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Free «The Challenger Disaster» Essay Sample

Introduction

On January 28, 1986 the space shuttle Challenger exploded a few seconds after the launch. The night before, the launch, the outside temperature dropped to 8°F. This low temperature meant that the launch platform's water pipes might freeze. As a precaution, safety showers and fire hoses were turned on during the night. Although, the pipes did not freeze, the water from the safety showers and fire hoses covered the launch platform with ice. The ice inspection team reported to the launch director that the ice from the safety showers and fire hoses could fall off the platform during the launch sequence and damage the shuttle's heat resistant tiles (Northern Kentucky University, 2004). Despite this warning, the launch director decided to go ahead with the launch. He even ignored additional warnings that safety limitations had been reached due to the low temperatures.  Moreover, it seemed that the launch director was not concerned about the ice buildup or the low temperatures since he repeatedly waived them and authorized that the launch proceeds on schedule.

Discussion

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Background

In an age where superiority in space translated to dominance here on earth, the United States was both a pioneer and an expert in the orbital affairs. In the early 1980s, the United States began to incorporate money-saving ideas for a new era of outer-space innovation (In the News, 1996). The space shuttle was NASA’s response to a government that called for cheaper missions and a more efficient method of delivering more astronauts and greater payloads into orbit (Forrest, 1995). On April 12, 1981, NASA’s response successfully lifted off the launch pad and remained in orbit for a two day mission before landing at Edwards Air force base. The program continued on marked by many milestones, successes, and learning experiences. Pressure to do more with less and get more done in less time began to turn the efficiency of the program from manageable to traumatic. In 1985, nine shuttle missions took place. Rather than commend this achievement, the program began to conceive ideas of simultaneous launches and raising the number of missions from the nine in 1985 to a prospective fifteen launches in 1986.

The Challenger Program

A program whose potential always seemed to be leaps and bounds above where it was currently at; however, would be hindered by the greatest disaster in NASA’s history to date (New York Times, 2006). It was a cold morning in Florida as space shuttle Challenger sat on the launch pad. The date was July 28, 1986 and Challenger sat prepped for launch (Freudenrich, 2006).  The engines routinely ignited and gray smoke billowed out of the boosters of space shuttle Challenger as it rose slowly from the earth’s surface (Forrest, 1995). What followed was all but like routine.  Seventy-three seconds into the flight, the space shuttle exploded. The cabin of the shuttle burned in a thick black smoke across the sky (In the News, 1996). Everyone was in shock and did not know what to say.  The question arose in the minds, what are the families thinking about right now?  They are all devastated.  Could this engineering disaster have been prevented?  Could simple technology have prevented this disaster?  So many questions were left unanswered in the wake of NASA’s single greatest tragedy to date (MSNBC, 2006).  However, one thing was for sure, seven lives were lost: seven irreplaceable scientists, civilians, and family members (BBC, 1986). Those people were Francis R. Scobee, Commander; Michael J. Smith, Pilot; Judith A. Resnik; Ellison S. Onizuka; Ronald E. McNair; Gregory B. Jarvis; and Sharon Christa McAuliffe. Those lives were lost in direct accordance to flaws in the shuttle’s design and the engineering process (Forrest, 1995). The disaster, in essence, could have been prevented by simple precautions and better planning (Texas Space Grant Consortium, 1986).

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Challenger’s History of Success

Prior to that fateful day in 1986, the Challenger had a history of successes. The Challenger had its first flight in 1982. It had a total of nine previous flights into space (Freudenrich, 2006). NASA thought that everything was going well, because of these previous nine successful flights. What could have ever happened? Three-hundred and ninety years ago, the same day of the Challenger accident, Sir Francis Drake died at sea (FAS, 1997). President Reagan said that, “He lived by the sea, died on it, and was buried in it.' Well, today we can say of the Challenger crew: Their dedication was, like Drake's, complete” (Space, 2000). It is easy for President Reagan to say this, but the families of those seven astronauts lost cannot just ask for their mothers and fathers or brothers and sisters back (Online Ethics Center for Engineering and Science, 1995).  Could it have been one of the four major components of the space craft?  The four major parts of a spacecraft are an orbiter spacecraft, two solid rocket boosters, an external tank to house fuel, and an oxidizer as well as three space shuttle main engines (Texas A&M University, 1998).  Maybe one of these major parts experienced failure before the mission.

