Comments on the Challenger Disaster

Larry Nowak

Having watched all segments of the Netflix coverage of the Challenger disaster, I concluded that there are two basic questions being covered. The first is how did they decide to launch on such a cold day in January and how did our candidate Greg Jarvis get bumped from April 1985 to January 1986.

I was down at the Cape the previous year in January 1985 prepping our first LEASAT spacecraft for launch. There was a shuttle launch that afternoon around 3 PM; it was a very cold day. The launch was a success, but recovery of the solid motors showed major leakage around the seals and almost a total burn though.  I believe these photos were used in the Netflix documentary.

The Thiokol workers knew that the seals were a major problem and needed to be fixed.  A design change was initiated but had not been finalized and implemented for the Challenger launch.

The movie seemed to indicate that they didn’t know the cause of failure at the time of launch. With the history of seal leakage, I was surprised when they did launch on that fateful day when there were icicles hanging from the launch vehicle.

As Steve pointed out, NASA was trying to use the shuttle for all launches. Their aggressive schedule was to launch at least two per month and up to four spacecraft per launch. Any delays by one would probably bump the launch dates for all the others to later dates (my conclusion).  This would be a major cost overrun I’m sure.

Apparently, the new criteria to launch was changed from “Prove it is OK to launch” to “Prove it’s not OK to launch”.  Following the disaster, the launch schedule was delayed until the mod had been authorized and implemented. As the movie points out, there were no more rocket failures after this change had been implemented.

So how did Greg get bumped to this fateful launch date?  Greg was originally assigned to be on a launch in April 1985 along with our LEASAT F3 spacecraft.  Senator Jake Garn was assigned to a TRW spacecraft the previous month. That one had problems and was scrubbed. He then bumped Greg because the rules allowed him to do that. Greg could have been on the next launch in September with our F4 but F3, which Jake Garn took, failed to activate properly upon deployment. Subsequent meetings with NASA personal showed F3 could be saved by installing a bypass switch around the malfunctioning switch. This did not allow Greg to ride along.  

I think Greg could have taken the next flight scheduled for December but thought it would be a better choice to go with the schoolteacher, Christa McAuliffe in January and help her with her activities. I also heard a rumor that Rep Bill Nelson didn’t want to fly with Christa because she would get all the news coverage. Greg agreed to switch to the January 1986 flight and all were happy.

2 thoughts on “Comments on the Challenger Disaster

  1. Larry’s comment about the Apollo fire brought back memories of when I was working for Grumman (January 1967). Although the fire was on the Command Module during stand-alone ground testing, it’s impact affected the Lunar Module (LM) significantly as well. My main responsibility for the Lunar Module was the Rendezvous Radar. NASA required Grumman to review all components, units, interfaces, test procedures, etc and provide documentation that risk of starting or propagating a fire was extremely low risk. Fortunately, the Rendezvous Radar required only minor modifications but test and mission procedure modifications were significant. This effort lasted several months.
    Leasat F5 was in the S1 high bay undergoing final integration and test when the Challenger blew up. I knew at that moment that not only was Greg Jarvis lost, but integration and test of Leasat F5 would require significant hardware and procedural changes. We had to “re-review” with NASA all documentation for potential safety improvements. NASA imposed significantly increased loads margin requirements that required both structure hardware design and test modifications and validation. Since Leasat F5 was already fully assembled, the task at hand was to “surgically replace bones and joints of the patient without disturbing him”. Thanks to incredible efforts of Chuck Rubin, Paul Bernstein, Sam Bassily and many others this was accomplished.


  2. My favorite memory of Greg is a photo of him walking down the hi-bay with his arm over the shoulder of one of the techs. I think they showed it at the memorial in the courtyard. It was just such a Greg thing to do. He cared about the engineering and he cared about the people.


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