A Major Malfunction - the Challenger Accident

A Flawed Decision

Video Notes

"Major Malfunction: The Story Behind the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster", J. Marcus Maier, writer and producer, Organizational Leadership Program, Chapman University, 333 N. Glassel St., Orange CA 92866 (original produced at SUNY Binghamton). To see a review of this video set click here.

Video Highlights:

Challenger Lift-off
NASA and Morton Thiokol

Commentator: Roger Boisjoly

Delays in previous launches
Shuttle Flight 51L

Judith Resnick, Mission Specialist
Ronald McNair, Mission Specialist
Christa McAuliffe "Teacher in Space", Chosen by President Reagan

Commentator: Richard Cook, Former NASA Specialist

President getting ready for State of the Union address
Bad weather, technical glitches
"Yet another delay" - CBS and others

Cold front - 18 F overnight low prior to flight
29 F lift-off prediction

January 27th

Mid-afternoon telephone conference call re potential problems
Morton Thiokol/Marshall Space Center/ Kennedy Space Center

Robert Lund, Morton Thiokol
Judson Lovingood, Deputy Manager, Marshal Space Center
Arnold Aldrich, Manager, Johnson Space Center, Houston

Stanley Reinhart, Marshal Flight Center
Larry Mulloy
James Kingsbury
William Lucas, Director, Marshall Space Flight Center

Decision: Await results of evening "telecom"

The Launch:
Weather data: At launch time - 8 F at joint
38 F - 15 F colder than any launch
O-rings flex and allow escaping gases - 60 seconds into flight

8:45 pm night before meeting, second telecom
Thiokol engineers led by Boisjoly strived for launch delay
"Like squeezing a brick into a crack rather than a sponge"

But erosion was not the issue -- it was how long the seal would last
Launch 51C was previous coldest launch at 51F -- which has significant "blow-bys" in the O-rings

Management questioned data - "Quantify your concerns"
Was temperature the factor?

Robert Lund presented resolutions and recommendations at end of telecon - to wait to 53F
Boisjoly - Should not fly outside of the data base
The logic was not to operate at any temperature outside that of previous experience.
Mulloy - engineering recommendation was not to launch -- not based on data! Data did not hang together.

NASA was not getting what it wanted to hear. Appalled by Thiokol recommendation.
Lund - unable to PROVE that it would not work.
NASA displeased.

Mulloy went into summary mode - there are currently no launch commit criteria for temperature - we may not be able to launch until next April.

Boisjoly - the determination was to launch and our task was to prove that it could not fly. Prove that Thiokol was not ready. A role different from prior commit situations.

Mulloy (according to Boisjoly) - the data was inconclusive.

Threat of second source for booster rockets.

After a five minute (extended to 30 minute) recess (later called the "caucus") Thiokol management reversed themselves.

Lund - "We have to make a management decision". Arnold Thompson tried to make the engineering point but was ignored. He backed off. Boisjoly screamed to have them look at the photographs.

Jerry Mason, Senior VP and General Manager, Morton Thiokol - "am I only the only one that wants to launch?" but he got no response for his colleagues and thus it was by default the decision!

Thompson proposed waiting for the afternoon.

Mason - "We expected the primary ring to seat" (contrary to engineering feelings)

Mason said "Take off your engineering hat and put on your management hat."

Proving that it was unsafe was the opposite way round to the usual position.

Final vote: 4 votes to launch against none! Only polled the management people because it was obvious that we were not going to be unanimous.

Morton Thiokol got back on the line at 11 pm and reversed their decision.

Asked all telecom parties if there were any disagreements from anyone else - but got no response.

Marshall asked for decision in writing (sent by FAX) shortly after 11 pm.

Thereafter: Al McDonald (Morton Thiokol engineering) tried to get launch delayed -- based on other issues: ice on launch pad and possible loss of boosters. NASA officials agreed to pass these concerns on. Hears these discussed on the telecon, so assumes his concerns have been forwarded. Mason -- "no violation of launch criteria."

5 am, 28th January, told NASA of raised problems and reported that the problems had been resolved.

Long disjointed discussion of passing decisions with concerns up the "reporting channels" from level IV through to level I.

Chairman, William Rogers - "No application of common sense"

Richard Cook - "the decision had been made at the Cape that this was a go."

"The decision making process was seriously flawed" - Presidential Commission

Last updated 99/11/02
© J.A.N. Lee, 1999.