The Disaster

 
 
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Physical failure within the shuttle’s structure served as the primary cause for the disaster.  The primary physical flaw surfaced immediately after liftoff.  Since it was after liftoff, NASA could not really do anything.  It happened .678 seconds after liftoff; a big cloud of gray smoke came out of the rocket boosters.  Seconds later, the gray smoke turned into a big cloud of black smoke. The black smoke indicated that the jointed O-rings were being melted and eroded by the hot gases. Then, about sixty five seconds into the flight, the left and right boosters had different pressure readings causing an external and continuous flame into the external rocket booster.  At that moment at seventy third second, Challenger exploded (Ralentz, 1996).

The O-rings that served as seals to prevent uncontrolled pressure changes in the fuel tanks had already been recognized as a problem by NASA. Coming up with a better substance to create the O-rings out off had been on NASA’s agenda for years (Challenger). The problem with the polymer is that it, under extreme pressures and temperatures had the tendency to falter and small holes would burst through. The quick, self-repairing polymer, however, fit NASA regulations. NASA regulations were based on certain physical situations. Therefore, two of those situations were appropriate temperature and stress (The Challenger Disaster). In the morning of July 6th, the temperature was low. In fact, it was colder that morning than any other morning on which a launch had occurred (Challenger). Though, it is impossible to determine with 100% accuracy, this simple change in the temperature could very well have caused the disaster. Recognizing this prior to launch therefore could have saved millions of dollars and seven priceless lives. In addition to this, Challenger was equipped, that morning, with one of the largest payloads in the history of the space shuttle program (Texas A&M University, 1998). To compensate for extra weight, challenger was constructed out of composites that were designed primarily to save weight as opposed to maintaining rigidity and strength (Texas Space Grant Consortium, 1986). The poor decision to weaken the structure, in effort to save weight, while adding additional payload weight, was also a fateful one (Howe, 1996). The lack of structural strength and the added stress of a huge payload meant that the structure was on the brink of faulting before the shuttle left the ground (NASA History Division, 2006). When the shuttle reached a certain speed, the effects of the poor planning were more than apparent.

Besides the physical causes of the Challenger, there were many other causes. One of the major problems was that communication was very weak between the astronauts and NASA. Also, the press were pressuring the launch to happen too quickly and not let NASA way it out (University of Toronto, 1996).  Also, the outside engineers were not on the same page with the construction of this space craft (Ralentz, 1996). 

The Consequences

In response to the disaster, NASA has spent many sleepless nights making sure that tragedies such as Challenger, and more recently Columbia, are not a frequent occurrence. The most significant change was an adjustment to the solid fuel boosters. Their insulation and O-ring placement were reconfigured in order to prevent unaccountable hot gas escaping. This change also shielded the O-rings from external factors such as temperature that could lead to a change in consistency. In addition to these changes, NASA also redesigned the escape routine of the astronauts ion order to pre-launch communication would no longer be an excuse for loss of lives (The National Academies Press, 1988). Finally, more personnel and more coordinated efforts are now apparent to ensure that every aspect of launch goes as smoothly as possible. Even though the loss of life in the Challenger disaster is by no means acceptable and at no rate a fair trade, but the lessons learned from such a disaster are priceless.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the major cause of the tragedy of the Challenger was found.  The major reason was because of a faulty seal and O-ring erosion.  There could have been a lot done to prevent this disaster.  Firstly, NASA should have developed better communication skills between them and their contracted out engineers.  If they would have heard half of the facts the engineers had not to launch, NASA would have cancelled (Online Ethics Center for Engineering and Science, 1995).  Another major prevention could be a better technology. They did not have the advancements in technology as they do today to have been able to create a better wing seal design or to develop better O-rings.  Despite what has happened to the Challenger, NASA has been still launching space shuttles into space. Lastly, the most recent one was the Discovery and the next planned flight is no earlier than March of 2006.

   

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