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The truth behind the NASA Challenger disaster revealed weather was to blame

Tuesday, January 28th 2020, 2:30 pm - Thirty-four years ago, the Space Shuttle Challenger was lost due to extreme weather. Here's how.

On the chilly Tuesday morning of January 28, 1986, seven American astronauts climbed on board the Space Shuttle Challenger, ready for an 11:37 a.m. ET launch into Earth orbit for a six-day stay in space.

Just 73 seconds after liftoff, at 11:38 a.m. EST, their mission tragically ended, when the shuttle broke apart and crashed back down to Earth. Killed in the accident were Francis Scobee, Michael Smith, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Gregory Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe.

Many things can go wrong during a space launch.

Thousands of parts go into the construction of a space vehicle, and even a minor failure can turn very bad, given the stresses put on these vehicles as they climb towards space or return to Earth. A common refrain heard when something goes wrong is "space is hard."

SpaceShuttleChallenger-launchpad-April-1983-NASA Challenger sits on a foggy launch pad for its very first flight into space in April of 1983. Credit: NASA

So, what happened with the Challenger disaster that took the lives of seven people, and grounded the shuttle program for over two and a half years?

During the investigation, NASA discovered a technical problem with one specific part of the shuttle - a rubber O-ring near the base of one of the two solid rocket boosters. These O-rings function to seal the field joints between the sections of the booster, and they when they are working correctly, they expand and contract quickly, as the sections of the booster flex and shift under the stresses of launch, to prevent hot exhaust gases from escaping through these joints.

Solid-Rocket-Booster-Schematic-Colour-NASA A schematic of the solid rocket booster used by Challenger. The 'field joint' closest to the nozzle is the location of the O-ring that failed during launch. Credit: NASA

Although these O-rings had functioned without incident for 24 shuttle launches before this one, there was an inherent flaw in their design that contributed heavily to the loss of Challenger: they were not rated for operations below 4°C.

RECORD COLD LAUNCH MORNING

During the launch before Challenger's fateful liftoff, just two weeks earlier, when the Space Shuttle Columbia flew into space early in the morning on January 12, temperatures at Cape Canaveral were roughly 13°C.

On the morning of January 28, however, the mercury had plunged below freezing in central Florida, as part of a cold snap that had enveloped parts of US Southeast that day. To the north, Atlanta, GA, had an overnight low of near -14°C, while Montgomery, AL, had a low of -9°C.

For several communities in the area of Cape Canaveral, they experienced their coldest January 28 morning on record, and the day retains that record even now.

Challenger-Temperature-records-Florida-Jan28-1986-NOAA-NCDC Temperature records from NOAA, for the morning of January 28, 1986. Credit: NOAA NCDC

These record cold temperatures caused significant icing of Challenger's launch tower, as seen in the images below:

Challenger-Icicles-n-icing-launch-tower-NASA Long icicles hang off Challenger's launch tower (left), and some components were heavily iced over (right). Credit: NASA

Ice on the launch tower is not necessarily a problem for a launch, though. With the launch delayed to allow temperatures to warm with sunrise, they managed to climb above freezing by the 11:37 a.m. launch time, although only around 2°C above, and ground crews were able to address any direct problems from ice build-up.

However, it was specifically the effect the cold had on the O-ring on the right solid rocket booster - the one that was still in shadow as the Sun rose, and thus did not benefit from direct sunlight to warm up prior to launch - that was the problem.

According to the accident investigation, a "warm O-ring that has been compressed will return to its original shape much quicker than will a cold O-ring when compression is relieved," and a "compressed O-ring at 75 degrees Fahrenheit is five times more responsive in returning to its uncompressed shape than a cold O-ring at 30 degrees Fahrenheit." For reference, 75°F = 23.9°C, while 30°F = -1.1°C.

Thus, the cold that seeped into the O-rings during that chilly overnight caused them to stiffen and become less responsive, and therefore less capable of doing their job.

When Challenger lifted off the pad and rose into the sky, the cold O-ring was not able to respond fast enough to the stresses exerted on the right solid rocket booster. This opened up gaps between the two parts, allowing hot exhaust gases to escape. Usually, these hot gases will cause the O-ring to expand more, forming a tighter seal and thus limiting any danger. In this case, though, the cold weather slowed the O-ring's responsiveness, allowing more gases to escape through the joint, for a longer period of time, vaporizing much of the O-ring in the process.

