SpaceShuttle Challenger Accident Prevention
SpaceShuttle Challenger Accident Prevention
Onthe morning of 28 January 1986, there was excitement as peoplewatched the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger, the first of itskind in the history of NASA. However, the excitement of the viewerswas short-lived. Just 73 seconds into the launch, there was anexplosion that brought down the space shuttle. The accident killedall the seven members: six astronauts, and a high school teacher, whowere on board (CHALLENGER EXPLOSION, 2016). For NASA, this accidentwas significant as it heralded structural changes in the waydecisions were being made. There was plausible deniability in theranks of the two major players involved in the design and launch ofthe shuttle vehicle, but one thing remained apparent the accidentmight have been prevented.
Inthe period following the crash, a presidential commission led byWilliam Rogers was appointed to investigate the accident. Theinvestigation team also comprised of NASA members. In this case,Roger Boisjoly was a significant player as he was one of the sealexperts for the Utah-based Thiokol engineering company ("SpaceShuttle Challenger Disaster FAQ: What Went Wrong", 2011). Itemerged from the findings of the report that he along with ArnoldThompson, also a seal expert at Morton Thiokol, had explained to themanagement of NASA and Morton Thiokol the danger that temperatureswould pose on their mission.
TheCommission arrived at the conclusion that, Morton Thiokol knew of thedanger that lay in the case joints of the shuttle but failed tonotify key representatives of the shuttle program hence allowing anaccident that would have been prevented to happen. The essence ofthis paper is to explain the conflict of interest in the launch ofthe shuttle vehicle and suggest actions that may have prevented theaccident. To do this, sources most familiar with the Challengeraccident have been studied. While selecting the sources, credibilitywas one of the key motivations.
Inthe aftermath of the accident, a technical problem was determined tobe one of the causes of the shuttle explosion. Television images andother photographic data revealed puff smoke coming from the rightjoint of the solid rocket motor. The photographs also showed flamesduring the next moments of ignition coming from the said joint(CHALLENGER EXPLOSION, 2016). Evidence obtained from the wreckagealso indicates flaws in the right joint of the rocket motor.Understandably right, this is the technical problem that sparked aseries of events which later led to the explosion of the shuttlevehicle.
Theblack and dense smoke were a clear indication of the fact that theseal at the right joint was gradually being eaten away and combustedby hot gasses responsible for propulsion. There was vapor originatingfrom the right joint moments after takeoff, pointing to a sealproblem in this area. About 40 seconds into flight, the Challenger issaid to have encountered shear conditions that are characteristic ofhigh altitudes (CHALLENGER EXPLOSION, 2016). The shear conditionsimposed forces on the shuttle vehicle that almost curtailed itsproper movement. Even though these circumstances were detected earlyenough by the navigation team and fixed, experts at Marshallexplained that this had never been witnessed on any of their previousflights. This reinforced the idea that there was a serious problem inthe design of the Challenger.
Differentialpressures were first identified in the right and left boosters of theChallenger 60 seconds into flight and moments later after thisrealization low pressure was recorded in the right joint, and thisconfirmed that there was some leakage in this field area (CHALLENGEREXPLOSION, 2016). The right joint lies close to the external tank.Flames were recorded first in the right joint, but an explosionafterward revealed that the flames had mixed with hydrogen in theexternal tank to spark an explosion. Photographic data showed thatthe shuttle vehicle struggled without success to overcome the forcesthat were out to bring it down.
Judgingfrom these events, the cause of the shuttle car accident was adeficiency in the joint that is located between the lower sections ofthe right motor. The immediate cause of the crash was the distortionof the seals that were designed to prevent leakages during combustionof the propellant gasses (CHALLENGER EXPLOSION, 2016). Evidencecollected after the accident did not indicate the possibility of anyother element of the shuttle vehicle as having contributed to thetechnical failure that caused the Challenger accident.
Asidefrom the technical problem, a conflict of interests is also believedto have taken the center stage in the failure of the mission tosuccessfully launch the shuttle vehicle ("The Space ShuttleChallenger Disaster," 2016). On the night before the start, ameeting was held between representatives from Morton Thiokol andNASA. During this session, Roger Boisjoly, a seal expert at MortonThiokol recommended to the top officials at NASA that they shouldconsider halting the launch until the problem with the seals had beenaddressed adequately. However, his recommendation was met with sternresistance from the managers at NASA who felt that the delay had beenlong enough to warrant another one.
