The destruction of the space shuttle Challenger shocked observers in America and worldwide. It ushered in a new era of inquiry and public doubt about the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s handling of its space program. While the accidents of Apollo 1 and 13 had caused ripples of uncertainty, the spectacular trauma of Challenger would definitively end the era in which NASA could depend on stars in the eyes of the voters and Congressional appropriations committees. Today, as NASA and the entire U.S. try to determine what new direction and focus should drive the continuing space program, it remains relevant to examine the factors which led to Challenger’s destruction. This investigation may ensure that dangerous past organizational habits–such as oversensitivity to public sentiment–can be recognized and avoided in the future.

On January 28, 1986, the seven crew members of the space shuttle Challenger mission STS-51-L stepped off the earth for the last time. At 11:39 a.m., only 73 seconds after liftoff, smoke began to billow from one of the solid rocket boosters. A seal on one of the boosters, known as an O-ring, had failed and allowed the fuel of the Orbiter (the manned vehicle) to escape, propelling the booster forcefully into the rest of the shuttle. Horrified thousands watched as the vehicle disintegrated under the aerodynamic forces acting upon it, until nothing remained in the sky but a contrail of destruction. Steve Nesbitt, spokesman for Mission Control, reported moments later that he had witnessed “obviously a major malfunction.” This vast understatement, downplaying a disaster, shows as an attempt to soften the immediate blow, which would fall on the American people.

As the public, government, media, and world would find out over the coming months, NASA had been taking public relations quite seriously for a very long time— perhaps too much. It hearkened to the simple principle of funding under a democratic government: popular programs get the money, unpopular ones get cut. Congress makes the appropriations, and the representatives’ attunement to their own dependence on the voters, means they generally vote along the lines of their constituents. For this reason, to keep the organization functioning, the cultivation of a place in the American people’s minds and hearts became a priority. NASA’s concern for image had permeated the organization since its beginning, when science fiction fans had provided much of its initial public support–but by the 1970’s, when NASA needed a second wind, this concern became overemphasized. In the 1980’s–the main focus of this essay–when NASA’s new drive was reaching fruition in the shuttle program, that concern became destructive. NASA’s valuation of its public image over safety practices actually contributed to the Challenger tragedy in allowing the mechanical problems, which doomed Challenger to persist. A brief look back at NASA’s earlier days will illustrate how the disastrous stage of the 1980s was set.


With the Apollo 11 and subsequent moon landings, the United States had accomplished the inherited dream of John F. Kennedy, “won” the space race against the Soviets, and shown the world the fruits of America’s pioneering spirit—and spent a lot of money doing it. The government and the people felt vindicated after the massive costs of the program, but public interest (and government patience) quickly receded from this high-water mark achievement. Only a tenth of the numbers who had come to Cape Kennedy to see off Apollo 11 came for Apollo 13; the Office of Management and Budget made cuts which dictated canceling Apollo’s 18 and 19, planned as moon landings. Americans embroiled in the Vietnam War and unrest at home, shifted focus to earthly matters. The Apollo program succumbed to a public sense of ennui, and NASA officials worried that boredom with the final frontier might lead to the downsizing or elimination of the space program.

The space program needed a new emphasis and a new goal. Remembering Kennedy’s rallying cry of “Man, moon, decade,” NASA managers decided upon “Man, Mars, decade” –an effort to land a man on Mars within 10 years. They thought a new drive would generate new funding and refreshed public interest, and prepared detailed proposals for such a drive. Contractors would develop and test a new earth-to-earth-orbit vehicle, which in turn would serve to construct a complex space station. That station would then be used as an assembly and jumping-off point for a Mars expedition vehicle. The entire endeavor promised a massive undertaking, massive potential for public interest, and massive expenditures. NASA presented a projected budget of $9 billion a year to President Nixon, and quickly found it would have to compromise. Congress cut many elements mercilessly, and when dust settled, only a much smaller research station and the Orbiter commute vehicle remained of the grand integrated space system. The Orbiter (now more popularly known as the Space Shuttle) became an orphan technology, its original purpose as the first wave of an ambitious new undertaking now defunct. Though technically without a long-term purpose, it was the one project the cost-cutting presidential administration had left to NASA–so they had to make it work.

NASA aimed to regain public attention, and the funding which ensues, with a shuttle that would reduce cost through reusability and would glamorize itself as the next leap in the conquest of space. NASA decided to cater to popular interest when it announced the first test Orbiter’s name: Enterprise, after the fictional starship from the TV show Star Trek. Many fans of the show had written in to NASA requesting the name, and celebrated the announcement. Though the Enterprise never flew to space itself, it produced valuable test results to put the Orbiters, which came after it into orbit. Their names–Challenger, Discovery, Columbia also spoke of achievement, innovation, and national unity, further enriching the image NASA sought to create for itself.


