Millions have watched NASA engineers and astronauts repeatedly do the impossible. History will never forget when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped onto the Moon or how the Mars Rovers sent us messages from the second smallest planet in our solar system.
While NASA has produced incredible accomplishments in exploration beyond our planet, it has a darker history, too. It all started in 1986 when what was supposed to be an exciting new mission to the stars turned into one of America’s most horrific tragedies.
On January 28, 1986, seven Americans died in front of an audience of roughly 40 million people, shaking the world to its core. What’s worse — their lives could have been saved by a man who was ignored by the masses…
Flashback to June 1st, 1985, a year after President Ronald Reagan announced the NASA Teacher In Space project. One teacher out of thousands would be chosen to join six astronauts on the Challenger Space Shuttle.
The project was meant to increase public interest in the Space Shuttle program and bolster funding — which NASA certainly needed at the time — while simultaneously stressing the importance of education.
Christa McAuliffe, a social studies teacher from Concord, New Hampshire, was selected to perform the high honor of giving lectures from space. Ecstatically, she started training for the launch of her life.
The other Challenger adventurers were Francis Scobee, Gregory Jarvis, Ellison Onizuka, pilot Michael J. Smith, Ronald McNair and Judith Resnik (the second female astronaut ever). Not one of them knew that they had just sealed their fate.
Preparation for the launch consisted not only of training the astronauts but of ensuring the shuttle was safe and ready to make its 10th trip. However, there were some concerns regarding its capabilities…
During its previous flights, the shuttle ran into problems with its O-rings — rubber rings produced by Thiokol, used to seal a number of parts together and ensure the entire structure is airtight.
Erosion of these O-rings was undeniable, but the Marshall Center didn’t report it to senior management. Instead, they kept the problem in their reporting channels with Thiokol, where it was dubbed “Criticality 1.”
As time went on, the situation worsened. The outer O-rings began to leak gas, but because the inner O-rings held, the damage was deemed “an acceptable risk.”
Despite the dangers presented by the O-rings, no extra safety measurements were taken. Ejecting seats with parachutes were considered, but this would limit the crew’s space and thus the size of the team.
However, there was one man who was gravely concerned about the stability of the O-rings and the safety of the crew — a man who tried everything to prevent what was later dubbed “the Challenger Disaster”.
Robert “Bob” Ebeling was born in Chicago in 1926. After a stint in the U.S. Army, he married the love of his life, Darlene, and started a family with her. She then supported him through his studies as a mechanical engineer in San Diego.
Upon graduating in 1952, Ebeling snagged a job at Convair, the firm responsible for manufacturing some of NASA’s first rockets — a high honor for a 26 year old, but Ebeling was not just any engineer.
His skills and work ethic allowed him to succeed in engineering at a rapid pace. After several promotions, he joined Thiokol just in time for their contract to build rocket boosters for the space program.
Here, Ebeling oversaw the assembly of the boosters after their initial construction. However, in the lead-up to the launch, he began to worry that the components were not up to scratch.
The launch was set to occur in January and the temperatures were expected to drop. Ebeling and his coworker Roger Boisjoly were unable to conclude whether the rubber rings could withstand the cold.
Originally, Challenger was set to launch from KSC in Florida on January 22, 1986. Unfortunately, shuttle Columbia faced some delays, and thus Challenger’s mission was moved to January 24th, 25th, 26th, 27th, and finally, January 28th.
In the days leading up to the big moment, Ebeling, Boisjoly and several of their colleagues grew weary of the impending danger. “We all knew if the seals failed, the shuttle would blow up,” engineer Roger Boisjoly said.
On the morning of January 27, the day before Challenger was due to launch, Ebeling telephoned his superior Allan McDonald in Florida to express his concerns. McDonald arranged a teleconference with NASA officials.
Initially, Thiokol officials agreed with Ebeling and Boisjoly that the launch should be delayed, but their data was unclear. They knew the cold would affect the O-rings, but not what temperature was the exact limit.
“My God, Thiokol,” Marshall Spaceflight Center’s Lawrence Mulloy said to the engineers, “When do you want me to launch? Next April?” The NASA representatives decided they could wait no longer.
