WASHINGTON — Two days before Challenger made its final, fateful flight, Carl McNair spoke to his brother Ron McNair on the telephone. It was mostly small talk: Super Bowl XX being played that day, William "Refrigerator" Perry, the weather.
"He said, 'The weather is not looking good, and things are icing up, and I don't think we are going to launch,' " recalled Carl McNair, who had come to Brevard County to watch his brother and six crew members launch into orbit.
So he headed home to Atlanta with his pregnant wife and father, expecting to return in a week to see his brother's second spaceflight. Instead, on a bitterly cold Tuesday morning 25 years ago, McNair turned on the television and "there it was, taking off. I couldn't believe it."
His surprise turned to horror a little more than a minute later.
"As it got higher and higher, the solid-rocket booster started to veer off, and I didn't know how I knew. But I knew they were gone," he said. "I stood there with tears streaming down my eyes, saying, 'Oh, my God. Oh, my God' — what so many people were saying in unison around the world."
That moment, replayed again and again by news networks, left a scar on the national psyche that continues to haunt the country, and NASA, to this day.
The loss of seven astronauts — including New Hampshire teacher Christa McAuliffe — traumatized a nation that was fiercely proud of a program that had sent men to the moon and had a three-decade record of successful launches. It also shattered the illusion that NASA was infallible — or at least close to it — as a subsequent investigation proved that the real tragedy was that the disaster could have been prevented.
"There was a feeling [afterward] that we were not as good as we thought we were," said Bob Sieck, a top shuttle official at the time.
Months later, a select commission led by former Secretary of State William Rogers concluded that the cause of the accident was a faulty O-ring in one of the shuttle's two solid-rocket boosters. A breach in the O-ring allowed hot gases to escape and burn a hole in the shuttle's 15-story external fuel tank, causing it to explode.
But there was more.
The frigid temperature — it was 36 degrees at launch — caused the O-ring to shrink and give hot gases a pathway to escape. Worse, NASA managers had known about — and dismissed — partial failures of O-rings during previous launches and also ignored pre-launch warnings about the rings' vulnerability in cold weather and the potential for catastrophe.
The commission's conclusion: "A well-structured and -managed system emphasizing safety would have flagged the rising doubts about the Solid Rocket Booster joint seal."
But it would take 17 years and the loss of another shuttle before NASA finally got that message. An exhaustive report that followed the 2003 Columbia disaster noted that — notwithstanding Challenger — NASA had failed to change a culture that often rewarded ambition over safety.
Columbia was doomed when a briefcase-sized chunk of insulating foam peeled off the shuttle's fuel tank during launch and punched a hole in the heat-resistant tiles on the leading edge of the orbiter's left wing. Poor-quality video of the launch left engineers unable to accurately evaluate the impact of the strike. A flawed in-orbit probability assessment reassured members of the Mission Management Team that all was likely well.
So Columbia was cleared to de-orbit on the morning of Feb. 1, 2003. When searing gases generated by re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere got inside the orbiter through the hole in the wing, Columbia disintegrated over Texas, killing seven.
But foam had been falling off the fuel tank for years, gouging chunks out of the orbiters' heat-resistant tiles and, once before, allowing re-entry heat to almost burn a hole in a shuttle's belly. But NASA engineers, lacking a solution that would keep the foam in place, elected to ignore the issue.
"By the eve of the Columbia accident, institutional practices that were in effect at the time of the Challenger accident — such as inadequate concern over deviations from expected performance, a silent safety program, and schedule pressure — had returned to NASA," investigators wrote.
Diane Vaughan, a Columbia University professor who researched the agency's culture after both Challenger and Columbia, said the loss of Columbia was especially painful to employees who had lived through Challenger.
"They had felt they had truly fixed things," she said.
25 years after Challenger disaster: NASA officials, others reflect
- Complete coverage: See the Orlando Sentinel's front page and read stories from Jan. 29, 1986
- Where were you? Share your memories, thoughts
- Pictures: Space shuttle Challenger explosion and aftermath
- Pictures: Space shuttle Challenger through the years
- Space Shuttle Challenger Missions
- LOOKING BACK: Dana Summers space shuttle Challenger editorial cartoons
- Space Programs
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