Understanding the Rogers Commission Report

For this new space law article on Space Legal Issues, let us have a look at the Rogers Commission Report. On January 28, 1986, seven astronauts were aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger and were preparing to leave for almost a week in space. Their mission was to spend a week in space and send a satellite to observe Halley’s Comet. The Space Shuttle was about to fly its tenth mission, however, seventy-three seconds after takeoff, it exploded. There were no survivors.

The Rogers Commission, from its official name Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident is a United States Presidential Commission appointed to investigate the accident. It was created by President Ronald Reagan. This commission was composed of thirteen members including Neil A. Armstrong and Sally K. Ride, and even the Nobel Prize in physics Richard P. Feynman and was chaired by William Rogers (hence his name) who was a former secretary of President Nixon.

The investigation quickly focused on boosters or SRB. These boosters positioned on each side of the main tank, each weigh nearly six hundred tons which, once ignited, cannot be stopped. They deliver phenomenal power to allow the Space Shuttle to tear itself away from Earth’s gravity before separating from it once empty, after about two minutes of flight. They are attached to the main tank by two attachment points. NASA provided the investigation with images of the takeoff and on the side of the right booster, black smoke escaped very clearly. It was therefore not solid fuel that was consumed but something else. This smoke faded during the shot and then after about sixty seconds, a flame came out from this booster, until the total disintegration of the Space Shuttle.

Very quickly, the investigation pointed to one element: the O-rings designed by Morton Thiokol (MT). The explanation then put forward was that these joints would have been consumed at the start of the Space Shuttle’s takeoff. Without this seal, the gases escaped from the hole thus created and this explains the flame which arose later during takeoff. A question then was asked: how was this joint consumed and what are the reasons for it? Richard P. Feynman found the answer.

Richard P. Feynman is a legend in physics. His career began during the Manhattan project (American development project of the atomic bomb). He hesitated for a while before joining this commission, but finally accepted. He had the advantage of being an independent investigator on this case and decided to fully invest it. Richard P. Feynman got to visit the various installations of NASA and the subcontractors involved in the construction of the Space Shuttle, did meticulous work and was quite detached from the rest of the commission. He learned in particular that NASA had a very heavy launch schedule for the shuttles because of the commercial and military contracts to launch satellites. Thus, NASA maintains a very high launch rate per year in order to honour the contracts. This rate is in the order of fifteen launches per year. In this regard, a source close to the Commission of Inquiry revealed that “the Commission is sensitive to the issue of pressure that may be real or perceived by NASA management and that could influence the way people make decisions”.

Assisted by astronaut Sally K. Ride and General Donald J. Kutyna, they will all be interested in the design of O-rings. The night before the flight, the temperature on the launch pad fell below zero which would have resulted in contracting the joints to the point of removing the seal. According to the manufacturer, they were designed to withstand low temperatures. But two testimonies from people working for MT shook everything. One year before the launch of Challenger, Discovery was launched in fairly similar weather conditions: the coldest recorded during a space shuttle launch. Everything went without a hitch but when the boosters were recovered, the seals were damaged. MT engineers therefore recommended to their hierarchy to request the postponement of the launch. MT alerted NASA the day before the launch but nothing was done. NASA officials reacted angrily to this request. The postponement did not take place.

During a public hearing, Richard P. Feynman gave a famous demonstration using a glass filled with ice and a piece of the O-rings. He said “I took this stuff that I got out of your seal, and I put it in ice water. And I discovered that if you put some pressure on it for a while and then undo it, it maintains, it doesn’t stretch back, it stays in the same dimensions. In other words, for a few seconds at least, and more seconds than that, there is no resistance in this particular material when it’s at the wrong temperature. I believe that have some significance for our problem”. Everyone was amazed by this demonstration. One question remained: if the joint had burned out, then why didn’t the Space Shuttle catch fire on the launch pad?

One hypothesis was raised by the experts: that of aluminium slag. Aluminium is added to the fuel of the boosters to increase the thrust during takeoff. This gives rise to ejection from the aluminium tiles in solid form. This aluminium would have filled the hole left by the destroyed seals. The hole would then have been sealed up to the Max Q area where the Space Shuttle is at maximum aerodynamic pressure. There, the Space Shuttle was strongly shaken by a very strong side wind. This hypothesis was supported by telemetric surveys which displayed a lateral force so violent that it was “out of bounds”. This had the consequence of dislodging the aluminium plug which had plugged the leak, releasing the gases from the booster and causing a large flame to appear. This flame consequently led to the disintegration of the Space Shuttle Challenger.

To conclude on the Rogers Commission Report, the final report of the Rogers Commission given to President Ronald Reagan in June 1986 overwhelmed the security policy of NASA, its management and Morton Thiokol. The role of Richard P. Feynman was clearly visible in Appendix F of the report, where he collected his observations and conclusions.

In the Rogers Commission Report, NASA is held for responsible.