Shuttle Challenger Accident Part 6

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The decision to launch the Challenger was flawed. Those who made that decision were unaware of the recent history of problems concerning the O-rings and the joint and were unaware of the initial written recommendation of the contractor advising against the launch at temperatures below 53 degrees Fahrenheit and the continuing opposition of the engineers at Thiokol after the management reversed its position. They did not have a clear understanding of Rockwell's concern that it was not safe to launch because of ice on the pad. If the decision makers had known all of the facts, it is highly unlikely that they would have decided to launch 51-L on January 28, 1986.


1. The Commission concluded that there was a serious flaw in the decision making process leading up to the launch of flight 51-L. A well structured and managed system emphasizing safety would have flagged the rising doubts about the Solid Rocket Booster joint seal. Had these matters been clearly stated and emphasized in the flight readiness process in terms reflecting the views of most of the Thiokol engineers and at least some of the Marshall engineers, it seems likely that the launch of 51-L might not have occurred when it did.

2. The waiving of launch constraints appears to have been at the expense of flight safety. There was no system which made it imperative that launch constraints and waivers of launch constraints be considered by all levels of management.


3. The Commission is troubled by what appears to be a propensity of management at Marshall to contain potentially serious problems and to attempt to resolve them internally rather than communicate them forward. This tendency is altogether at odds with the need for Marshall to function as part of a system working toward successful flight missions, interfacing and communicating with the other parts of the system that work to the same end.

4. The Commission concluded that the Thiokol Management reversed its position and recommended the launch of 51-L, at the urging of Marshall and contrary to the views of its engineers in order to accommodate a major customer.


The Commission is concerned about three aspects of the ice-on-the-pad issue.

1. An Analysis of all of the testimony and interviews establishes that Rockwell's recommendation on launch was ambiguous. The Commission finds it difficult, as did Mr. Aldrich, to conclude that there was a no-launch recommendation. Moreover, all parties were asked specifically to contact Aldrich or other NASA officials after the 9:00 Mission Management Team meeting and subsequent to the resumption of the countdown.

2. The Commission is also concerned about the NASA response to the Rockwell position at the 9:00 a.m. meeting. While it is understood that decisions have to be made in launching a Shuttle, the Commission is not convinced Levels I and II appropriately considered Rockwell's concern about the ice. However ambiguous Rockwell's position was, it  is clear that they did tell NASA that the ice was an unknown condition. Given the extent of the ice on the pad, the admitted unknown effect of the Solid Rocket Motor and Space Shuttle Main Engines ignition on the ice, as well as the fact that debris striking the Orbiter was a potential flight safety hazard, the Commission finds the decision to launch questionable under those circumstances. In this situation, NASA appeared to be requiring a contractor to prove that it was not safe to launch, rather than proving it was safe. Nevertheless, the Commission has determined that the ice was not a cause of the 51-L accident and does not conclude that NASA's decision to launch specifically overrode a no-launch recommendation by an element contractor.

3. The Commission concluded that the freeze protection plan for launch pad 39B was inadequate. The Commission believes that the severe cold and presence of so much ice on the fixed service structure made it inadvisable to launch on the morning of January 28, and that margins of safety were whittled down too far. Additionally, access to the crew emergency slide wire baskets was hazardous due to ice conditions. Had the crew been required to evacuate the Orbiter on the launch pad, they would have been running on an icy surface. The Commission believes the crew should have been made aware of the condition, greater consideration should have been given to delaying the launch.

(Source: The Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger

Accident Report, June 6, 1986 p.82, p.104, p.117-118)