Upon NASA’s final decision to proceed with the launch, Bob Ebeling went home to his wife in a haze of worry and disappointment. “It’s going to blow up,” he said solemnly, unable to sleep at night.
Frustrated with NASA’s decision, he drove to the launch the next morning, beating his fist on the dashboard. His daughter, Leslie, had never seen him like that. She recalled him saying, “everyone is going to die.“
It was a cold morning for the area, with temperatures around, or 28°F (-2°C). It was freezing, which meant the O-rings would stiffen. To onlookers, it was just a chill, but to the Challenger crew, it was the beginning of the end.
Since none of the impending dangers were known to the astronauts nor Ms. McAuliffe, they were beaming with excitement as they bid their families goodbye and headed into the crew cabin, smiling from ear to ear.
With an on-site audience of a few hundred people and a TV audience consisting of 17% of the U.S. population, the shuttle door closed, and the countdown began. Launching in 10…9…8…7…5…4…3…2..1…
At first, everything seemed okay. The shuttle blasted into the sky in one piece. About one minute after liftoff, a friend of Boisjoly said to him, “Oh God. We made it!” Boisjoly wasn’t so sure.
Then, 73 seconds after the launch, a disaster happened that rocked the nation: The shuttle exploded in the sky and started to nose-dive towards the Atlantic Ocean, traced by an ominous plume of smoke.
Any communication with the crew was gone, only static was left as the shuttle plummeted towards the water. Some audience members screamed, others stood silently, and the newscasters were at a loss for words.
Meanwhile, 3 members of the crew remained conscious after the initial explosion, with the crew cabin still intact. Personal Egress Air Packs were used by Judith Resnik, Ellison Onizuka, and pilot Michael J. Smith.
Since Smith’s pack was located on the back of his seat, someone aided him. “There had been nothing in our training concerning PEAP. The fact that Judy or El helped Mike Smith made them heroic in my mind,” said astronaut Mike Mullane.
Sadly, surviving the explosion did not mean the three PEAP users had a chance. The pressure of falling at more than 300km per hour (186 miles) and the impact of the crash was far more than anybody could take.
As America subsequently struggled to cope with the loss of all seven crew members, President Ronald Reagan gave a heartfelt speech. “The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave,” he said.
“We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of Earth’ to ‘touch the face of God,’” Reagan said.
The tragedy of losing 7 talented and wonderful people in an accident seen by millions ripped through the United States like wildfire, with 85% of the country hearing about it within an hour.
Three weeks after the disaster, Ebeling then gave an interview to NPR – although he chose to remain anonymous at the time. “I could have done more,” he told journalist Howard Berkes. “I should have done more.”
Sadly, the disaster haunted Ebeling for decades, especially after a report came out that confirmed the O-rings failed, allowing fuel to leak within the tank. It was exactly what he had warned them about.
The report also noted that both Thiokol and NASA had been aware of the problem but had failed to act accordingly. “NASA did not accept the judgment of its engineers that the design was unacceptable,” it read.
Unable to cope with his guilt, Ebeling left Thiokol and joined Utah’s Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge as a volunteer. In fact, when the sanctuary flooded, Ebeling drew on his engineering knowledge to help rebuild it.
It wasn’t until to 2016 that Ebeling spoke out again when journalist Howard Berkes returned to interview the now 90-year-old retiree at his home in Brigham about what happened between Thiokol and NASA.
“I think that was one of the mistakes that God made,” Ebeling told Berkes then. “He shouldn’t have picked me for the job. But next time I talk to him, I’m gonna ask him, ‘Why me? You picked a loser.’”
Though Ebeling was clearly heartbroken, the world had a different opinion. Soon afterward, he received a flood of supportive messages, including from former NASA and Thiokol employees, releasing him from any blame.
The unbelievable amount of love and support Ebeling received finally “helped bring [his] worrisome mind to ease.” On his deathbed, two months after the Berkes interview, he said, “you have to have an end to everything.”
The Challenger disaster cost 7 innocent people their lives, and Ebeling his conscience. Now, all we can do is learn from NASA’s mistakes, and make sure to listen to those who voice their concerns.