Monday, July 01, 2024

Challenger by Adam Higginbotham

Challenger by Adam Higginbotham is subtitled A True Story of Heroism and Disaster of the Edge of Space and details the history of the space shuttle program and 1986 Challenger disaster.

The shuttle, with Columbia in 1981 the first launch, was pitched as something that would go into space like regular plane flights, with trips on a roughly weekly basis. Higginbotham covers the bureaucracy of NASA decision making and how the desire to move forward with shuttle launches despite raised safety concerns led to the death of the seven astronauts, including schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe.

There's detail about shuttle booster contractor Thiokol and the O-rings that led to the disaster. Thiokol engineer Roger Boisjoly was one of those concerned about the cold weather and impact it would have on the O-rings. The cold hindered the ability of the rings to seal a gap, allowing hot gas to shoot past. This was raised in an evening meeting prior to launch, but Larry Mulloy from NASA pushed Thiokol to change its don't launch recommendation. Thiokol was hoping to not have the booster contract go out to bid and a "management decision" changed it to a launch recommendation.

Video of the Challenger launch shows the O-rings going, with a black puff of smoke prior to the explosion and NASA Public Affairs Officer Steve Nesbitt, announcing to the crowd "obviously a major malfunction."

The initial investigation led by NASA was looking at virtually everything except for the cold weather and decision to launch in it despite warnings. Allan McDonald from Thiokol spoke up in a meeting and noted the objections raised by Boisjoly and others, with this new information causing the investigation to go to being not one of technical, but human failure. It came out that the recommendation had been to not launch below 53 degrees Fahrenheit. The temperature at launch was 29 degrees. Caltech professor and physicist Richard Feynman conducted an impromptu experiment during a commission meeting, showing how O-rings lost their resiliency in cold water. Feynman published an appendix F report, one where he was very critical of NASA and those involved, both pressuring the launch to occur and disregarding warnings about the O-rings.

It also came out that evidence suggested that at least one member of the crew remained alive the entire time the capsule plummeted from the sky to the surface of the Atlantic, and the end of the book covers the shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003. A piece of foam insulation breaking off during ascent, smashing a hole through the heat shield, leading to the shuttle breaking apart during reentry. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board concluded that many of the lessons of the Challenger disaster had gone unheeded.