Comments on the Challenger Disaster

Larry Nowak

Having watched all segments of the Netflix coverage of the Challenger disaster, I concluded that there are two basic questions being covered. The first is how did they decide to launch on such a cold day in January and how did our candidate Greg Jarvis get bumped from April 1985 to January 1986.

I was down at the Cape the previous year in January 1985 prepping our first LEASAT spacecraft for launch. There was a shuttle launch that afternoon around 3 PM; it was a very cold day. The launch was a success, but recovery of the solid motors showed major leakage around the seals and almost a total burn though.  I believe these photos were used in the Netflix documentary.

The Thiokol workers knew that the seals were a major problem and needed to be fixed.  A design change was initiated but had not been finalized and implemented for the Challenger launch.

The movie seemed to indicate that they didn’t know the cause of failure at the time of launch. With the history of seal leakage, I was surprised when they did launch on that fateful day when there were icicles hanging from the launch vehicle.

As Steve pointed out, NASA was trying to use the shuttle for all launches. Their aggressive schedule was to launch at least two per month and up to four spacecraft per launch. Any delays by one would probably bump the launch dates for all the others to later dates (my conclusion).  This would be a major cost overrun I’m sure.

Apparently, the new criteria to launch was changed from “Prove it is OK to launch” to “Prove it’s not OK to launch”.  Following the disaster, the launch schedule was delayed until the mod had been authorized and implemented. As the movie points out, there were no more rocket failures after this change had been implemented.

So how did Greg get bumped to this fateful launch date?  Greg was originally assigned to be on a launch in April 1985 along with our LEASAT F3 spacecraft.  Senator Jake Garn was assigned to a TRW spacecraft the previous month. That one had problems and was scrubbed. He then bumped Greg because the rules allowed him to do that. Greg could have been on the next launch in September with our F4 but F3, which Jake Garn took, failed to activate properly upon deployment. Subsequent meetings with NASA personal showed F3 could be saved by installing a bypass switch around the malfunctioning switch. This did not allow Greg to ride along.  

I think Greg could have taken the next flight scheduled for December but thought it would be a better choice to go with the schoolteacher, Christa McAuliffe in January and help her with her activities. I also heard a rumor that Rep Bill Nelson didn’t want to fly with Christa because she would get all the news coverage. Greg agreed to switch to the January 1986 flight and all were happy.

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