The first space mission, flown by Columbia, lifted off on April 12, 1981. After a successful mission and flawless landing three days later, the country celebrated the dawn of a new era in space exploration, NASA leading the way with its announcement that the nation should “Prepare for exhilaration.” The public applauded, and NASA set out to further develop the program. More shuttles came online, and twenty-three more missions flew over the next four years. However, NASA officials realized the public saw the program as a unique trip than a regular assertion of America’s space might. An average of only six missions a year failed to exhilarate, so NASA announced an unprecedented 15 for the 1986 flight-year. The administration needed to impress upon the public the regularity and reliability of the shuttle.

Unfortunately for NASA’s workers on the ground, the price of exhilaration was exhaustion. Unbeknownst to the public, NASA had only two complete sets of working shuttle components for four shuttles, which meant a repeatedly long, complex, and laborious process of stripping a recently-landed shuttle of necessary equipment and reinstalling it in the next shuttle scheduled to launch. Combining the already intricate and protracted process of preparing a shuttle for launch with the now-standard cannibalization process, and the new attention- grabbing frenetic schedule, NASA had set a feverish pace, which would grind down the efficiency and ability of its ground crews. As Bob Huddleston, a NASA quality control specialist, put it later: “People were working a couple of months sometimes without a day off, ten and twelve hours a day, and that has to take an effect. That’s where quality suffers.” Many believe that workers better able to focus on their tasks leading up to the Challenger launch could have caught and corrected the mechanical failures that caused the disaster.


NASA made very image-conscious decisions when it came to choosing members of its shuttle crews. Senator Jake Garn of Utah, Representative Bill Nelson of Florida, and several wealthy foreign observers (including a Saudi Prince) went up in the shuttle as guests of NASA, designated as Payload Specialists. Since the tasks assigned to them could easily have been done by other crewmembers (or other astronauts altogether, who might have waited years for a mission), these assignments amounted to thinly veiled publicity stunts. Garn’s position as head of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee responsible for NASA’s budget and the location of Nelson’s district (it included the Kennedy Space Space Center) made their invitations the perfect marriage of favorable exposure and political/financial pandering. The Rogers Commission appointed to investigate the Challenger disaster pointed to the extra strain and timetable juggling caused by the addition of the Congressmen to the flights as a contributing factor to the exhausted negligence preceding Challenger. In fact, NASA bumped back Payload Specialist Greg Jarvis to make room for Nelson on Columbia’s liftoff on January 12, 1986; Jarvis flew instead on the Challenger 16 days later.

Despite earlier guest invitations, NASA’s greatest public relations project yet would take flight with Challenger in 1986: the Teacher-in-Space Program (TISP). Administration officials had suggested the idea of taking a regular citizen into space years before and had immediately seized upon a journalist–for whom better to provide publicity on his return to earth than someone trained to make news? However, the program would require money, and NASA once again found itself making political compromises, this time directly with the presidential administration. In the election year of 1984, Ronald Reagan had received substantial criticism from his main opponent, Walter Mondale, over his apparent lack of concern for the public education system. Reagan and his advisors dashed off memos to NASA, and in August Reagan announced the nationwide search for an educator to lead the country’s children into space. Reagan remained president to watch the lucky candidate, Christa McAuliffe, lift off in 1986. The TISP and the planned Journalistin- Space Program both show an emphasis on showmanship, and both fell by the wayside after the January disaster. Social historian Diane Vaughan states it well:

…perhaps more than any mission for years, the Challenger mission captured the attention of the public. Diverse in race, sex, ethnicity, and religion, the Challenger crew was a symbolic reminder that the all-too-elusive possibilities of equal opportunity and unity from diversity could still be attained . . . the media informed us not only of their names, but about their families and their histories . . . When the disaster occurred, we knew these astronauts.

Here the showmanship bit back; the hype surrounding the mission made it all the worse for public relations when it failed.


NASA’s determination to portray a regular, quick and vigorous program ran squarely against reality. Any one-shuttle launch requires a lengthy and complex process known as “shuttle flow”; one cannot, as journalist Malcolm McConnell put it, “just check the oil and kick the tires.” A problem at any one of the myriad points along the extensive checklist could cause a delay, and frequently did. NASA often scrubbed and aborted its missions, throwing off delicate timetables laid down months in advance. It quickly gained a reputation in the press for balking before liftoff, a stigma that it carries to this day.

A look at the headlines mentioning NASA in the months and years leading up to the Challenger launch shows common threads among them. Damning buzzwords such as “delay,” “postpone,” “4th try,” “problems,” “flaw,” “failure”–and as one journalist coined it, “The Endless Countdown,” in an article describing the long wait for the actual launch of the program itself–weighed heavily on NASA as officials became painfully aware of the uncertain showing they were giving the country. They dreaded the effect of it on public and federal support.


