NASA ‘felt pressured’ to launch doomed Space Shuttle Challenger

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Seven names will forever be etched into the NASA history books: Commander Francis R. ‘Dick’ Scobee, Pilot Michael J. Smith, Mission Specialists Ellison S. Onizuka, Judith A. Resnik and Ronald E. McNair, and Payload Specialists Gregory B. Jarvis and S. Christa McAuliffe. A group of astronauts and civilians who lost their lives in the name of human exploration on this day 37 years ago, January 28, 1986, the day NASA endured one of its grimmest disasters.

The Space Shuttle Challenger had enjoyed 25 missions through NASA’s space programme, and on that fateful day the team of seven astronauts and members of the public prepared to head into space.

Among the objectives set out by NASA for the STS-51-L mission included observing Halley’s Comet, the most iconic comet in history, and performing a routine satellite deployment.

But Challenger never made orbit, instead crashing back down to Earth, killing those aboard it. It was less than a minute and a half between liftoff and the collision, barely 73 seconds after the crew fired up the shuttle’s ignition at the Kennedy Space Center, in Florida.

And some blamed then-US President Ronald Reagan for pushing NASA into ensuring the launch went ahead, as he was due to give a State of the Union address to millions of Americans later in the day.

According to journalist Sarah Pruitt, writing for History.com, NASA officials “felt intense pressure to push the Challenger’s mission forward after repeated delays”.

She continued: “But the rumours that pressure was exerted from above, specifically from the Reagan White House, in order to connect the shuttle or its astronauts directly in some way with the State of the Union seem to have been politically motivated and not based on any direct evidence.”

The author described how Mr Reagan postponed his annual message, instead opting to detail to Americans the Challenger tragedy, becoming the first US President to veto the State of the Union address.

Hailing the astronauts as “pioneers”, Mr Reagan spoke to the many millions of people watching at home, including children who had joined with classmates at school to witness the historic launch.

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Addressing the youngsters directly, Mr Reagan said of the horror they had seen: “Sometimes painful things like this happen.”

Mr Reagan continued: “It’s all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It’s all part of taking a chance and expanding man’s horizons. The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we’ll continue to follow them.”

Questions over the safety of NASA were in need of answering. At the time Mr Reagan said he “always had great faith in and respect for our space programme”, and that the events had “done nothing to diminish it”, adding: “We’ll continue our quest in space. There will be more shuttle flights and more shuttle crews and, yes, more volunteers, more civilians, more teachers in space. Nothing ends here; our hopes and our journeys continue.

“The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honoured us by the manner in which they lived their lives.

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“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.'”

Unearthed accounts show that NASA itself may have told President Reagan to use his speech to hail the Challenger mission, calling it the “ultimate field trip” of an American schoolteacher.

Mr Reagan addressed the claims he had placed pressure on NASA during an interview with The Baltimore Sun in March, 1986, telling the publication: ″We have never from here suggested or pushed them for a launch of the shuttle… I would feel that I was way out of my depth in trying to do that. I am not a scientist and they are. We have never done anything except to approve their schedule.”

But White House documents show that in his original speech, Mr Reagan was due to mention Mrs McAliffe, a school teacher from Concord, New Hampshire, after the space agency made some suggestions.

He was due to add: “Christa McAliffe’s journey is a prelude to the journeys of other Americans and our friends around the world who will be living and working together in a permanently manned space station in the mid-1990s, bringing a rich return of scientific, technical and economic benefits to mankind.

“Mrs McAuliffe’s week in space is just one of the achievements in space which we have planned for the coming year, however.”

Following the crash, the US President created a commission to determine the reasons behind the crash, with the panel finding the ship’s O-ring seal on the Solid Rocket Booster had failed, which caused the shuttle to break up in flight.

Another element that surprised some was that crews could not escape from the powered flight as NASA felt the high reliability of their missions precluded the need for one.

NASA had originally trialled having the ejections seats during two-person crewed flights, but these were later removed as a result of them being deemed too complex, expensive and heavyweight.

As a result of the crash, a new system was included in later space shuttles which would allow crews to escape in gliding flights, though such technology would not have prevented the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.

The Space Shuttle fleet programme was grounded for two years and eight months, as technicians undertook painstaking investigations into the circumstances of the crash. They then redesigned the shuttles before its next mission was launched on September 29, 1988. It was successful, landing safely back on earth four days later. 

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