Space Shuttle (Part 1)


This month is the 40th anniversary of the first successful space shuttle mission.

NASA’s post Apollo program.

On the 12th of April 1981, the space shuttle Columbia launched on its maiden voyage, successfully returning to earth two days later on April 14th.

It was the dawn of a new age of routine flights and reusable vehicles

The program continued for another 30 years and 135 missions many linked to the International Space Station.

Despite the optimism and the many successes, the shuttle never quite lived up to expectations, and it’s legacy will always be overshadowed by the loss of two shuttles.

The first was Challenger shuttle disaster, which occurred only a few short years after that optimistic maiden flight.

It was  followed, almost 17 years later by another, when the shuttle Columbia disintegrated on reentry.

These tragedies cost the life of 14 extraordinary individuals who “Dared Greatly”.

The technical reasons for each disaster were quite different, but there is a common lesson that we as project managers can learn.

January 28th, 1986

As the shuttle Challenger’s designated launch time approached the temperatures at the Cape Canaveral launch site hovered around -2Co (28Fo). (It rose to 2Co (36Fo)by the time of launch, which was lower than any previous launch)

The shuttles were hurled into orbit with the aid of two solid fuel boosters.

Each booster was assembled in sections, the joints sealed by putty and two O-rings, a primary and a backup, to prevent the escape of hot gasses.

These O-rings had shown erosion on previous flights, and the engineers were concerned about their effectiveness in the prevailing low temperatures.

These concerns were raised but dismissed and the launch count-down proceeded. After all there had been multiple successful launches, with the same configuration.

Shuttle launches were now unremarkable, and the public had lost interest in these routine “taxi” flights, and television viewing figures were expected to be low.

The only non-routine aspect was the fact that Christa McAuliffe a schoolteacher would fly on the mission.

No longer did you have to be a professional astronaut.


Worried engineers watched as the countdown proceeded.

When the shuttle cleared the tower, they breathed a sigh of relief.

Unfortunately, it was premature, seconds after the crew acknowledged they had gone to full throttle, the Challenger exploded in a ball of fire, killing all seven crew members.

The Rogers’ Commission

An  inquiry headed by former Secretary of State William P. Rogers was immediately convened.  It was tasked with determining the cause of the disaster and to provide recommendations for future operations.

There were 14 members of the commission, the most  well-known being the following individuals.

  • Neil Armstrong (First man on the moon) was vice chairman
  • Chuck Yeager (First person to break the sound barrier)
  • Sally Ride (First American woman in space, a current astronaut and veteran of Challenger flights)
  • Richard Feynman (Winner of the 1965 Nobel Prize for Physics)

Mr Feynman Goes to Washington1

Richard Feynman gives his account of the Commission in his book

“What do you Care What Other People Think?”

Feynman was alerted to the potential “O”-ring problem by another Commission member and applied his scientific mind to investigating the issue.

By rigorously questioning the engineers and scientists it became clear that there had been concerns regarding the “O”-rings for some time and there was a difference of opinions between the engineers and managers as to the potential risk.  But on each occasion the consensus was that it was safe to launch.

NASA bureaucracy  down-played the  warnings about the lack of effectiveness of the “O”-rings in freezing temperatures and continually overestimated the safety factors of the shuttle.

Feynman famously demonstrated the issue during a press conference by  compressing  a piece of “O”-ring material with a clamp and placing it in a glass of ice water.

When the clamp was removed the material failed to return to its original shape, due to the low temperature.

In addition, NASA were claiming that the risk of a catastrophic failure was 1:100,000.

Feynman polled various engineers and received opinions between 1:50 to 1:200.

Feynman pointed out these were much more realistic figures because the official NASA figure meant that they could expect to launch a shuttle every day for about 270 years and have only one catastrophic failure.

Clearly wishful thinking.2

The Final Report

In its final report the committee  confirmed that the failure of the vital O-rings had cause the disaster and made several recommendations.

  • A redesign of the solid fuel boosters (With independent oversight)
  • A new Safety Organization
  • Improved maintenance safeguards
  • Better review and risk analysis
  • More effective communication processes

The redesign was completed, and the shuttle program resumed.

Although some of the recommendations were implemented 17 years later a different technical issue, but the same institutional problems would claim the lives of the Crew of Columbia.

But that is for a later post.


It was a technical problem which caused the disaster, but institutional problems led to the gravity of the technical issues not being fully recognized and addressed.

We will review those issues and the shuttle program in future posts. 


1Mr Feynman Goes to Washington is Part 2 of the book  “What do you Care What Other People Think?”

2When the shuttle was retired in 2011 after 135 flights the actual figure was 1: 67.5


  • What do you Care What Other People Think?” – Richard P. Feynman

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. John Buckley

    There is an interesting political component to the Challenger analysis that I have heard. I’ve not dug into research its veracity, but I do I know pieces of it are true. You may want to explore. Basically the story goes like this: The original 1970’s design for the solid rocket boosters was as a single solid rocket that would be built in Jacksonville, FL and barged down to KSC. In late 1980 after the Presidential election, new cabinet members, who had ties to Morton Thiokol, pressed for contracts to be given to Morton Thiokol, which produced the boosters in Utah. Because they had to be shipped by rail, they had to be smaller pieces which could be assembled once they arrived at KSC. Without that re-assembly, there would have been no need for “O” rings at the joints.

    1. Jim Benvie

      Thank you for the comments, John.
      I will check it out

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