuttle launch. Roger and his colleagues also were watching the launch from four miles away.
[Author's note: It's not explained in the television documentary how he managed to get from his home in Utah where he was the night before, to the observation stands at Kennedy early the next morning. There is no mention of him taking a red-eye flight from Utah to Florida. In fact, he came home to his wife at the end of the work day after he had the conference call with NASA, according to his testimony shown above. After one receives a pass at the gate, it takes about 30 minutes driving at 50MPH to reach the Pad B area. Now imagine flying all night to get there, and the vehicle traffic one encounters going to the observation stands...]
At T-6 seconds, the shuttle engines were ignited, followed by the vehicle's solid rocket boosters (SRBs.) [Author's note: They always ignite the SRBs last. The shuttle's main engine can be shutdown, but the SRBs cannot.] Challenger rose majestically even though a puff of black smoke was caught by film cameras, which no one noticed from four miles away. Roger thought they "Dodged the bullet." The right hand booster hot gases blow by both O-rings. At 56 seconds the super-hot flame is now is burning a bigger and bigger hole. At 64 seconds, the hydrogen tank is punctured and the hydrogen begins to burn. At 72.3 seconds, it burned through the booster support. At 72.5 seconds the booster swings out from lack of support. At 73.6 seconds, everything ignites as the hydrogen and oxygen mix and explode. The explosion blasts the shuttle skyward at more than 1,000 MPH, but the sudden stress tears it apart. The crew cabin continues upwards for a short timer but begins slowing down, then descending to earth.
Scobee's widow explained how "We were numb, there were no words... then they were put on a bus. There was crying everywhere, and everyone knew they would not be coming back." At least three crew members were able to turn on their emergency oxygen. [This author learned directly from a Kennedy Space Center engineer who was also a customer for this author at the time, that "about all that recovery operations at sea could find was one boot, with part of a leg still in it. It was inside what was left of the crew cabin ." NASA employees were instructed to tell the public nothing about what was found.]
President Reagan addressed the nation three days later, in an attempt to comfort everyone. He ended his speech with "we bid you goodbye, may we never forget you."
The commission concluded that "No one person was to blame." Roger insisted his comments be added to the official report. Feynman blamed the disaster on "engineers and managers who were not communicating effectively."
Feynman died two years later from his fight with cancer, and no one at NASA was ever held accountable.
Roger leaves Thiokol just a few months after the hearings, and never returns. His testimony had damaged his relationship with his managers. He stated in the television special, "I still can't understand it because I did everything right." Roger just didn't understand how the game is played with NASA. This author did, and that's why I left the DoD industry. No movie or television special has ever told the real truth of what it's like to deal with the government or NASA.
Now Roger knows, too.
NASA made marginal improvements to the design. The O-rings now have a heated layer for cold temperatures, and a third ring has been added. [But it's still made of rubber!]
After the disaster, the astronaut's families set up the Challenger Learning Centers for children. 
And now let's look at what was left out of the television special. This author sent an email to the History Channel more than two years ago, offering to help them with a TV special. No answer was ever received. The information you never heard about below will tell you why they are silent - the real truth is even uglier. Hence, the name of this article "Challenger 20 Years Later - The Rest Of The Story."
The tampering of equipment inside the blockhouse just before launch on that terrible morning is not shown in the Rogers Commission Report. With regard to espionage or sabotage, only one line was present in the report on this subject - No evidence of sabotage was found. You will also not find the name of the aerospace contract civilian employee who logged in at Challenger's Launch Pad B guardhouse in the report. His covert visit was discovered when ALL the data from the Pad Measurement System was missing. The PMS (not my choice for the system's name) was a new monitoring system for which this author was the project manager. NASA wrote the detailed technical spec. for it. I supervised the installation and testing of it in August 1985. A unnamed employee entered the blockhouse below the shuttle on the morning of 1/28/86, disabling that system along with many others. He did this all by himself, and then left the facility.
At the time this took place, the pad was already cleared of all personnel except for the guard in the Pad B guardhouse, who leaves after the pad is secured. If he didn't leave he would die. Sound pressure levels are so high that your eardrums would rupture. Deadly, toxic fumes from the solid rocket boosters flood the area. This is one of the main reasons no one is allowed within 4 miles of the pad before  the launch, AND for some hours afterward. The covert tinkering by the aerospace engineer prevented Mission Control four miles away from logging ANY launch pad pressure, strain or temperature data. The fact this happened was communicated to this author via telephone, the very next morning at 8:10AM from Kennedy.
Pre-launch operations are of great interest to everyone - especially those "other activities" cited above. You will note in the table of contents (shown in their entirety below) that "Pre-launch Operations" are among the details not available online. No explanation was ever given for this. This is inexcusable. Without doubt, this is not an oversight. This author first saw this report online more than 10 years ago, long before appearing on Coast to Coast in 1998. In 1996, NASA still had not yet characterized the explosive hold-down bolts for the boosters. This was 10 full years after Challenger. Any delay or uneveness in releasing a solid rocket booster generating 1.2 MILLION pounds of thrust would be damaging. In fact, the boosters recovered from Challenger were found to have their circular shape distorted more than usual. This could also be attributed to the explosion.
See Volume II, Appendix I in the table of contents below for the inaccessible pre-launch operations.
Report of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident
(In compliance with Executive Order 12546 of February 3, 1986)
Table of Contents
Volume I
Chapter I - Introduction......................................2
Chapter II - Events Leading Up to the Challenger Mission......10
Chapter III - The Accident.....................................19
Chapter IV - The Cause of the Accident........................40
Chapter V - The Contributing Cause of the Accident...........82
Chapter VI - An accident Rooted in History...................120
Chapter VII - The Silent Safety Program.......................152
Chapter VIII - Pressures on the System.........................164
Chapter IX - Other Safety Considerations.....................178
The Commission..................................202
The Staff.......................................204
Appendix A - Commission Activities...........................206
Appendix B - Commission Documentation System.................214
Appendix C - Observations Concerning the Processing And
Assembly of Flight 51-l.........................219
Appendix D - Supporting Charts and Documents.................225
Volume II
Appendix E - Independent Test Team Report to the Commission
Appendix F - Personal Observations on Reliability of Shuttle
Appendix G - Human Factors Analysis
Appendix H - Flight Readiness Review Treatment of O-ring Problems
Appendix I - NASA Pre-Launch Activities Team Report
Appendix J - NASA Mission Planning and Operations Team Report
Appendix K - NASA Development and Production Team Report
Appendix L - NASA Accident Analysis Team Report
Appendix M - Comments by Morton Thiokol on NASA Report
Volume III
Appendix N - NASA Photo and TV Support Team Report
Appendix O - NASA Search, Recovery and Reconstruction Task Force
Team Report
Volume IV
Hearings of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle
Challenger Accident: February 6, 1986 to February 25, 1986
Volume V
Hearings of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle
Challenger Accident: February 26, 1986 to May 2, 1986.
Note: Currently only parts of each section are online [2]
Ted Twietmeyer was a DoD contractor for more than 20 years, holds an optical backplane patent and is a frequent contributor to He has also written the revealing E-book "What NASA Isn't Telling You About Mars" and has been a guest on Jeff Rense's show. The E-book is also available in CD-ROM format.
[1] Two hour History Channel special - aired Jan. 23rd 2006
[2] Commission hearings -
[3] Challenger report -



This Site Served by TheHostPros