Boisjolyexplained to both representatives the effect that temperatures postedon the launch of the shuttle the next morning. Freezing temperatureshad already been predicted, and Boisjoly interpreted to both teamshow the cold temperatures will interfere with a successful launch("The Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster," 2016). He clearlyelaborated the problem in the seal joints especially in the light offreezing temperatures. It is also evident that Boisjoly had tried onseveral occasions to make the management of Morton Thiokol act on theseal problem, but his advice was never taken into consideration. Hehad even gone to an extent of writing a memo to the Vice President ofEngineering at Thiokol, R.K. Lund. He wanted him to take stepstowards fixing the seal problem as soon as it was possible but hisadvice was ignored or never taken seriously ("Space ShuttleChallenger Disaster FAQ: What Went Wrong", 2011).
Duringthe pre-night meeting, Lund was hesitant to second the recommendationof Roger Boisjoly, instead playing along with the intention of NASAto have the Challenger launched without any further delay. This is inspite of the fact that Lund had held a meeting with the technicalteam at Thiokol on the issue of launching who had unanimously votedagainst the launch until the joint seal problem had been resolved.Jerald Mason, VP of Operations was infuriated by the ineptitudedepicted by Lund that he told him to think like a manager rather thanan engineer.
TheSpace Center wanted to launch at all costs saying that they werefalling behind schedule in their ambition. It was not clear whattheir actual motivation was, but there were possible forces out totake credit for the launch. The only person who had final say on thematter was Lund as the Space Centre would not have launched againstthe recommendation of Morton Thiokol. Out to have another contractpenned with NASA, Lund gave the Space Center the green light tolaunch. The recommendations from the technical staff at MortonThiokol did not prevail because they were based on extrapolated dataand had not been tested to ascertain the deficiency in the sealjoint.
Fromthe Challenger case, important lessons are that teamwork and ethicsare the two most crucial things in getting a project completedsuccessfully. The shuttle vehicle would not have been launched in thefirst place if Morton Thiokol had put the interests of its employeesahead of their need to have their contract renewed with NASA (TheSpace Shuttle Challenger Disaster, 2016). Morton Thiokol should nothave disregarded the recommendations of their seal experts. Byallowing the launch, they acted unethically and thus put the lives ofthe astronauts in danger. Thiokol should have communicated to theSpace Center about the joint seal problem and encouraged them to putthe launch on hold until the issue is fully resolved.
Trustbuilding is an essential component in ensuring that there iscorporate responsibility. This strategy helps develop communicationand teamwork skills and also ensures that there is mutual respectbetween parties involved in a typical course. One of the trustsbuilding exercise that this paper is suggesting is follow up. FormerThiokol engineer, Roger Boisjoly had written a memo to the ThiokolVice President in charge of the engineering department to initiateurgent steps to resolve the O-ring erosion problem but had donenothing to make sure that the issue had been addressed.
Engineersat Thiokol and Marshall were also familiar with the long-standingproblem in the rubber O-rings but did not take steps to ensure thatthe management was firmly in support of the idea. There was acommunication problem, and this was one of the underlying issues inthe accident. Miscommunication would have been addressed by follow-upactivities to make certain that the interests of both Thiokol andMarshall were not competing against one another.
Acompromising approach of conflict resolution would have prevented theChallenger accident. Had Lund taken the recommendations of thetechnical staff at Thiokol seriously, the shuttle would not have beenlaunched until the joint seal issue was fixed. NASA was keen to seethe shuttle launched despite concerns raised by some engineers atThiokol. All that was needed in this circumstance was for NASA tohold their ambition to have the shuttle launched until the concernswere adequately addressed. The hardline stance to initiate theshuttle against all odds is what led to the catastrophe.
Atechnical problem and conflict of interests are the underlying issuesin the Challenger accident. There was an issue in the right joint ofthe shuttle vehicle that caused leakages and events leading to thecrash. Morton Thiokol had a conflict of interest in the launchbecause they were afraid the halt would jeopardize the chances ofhaving another contract penned with NASA. Lund recommended the launchdespite the fact that his technical staff had voted unanimouslyagainst the launch.
Thepresidential commission established to investigate the accidentreached the conclusion that both the executives at Marshall andThiokol were well aware of the hazard that lay in the case joints butcompeting interests led to the launch of the shuttle by all means.All indications are that the accident would have been prevented ifMarshall and Thiokol had come to a compromise and halted the launchuntil the concerns raised were addressed.
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