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Disaster :

January 28 , 1986

The space shuttle challenger launched by

NASA is most widely written case in engineering ethics because of the extensive media coverage at the time of the accident.

On 28th January the American space

program suffered one of its greatest tragedies when the space shuttle challenger was destroyed 76 seconds into the mission killing all seven crew members.


Whos Who
NASA : National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Morton Thiokol : Private Company that won the contract from NASA for building the solid rocket Boosters for the Shuttle.

NASA : (1). LARRY MULLOY Solid Rocket Booster Project Manager at NASA. From Morton Thiokol : [1].Roger Mulloy and Arnie Johnson - Engineers who worked on the Solid Rocket Booster Development Programme. [2]. Joe Kilminster : Engineering Manager on Solid Rocket Booster Development Programme.

Thiokol People involved

[3].Alan Mc Donald : Director of Solid Rocket Booster Project. [4].Bob Lund : Vice President for Engineering. [5].Jerald Mason : General Manager.


The Reusable launch vehicle called challenger consist of an orbiter two solid Propellant boosters single liquid-propellant booster.

The orbiter was equipped with three main engines in which liquid hydrogen was the main fuel.

The liquid propellant booster functions mainly to lift the shuttle into orbit. The boosters are capable of burning about one million-pound load of fuel mixture each.

The orbiter descends to a safe landing by using limited thrust, at the completion of mission.

Booster rocket consist of cylindrical segments. Seals made of pairs of O-rings are used in four field joints in the segments.

O rings : Made from a type of Synthetic Rubber, not particularly Heat Resistant. To prevent the hot gases from damaging the O rings, a heat resistant PUTTY is placed in the joint.


When the Rocket is ignited, the internal pressure causes the Booster wall to expand outward, putting pressure on the field joint. This pressure causes the joint to open slightly, a process called JOINT ROTATION.

EARLY PROBLEMS WITH SOLID BOOSTERS When everything was set and ready for the final phase of launching, Allan of Morton -Thiokol at Cape Kennedy had great apprehensions about the adverse effects that freezing temperatures would have in the launching.

Before the Launch

A Teleconference was arranged between the Engineers and the Management from the Kennedy Space Center. During this, ROGER BOISJOLY and ARNIE THOMPSON (Thiokol Engineers) gave an Hour long presentation on how the cold weather would increase the problems of JOINT ROTATION and sealing of joint by O Rings.

The Lowest Temperature at which shuttle had previously been launched was 53 degree F, on January 24, 1985. Expected O ring Temperature during CHALLENGER launch was predicted to be 29 degree F far below the temperature at which NASA had previous experience.

According to BOB LUND, the Vice president for Engineering at Morton Thiokol recommended that NASA should delay the launch until the O Ring temperature should be atleast 53 deg F.

Famous Quote
After much discussion, JERALD MASON, a senior Manager with Thoikol, turned to Lund and said, TAKE OFF YOUR ENGINEERING HAT AND PUT ON YOUR MANAGEMENT HAT. LUND reversed his previous decision and recommended that the Launch proceed.

The engineers were aware, from previous launches, that the O-rings became greatly strained at a specific low temperature. The points raised by Morton-Thiokol engineers were not given any consideration at the Cape Kennedy center..

The launch was approved and the command for the countdown was given. Soon after take off, heavy smoke was seen

evolving from one of the field joints on the

right-hand booster rocket.

This sparked off a fire which caused the fuel

tank containing liquid hydrogen to explode

The booster rocket then crashed into one of the challengers wings smashing it.

It happened about a minute after the take off when the challenger was at an altitude of around 50,000 feet.

Within seconds, only a ball of fire plummeting down to earth was visible . The space craft finally plunged into the ocean killing all of the astronauts on board.


The huge budget allocation to NASA was directly governed by the congress senate in USA. The congress was very uncomfortable and unhappy with the inordinate delay in executing the space shuttle projects. All these crucial developments forced NASA to approve the launching programmes.

All these crucial developments forced

NASA to approve the launching


Space shuttle challenger was so designed

as to have simultaneously ignition of all the fuel in the tank at the time of launching.

It was previously contemplated as a precautionary safety measure, to introduce an abort module in the design with its own thruster that would enable the instant separation of the orbiter if there was any leakage in the field-joints.

But this proposal was turned down due to its highly expensive cost. Despite the fact that the shuttle programme was

initiated only as an experimental and research

undertaking, it appears highly ridiculous that the minimum level of safety procedures were not at all considered in the launching of the challenger.

The poor and unreliable assessment of systems reliability and quality by NASA clearly points out its negligent and casual attitude towards the safety norms of the space shuttle programmes.