San Francisco, CA – On the 32nd anniversary of the Challenger disaster, NASA finally comes to terms with the high price for using its precious space shuttles for political agendas. On January 28, 1986, the NASA Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart 73 seconds into flight, killing all seven crew members on board, including a schoolteacher and only the second black astronaut in history at that time, Ronald McNair. After the investigation, NASA concluded that an O-ring seal in the space shuttle’s right solid rocket booster had failed at liftoff and that it was never designed to fly under extremely cold conditions. The morning of January 28 was particularly cold and the mission of the Challenger was politically significant, carrying not only a female schoolteacher, but the second black astronaut in U.S. history. But the Challenger mission was doomed from the start.
Challenger was originally set to launch from Cape Canaveral on January 22, 1986, but delays in the previous mission caused the launch date to be rolled back to January 23 and then January 24. But bad weather at the Transoceanic Abort Landing site in Dakar, Senegal, which is in west Africa, caused the launch to be pushed back again to January 25. Bad weather at Cape Canaveral on January 26 scotched the launch to January 27, but problems with an exterior access hatch and a stripped bolt on the Challenger pushed the launch to January 28. Forecasts for January 28 put temperatures at the usually balmy Kennedy Space Center at an unusually frigid 30 degrees Fahrenheit – the absolute minimum permitted for launch, with the Challenger never having been certified to launch at such low temperatures.
As early as mid-1985, Thiokol, a U.S. manufacturer of rocket propulsion systems had warned about low temperatures and their effect on the Space Shuttle’s O-rings. On the morning of January 28, NASA personnel contacted Thiokol engineers who warned that the launch should not proceed at those temperatures but until they rose in the afternoon. Thiokol engineers, during a teleconference with NASA’s mission control repeatedly warned that a launch in those temperatures could result in disaster. Roger Boisjoly was a booster rocket engineer at Thiokol who was one of the engineers who vehemently opposed the launch, telling NPR,
“I fought like Hell to stop that launch. I’m so torn up inside I can hardly talk about it, even now.”
“We all knew if the seals failed the shuttle would blow up.”
Armed with the data that described that possibility, Boisjoly and his colleagues argued persistently and vigorously for hours. At first, Thiokol managers agreed with them and formally recommended a launch delay. But NASA officials on a conference call challenged that recommendation. According to Boisjoly, NASA’s George Hardy, deputy director for science and engineering at the Marshall Space Flight Center said at the time,
“I am appalled. I am appalled by your recommendation.”
Another shuttle program manager, Lawrence Mulloy, didn’t hide his disdain,
“My God, Thiokol. When do you want me to launch – next April?”
Unbeknownst at the time, political forces behind the scenes were at work, to shape Thiokol’s ultimately fatal decision to go along with NASA’s demands to launch the Challenger on that fateful morning of January 28, 1986.
NASA was in the mid-80s considered a highly progressive federal agency – ahead of its time for many. Under conservative Republican President Ronald Reagan, NASA prided itself on its inclusiveness as well as diversity, with Dr. Guion Bluford, the first black astronaut to fly on the Space Shuttle, launching aboard the Challenger on August 30, 1986. Bluford said at the time,
“I wanted to set the standards of excellence for African-American astronauts and to help demonstrate the benefits of diversity in manned space operations.”
But the euphoria for young black boys and girls yearning for the stars was short-lived. Former NASA engineers who spoke on the condition of anonymity all describe a vastly different experience working with Bluford than was public at the time. A former NASA mission control engineer recalls,
“Bluford acted like royalty and strutted around NASA expecting everyone to treat him as such. He was a mission specialist (not a pilot), but really there wasn’t much by way of scientific value in the experiments that he was going into orbit to do.”
“It felt as if Bluford was more of a publicity showcase than anything else, for NASA’s leadership in diversity.”
Although hailed as a success publicly, STS-8, Bluford’s mission was actually a comedy of errors in space. But without the internet, NASA was able to control the flow of information from that mission. A former NASA mission control specialist recalls,
“Bluford was unprepared. He may be highly educated, but your degrees don’t mean shit in space. You have to know your procedures, you have to know what you’re doing up there. It’s not like a car you can pull over to the side of the road if something went wrong.”