Challenger-Shuttle-damaged-SRB-NASA This recovered piece of the booster shows the melted rubber from the O-ring (left) and the hole burned through the booster by the escaping exhaust gases (right). Credit: NASA

If that had been the only problem encountered by the shuttle, the mission would likely have still made it to space safely.

According to the NASA report, the very by-products of the burning rocket fuel and vaporizing O-ring combined to form a reasonably strong seal between the two solid booster sections. Thus, it stopped the leak.

So, if Challenger had encountered no other complications on its way to space, mission STS-51-L would have gone down in history as merely STS-51 - yet another successful shuttle flight for NASA.

The only indication anything had gone wrong would have only been discovered after NASA recovered the booster from splashdown, when they noticed the damage done to the O-ring.

NOT JUST COLD, BUT TURBULENT

Unfortunately, the cold O-ring was not the only complication the weather visited upon this particular shuttle mission.

At 37 seconds after liftoff, Challenger began passing through a series of 'wind shear' events - different layers of the atmosphere along its launch trajectory where the winds changed either direction or speed or both, very suddenly and dramatically, between those layers.

A weather balloon launched a few hours before liftoff revealed strong winds aloft, but did not indicate any particularly strong shear or turbulence. Reports from the time say that pilots conducting test flights across the area did experience some wind shear. However, it was said to be within acceptable limits. Thus, the upper-air weather and pilot reports cleared the controllers to go ahead with the launch.

By the time Challenger launched, unknown to everyone, conditions had become significantly worse.

In a study published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society in October 1986, led by scientists at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, the researchers performed a detailed examination of the weather conditions above the southeastern United States for the morning of January 28. They found that two different 'jet streaks' - exceptionally strong flows of wind, within the general flow of the jet stream - were overlapped on top of one another high above north-central Florida at the time of the Challenger launch.

One of these jet streaks, the 'polar front jet' or PFJ, was blowing from a northwesterly direction, while the other, the 'sub-tropical jet' or STJ, was accelerating over the region, above the PFJ, from the west-southwest. Simulations performed at the time showed that Challenger would have passed through several layers of moderate to strong wind shear, which "had the potential for clear-air turbulence in north-central Florida at the time of launch."

For a full 27 seconds, the shuttle plunged through this turbulence, with the flight computer reacting exactly as it meant to for the situation, making corrections as necessary to keep Challenger on course.

As the NASA report noted, however, the wind shear "caused the steering system to be more active than on any previous flight."

This unfortunate situation put even greater stresses on the already compromised right solid rocket booster. The quick transitions between different layers of wind flow caused the booster to flex back and forth until the seal formed by the melted O-ring broke. Exhaust gases once again escaped through the joint, and a plume of flame became noticeable by those observing on the ground.

Challenger-SRB-Plume-NASA Views from the launch site tracker camera show the emergence of the exhaust plume from Challenger's right solid rocket booster. Credit: NASA

By the time the shuttle cleared the wind shear, at just 64 seconds after launch, the plume had grown more significant as it burned through the seam and then began to burn a hole in the exterior fuel tank. Once breached, the fuel tank started leaking hydrogen fuel, causing more smoke to stream away from the shuttle.

With all this going unnoticed by the on-board crew and flight controllers, when the order came through to throttle up for the rest of the journey into orbit, the stresses on the spacecraft proved to be too much. The damaged solid rocket booster and breached fuel tank failed, igniting the hydrogen fuel in the tank.

Having lost its fuel source, Challenger could not maintain the proper thurst to continue. The shuttle veered off course and encountered wind stresses from the airflow roughly four times greater than it could withstand. The vehicle was subsequently torn apart and crashed back down to Earth. All crew members on board - Francis Scobee, Michael Smith, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Gregory Jarvis and Christa McAuliffe - were lost.

Challenger-Shuttle-Breaks-Up-NASA Space Shuttle Challenger breaks apart, at 11:38 a.m. EST, January 28, 1986. Credit: NASA

While safety measures for space flights have improved greatly since this tragic accident occurred, even now, 34 years later, the weather forecast remains a major influence on the launch schedule of NASA and other space agencies, both public and private.

"Space is hard" is a standard refrain when something goes wrong with a launch, but Challenger stands as an example of exactly why launch control crews are meticulous when it comes to avoiding adverse weather conditions.

Originally published on January 28, 2016, this article has been updated.

Sources: NASA | NOAA | Weather Underground | BAMS (pdf)

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