Leading up to the launch, McAullife was treated as a minor celebrity who appeared to be able to charm talk show hosts with ease. And according to the documentary, this was exactly the effect NASA officials wanted to achieve with the civilian astronaut program. They wanted to portray the space shuttle as a reliable way of exploring human space that wasn’t much more risky than flying an airliner. If it was safe for a school teacher after just a few weeks of training, it was safe enough for everyone. According to several people featured in the document, NASA’s public message contradicted what many of its own engineers recognized to be true: every flight of the space shuttle was risky, and the circumstances of that particular flight made it unsafe to take off.
“I think the most fundamental impact of the challenger The disaster thwarted the myth that the shuttle was safe enough to attract ordinary citizens, ”said John Logsdon, a space historian at George Washington University who was not involved in the documentary. “There was a pervasive groupthink in the organization that this is what we promised and while we know this vehicle cannot do it, we won̵
The emotional roller coaster ride of meeting McAullife and the other astronauts who you know are doomed is a critical foil to the comparatively dry technical drama that simmered in the background. The cause of the challenger The catastrophe was ultimately a failed O-ring, a giant rubber band that was used to seal parts of the space shuttle’s two solid rocket boosters. The engineers at Morton-Thiokol, the contractor who made the boosters for NASA, had found a disturbing tendency for the O-ring seals to fail during tests when temperatures were below about 50 degrees Fahrenheit. And when a cold snapshot hit Florida a few days before challenger Mission predicted that the weather during launch will be in the lower to mid 30’s.
“Our engineers were concerned that the o-rings would be colder than any we’ve ever launched, and that this time it might be worse than ever,” said Joseph Kilminster, vice president of Morton-Thiokol’s solid rocket booster program, says in the film. Brian Russell, an engineer at the company, agrees. “We believed the risk was higher, but we didn’t know how much higher,” he says in the document. “We didn’t know the point of failure.” Despite these concerns, the managers of Morton-Thiokol and NASA decided to move forward anyway.
The question, of course, is why? Why would NASA and one of its contractors break the advice of engineers who were concerned that the cold weather would cause a catastrophic failure? After the disaster, an investigation by a presidential commission found that the managers of Morton-Thiokol “recommended the start … contrary to the views of their engineers in order to take on a major customer”.
Junge and Leckart also come to this conclusion in their film. “The final decision-makers were under pressure, which probably had an inappropriately effect on the ultimately terrible decision,” Junge told WIRED.
NASA’s press representatives did not immediately respond to WIRED’s request to comment on this assessment. But in the documentary, William Lucas, the director of NASA’s Marshall Space Center, who received the brunt of the criticism for the disaster, says that he would make the same decision today with the data he received from Morton-Thiokol. “I did what I thought was right, given the information I had,” he says in the documentary.