Bluford cleared the rigorous astronaut training program nonetheless and was sent into, but NASA re-evaluated sending any more black astronauts into space after STS-8. To begin with, Bluford was launched into space when it looked like then-president Ronald Reagan would win a second term against Democratic presidential challenger Walter Mondale. A former NASA launch manager recalls,
“It was a bit of a political thing, we just wanted to remind everyone that NASA still leaded in diversity.”
Despite the near disaster that was STS-8, NASA mission control managers and program staff decided that it was more of a coordination issue than anything to do with black Space Shuttle astronauts, pressing on in February 1984 with only the second black man in space, Ronald McNair on STS 41-B, only the 10th Space Shuttle mission and the fourth flight of Challenger. But the same issues which STS-8 faced continued to plague the STS 41-B. Whether it was racism against black astronauts, or a lack of integration with the Space Shuttle crew is less clear. A former NASA astronaut program manager has some views,
“Shuttle crew spend weeks and months together, often times in isolation from the rest of the world, to ensure that they develop camaraderie and can work together as a team in stressful, life-threatening situations.”
“There were problems then already with the black astronauts. In high-stress scenarios, people just have a tendency to fall back on their survival instincts, to find safety in their demographic.”
Although both black astronauts, McNair and Bluford were highly educated and in some cases had more degrees than their fellow astronauts, assimilation was always a problem. The program manager added,
“It was the eighties. People talk about racism now, but you forget that we have the internet and social media, there’s a growing social consciousness. But in the eighties, it was a very subtle thing, you wouldn’t go up to them and call them ‘nigger nauts,’ but there were many other ways to make them feel like they didn’t belong.”
Eager to demonstrate to the rest of the world that NASA was the bastion of equality and opportunity, NASA program controllers and astronaut assessment staff cleared the two black astronauts on their respective missions, but it was the Space Shuttle mission STS-51-L, on the morning of January 28, 1986 that would prove to be the final straw on the Challenger’s back.
Under pressure to launch on that frigid and fateful January morning, NASA’s George Hardy, deputy director for science and engineering at the Marshall Space Flight Center pressed hard for the rocket engineers at Thiokol to green light the launch. When the rocket engineers refused to budge, Hardy called the management at Thiokol and pressed them to strong arm their engineers to sign off on the launch. According to a former NASA program executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity and who claims to have been in the room when Hardy placed the call to Thiokol’s vice president of the space boosters program Joe Kilminster,
“Look Joe, I can’t scrub any more launches and this launch is special for…look at the crew manifest ok Joe? You know that we need this thing to be a go. I need for you to tighten the screws on your guys and get them to a yes.”
Hardy knew that the stakes were high. With almost a week worth of scrubbings, there was a risk of the entire Challenger launch being cancelled and with that cancellation, the possibility of a new set of crew being deployed on a subsequent Space Shuttle launch. Space Shuttle crew are selected and trained for a specific mission and if the mission is cancelled, it is not uncommon for a new set of crew to be selected. Space Shuttle crew are trained for specific missions under a set of conditions for launch within a fixed window. A former NASA program manager explains,
“Seasons, weather patterns – the astronauts train for many small details and so if the mission gets cancelled within their launch window, a new crew may be assigned to take over their mission.”
With the first female schoolteacher on board the Challenger, these considerations would necessarily have been weighing heavily on Hardy, NASA’s deputy director of science and engineering. The political and social ramifications of a new set of crew, one that would likely exclude both the female schoolteacher as well as only the second black astronaut, would be high. Hardy was determined to launch Challenger that morning and make sure that that burden was not on his shoulders to bear.
Ultimately, the Challenger disaster, now some 32 years on is a reminder of when actual engineering meets social engineering. There are however signs that NASA is learning its lessons from the past. In recent weeks, the first black female astronaut this century had been scheduled to go on the International Space Station but was pulled at the last minute, replaced by white female scientist instead. With NASA now a shadow of its former self, relying on private sector companies such as Elon Musk’s Space X to send payload into orbit as well as Russian spacecraft, the stakes and cost of failure could not be higher. President Donald Trump has made our nation’s space program a priority as well as a mission to Mars in the near future and despite the cries of social justice engineers beyond the walls of NASA’s mission control, there is hope for the federal agency who are finally coming to terms with separating rocket engineering from social engineering.