In January 1986 the world watched in shock as the Challenger Space Shuttle, on its way to carry the first civilian to space, exploded just two minutes after lift-off. A presidential commission later determined that an O-ring failure in the Solid Rocket Booster (SRB) caused the disaster. This was not a new problem, there’s a long history of issues with the O-rings leading up to Challenger’s loss.
Before the Space Shuttle was declared operational, it performed four test flights to space and back. The first O-ring anomaly occurred on the second test flight, named STS-2 (November 1981). After each flight Thiokol, the company in charge of manufacturing the SRBs, sent a team of engineers to inspect the retrieved boosters. The engineers found that the primary O-ring had eroded by 0.053”. The secondary O-ring, which serves as a back-up for the primary O-ring, showed no signs of erosion. On further inspection the engineers also discovered that the putty protecting the O-rings from the hot gas inside the SRB had blow-holes.
Luckily, the O-rings sealed the SRB despite the erosion. Simulations done by engineers after the STS-2 O-ring anomaly showed that even with 0.095” erosion the primary O-ring would perform its duty up to a pressure of 3000 psi (the pressure inside the SRB only goes up to about 1000 psi). And if the erosion was even stronger, the second O-ring could still finish the job. So neither Thiokol nor NASA, neither engineers nor managers considered the problem to be critical. After the putty composition was slightly altered to prevent blow-holes from forming, the problem was considered solved. The fact that no erosion occurred on the following flights seemed to confirm this.
On STS-41-B (February 1984), the tenth Space Shuttle mission including the four test flights, the anomaly surfaced again. This time two primary O-rings were affected and there were again blow-holes in the putty. However, the erosion was within the experience base (the 0.053” that occurred on STS-2) and within the safety margin (the 0.095” resulting from simulations). So neither Thiokol nor NASA was alarmed over this.
Engineers realized that it was the leak check that caused the blow-holes in the putty. The leak check was an important tool to confirm that the O-rings are properly positioned. This was done by injecting pressurized air in the space between the primary and secondary O-ring. Initially a pressure of 50 psi was used, but this was increased to 200 psi prior to STS-41-B to make the test more reliable. After this change, O-ring erosion occurred more frequently and became a normal aspect of Space Shuttle flights.
On STS-41-C (April 1984), the eleventh overall mission, there was again primary O-ring erosion within the experience base and safety margin. The same was true for STS-41-D (August 1984), the mission following STS-41-C. This time however a new problem accompanied the known erosion anomaly. Engineers found a small amount of soot behind the primary O-ring, meaning that hot gas was able to get through before the O-ring sealed. There was no impact on the secondary O-ring. This blow-by was determined to be an acceptable risk and the flights continued.
The second case of blow-by occurred on STS-51-C (January 1985), the fifteenth mission. There was erosion and blow-by on two primary O-rings and the blow-by was worse than before. It was the first time that hot gas had reached the secondary O-ring, luckily without causing any erosion. It was also the first time that temperature was discussed as a factor. STS-51-C was launched at 66 °F and the night before the temperature dropped to an unusually low 20 °F. So the Space Shuttle and its components was even colder than the 66 °F air temperature. Estimates by Thiokol engineers put the O-ring temperature at launch at around 53 °F. Since rubber gets harder at low temperatures, low temperatures might reduce the O-rings sealing capabilities. But there was no hard data to back this conclusion up.
Despite the escalation of O-ring anomalies, the risk was again determined to be acceptable, by Thiokol as well as by NASA. The rationale behind this decision was:
Experience Base: All primary O-ring erosions that occurred after STS-2 were within the 0.053” experience base.
Safety Margin: Even with 0.095” erosion the primary O-ring would seal.
Redundancy: If the primary O-ring failed, the secondary O-ring would seal.
The following missions saw more escalation of the problem. On STS-51-D (early April 1985), carrying the first politician to space, primary O-ring erosion reached an unprecedented 0.068”. This was outside the experience base, but still within the safety margin. And on STS-51-B (late April 1985) a primary O-ring eroded by 0.171”, significantly outside experience base and safety margin. It practically burned through. On top of that, the Space Shuttle saw its first case of secondary O-ring erosion (0.032”).
Post-flight analysis showed that the burnt-through primary O-ring on STS-51-B was not properly positioned, which led to changes in the leak check procedure. Simulations showed that O-ring erosion could go up to 0.125” before the ability to seal would be lost and that under worst case conditions the secondary O-ring would erode by no more than 0.075”. So it seemed impossible that the secondary O-ring could fail and the risk again was declared acceptable. Also, the fact that the O-ring temperature at STS-51-B’s launch was 75 °F seemed to contradict the temperature effect.
Despite these reassurances, concerns escalated and O-ring task forces were established at Thiokol and Marshall (responsible for the Solid Rocket Motor). Space Shuttle missions continued while engineers were looking for short- and long-term solutions.
On the day of STS-51-L’s launch (January 1986), the twenty-fifth Space Shuttle mission, the temperature was expected to drop to the low 20s. Prior to launch a telephone conference was organized to discuss the effects of low temperatures on O-ring sealing. Present at the conference were engineers and managers from Thiokol, Marshall and NASA. Thiokol engineers raised concerns that the seal might fail, but were not able to present any conclusive data. Despite that, Thiokol management went along with the engineer’s position and decided not to recommend launch for temperatures below 53 °F.
The fact that there was no conclusive data supporting this new launch criterion, that Thiokol did not raise these concerns before and just three weeks ago recommended launch for STS-61-C at 40 °F caused outrage at Marshall and NASA. Thiokol then went off-line to discuss the matter and management changed their position despite the warnings of their engineers. After 30 minutes the telcon resumed and Thiokol gave their go to launch the Challenger Space Shuttle. Shortly after lift-off the O-rings failed, hot gas leaked out of the SRB and the shuttle broke apart.
If you’d like to know more, check out this great book (which served as the source for this post):
The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture, and Deviance at NASA
Here you can find a thorough accident investigation report by NASA:
For the broader picture you can check out this great documentary:
More on Space Shuttles in general can be found here: Space Shuttle Launch and Sound Suppression.