This kind of reporting in the news could delegitimize NASA in the eyes of many, jeopardizing both its goals as an organization and the long-term employment of many of its personnel. Some of those in charge would not stand for such threats–among them Dr. William Lucas of the Marshall Space Flight Center. Lucas had directed the Center since 1974 and had come to exercise autonomous personal control over it and its employees; the Rogers Commission, investigating NASA’s internal workings, described his style of management as “feudalistic.” Many of Marshall’s personnel retained more loyalty to Marshall and Dr. Lucas than NASA, and Marshall’s upper management simply ignored and suppressed memorandums written by engineers concerned about the O-rings malfunctioning. When each contractor and space center sent representatives to Flight Readiness Checks to report on the readiness of the components, each was respectively responsible. Lucas directed his people to affirm “go” status, regardless of any known problems with the hardware they managed. Thus, known flaws–such as the fatal O-ring defect– slipped through the theoretically rigorous safety checks of NASA.

However, other problems did get reported, and weather sometimes refused to cooperate, requiring NASA to postpone missions. As backed-up missions piled up on top of one another, NASA Administrator, James Beggs, took stock of the administration’s future in the context of the space shuttle program. Taking into account private investors who paid NASA to deliver their satellites into space promptly, competition with unmanned European satellite launch systems, and, as always, fragile public opinion, Beggs proclaimed to the men and women under him that “If we are going to prove our mettle and demonstrate our capability, we have got to fly out that manifest.” He referred to the cargo and mission of a ship, and appealed to a sense that they must all work hard and complete the schedule, no matter the cost. His quote signifies the overarching, driven mentality, which pervaded NASA at the time.


The Rogers Commission concluded that the inherent mechanical problems had been aggravated by misguided management policies. Among other causes, under its heading of “The Contributing Cause of the Accident,” it stated that “there was a serious flaw in the decision making process leading up to the launch of flight 51-L. A well structured and managed system emphasizing safety would have flagged the rising doubts about the Solid Rocket Booster joint seal.” It further declared that it was “troubled by what appears to be a propensity of management at Marshall to contain potentially serious problems and to attempt to resolve them internally rather than communicate them forward.” One member of the commission, Richard Feynman, saw poor management practices undertaken for the wrong reasons as much more central to the disaster, and asked that his opinions be catalogued separately in an appendix to the main report. In it he noted a “gradually decreasing strictness” of Flight Readiness Reviews and reasoned that NASA managers may not have reported problems as “an attempt to assure the government of NASA perfection and success in order to ensure the supply of funds.” The words he chooses to end his conclusion are particularly telling of his opinion on the interaction between NASA’s publicity concerns and its management practices: “NASA owes it to the citizens from whom it asks support to be frank, honest, and informative, so that these citizens can make the wisest decisions for the use of their limited resources . . . For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.” The entire commission noted the faulty management; taking into account public relations and attendant budget concerns, Feynman pinpointed the reasoning behind that management. Thus, when the Challenger crewmembers climbed into the shuttle on January 28, a host of problems haunted their steps. Overworked and exhausted ground crews struggled to make final preparations–missing critical flaws. The men and women who had allowed defects to make it past the Flight Readiness Checks rested easy, assured that their reputations remained safe. Though he was absent, awaiting indictment for fraud, James Beggs’ legacy echoed throughout NASA with the determination to “fly out that manifest.” NASA’s ambitious schedule would proceed, children would wonder at school lessons taught from earth’s orbit, and the nation would see that the great, infallible NASA could and would continue to lead the way in pushing back the frontiers of space. These hopes crashed into the sea with the pieces of Challenger and her crew that Tuesday morning.

NASA set out to create a cheap, reliable, simple Space Transportation System and failed. It produced a viable but complex and expensive Orbiter system, based on the Space Shuttle, which still had some technical problems. Despite these known problems, in addition to warnings from critics within the organization, NASA came to value publicity and a good image over total safety. This confusion of values, resulting from a desire to keep the administration’s budget afloat, cemented safety neglect into a “fly out that manifest” mentality of do-ordie. Tragically, death did occur–not among the policy makers who created the tragedy, but among the astronauts of Challenger.


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David F. Ellrod

Photograph of David F. Ellrod David Ellrod is a senior history major, graduating from Virginia Tech in May, and plans to pursue a doctorate in history, hoping eventually to teach at the college level. He has been a Civil War buff since a very early age, and has relished the opportunity to study with Professors William Davis and James Robertson while at Tech; since high school he has branched out further into interest in almost every aspect of American history, though remaining most interested in Civil War and military history.

David would like to thank his parents, for nurturing his love of history by taking him to historical sites since a young age, and his high school teacher Mr. Gesker, for presiding over the growth of his interest in history from part-time hobby to full-time study. He’d also like to thank all his Virginia Tech history professors, for helping him hone his research, writing, and interpretive skills.