Jack in the Box
Study: NASA Challenger
the evening of January 27, 1986 the temperature in Merritt Island, Florida
dropped below freezing. On the island at Kennedy Space Center, the freeze
was causing a dilemma for members of the National Aeronautics and Space
Administration (NASA) and executives at the Morton Thiokol Corporation.
The Morton Thiokol Corporation produces the solid rocket boosters for
the space shuttle program and the discussion that night was about the
cold weather. Space Shuttle Mission STS-51L, Challenger, was scheduled
for launch in the morning and there were questions about the effect the
cold would have on Challengers booster seals. Because there hadn't been
any specific testing at the current temperature, NASA officials decided
there wasn't enough data to support cancellation of the launch. A special
passenger was scheduled to be aboard mission STS-51L.
Schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe was scheduled to be America's first private
citizen in space (NASA, 1986). Challenger launched on time as schoolchildren
around the country watched, and 75 seconds into the flight tragedy struck.
Eleven miles above the earth fire leaked from one of the booster seals
and Challenger erupted into flames. NASA experienced its first major crisis
19 years and one day after the explosion on the launch pad of the Apollo
Program, January 27, 1967.
Primary Evidence. The January 1986 press kit for the Space Shuttle
Mission STS-51K contained a general release, general information about
the mission,, and background releases on each mission, the shuttle and
its crew. The press kit also included schedules for major activities,
diagrams explaining the systems and how they will be launched from Challenger.
In addition to filming lessons, McAuliffe was scheduled to broadcast two
live lessons on day six. The kit explained the U.S. Liberty Coins. The
Liberty coins were to become legal tender and would be taken into orbit
on mission 51-L. As it turned out, President Ronald Reagan chose those
same words during his tribute to the gallant Challenger crew.
The president said, "It's all part of the process of exploration
and discovery. The future doesn't belong to the fainthearted; it belongs
to the brave." President Reagan went on to say, "the shuttle
flights will continue and more volunteers, civilians and even more school
teachers will travel into space" (Reagan, 1986). On March 6, Lawrence
Mulloy, manager of the NASA booster rocket program said, "full-scale
test firing was never part of NASA's plan, because they would have cost
too much" (Knight-Ridder Newspapers, 1986, p.1). The temperature
limits for the O-ring seals is 25 degrees.
The estimated temperature at launch, he said, was 27 degrees. In a story
published June 12, 1986, Mulloy said that if he and his colleagues had
properly analyzed available date before the launch, they probably would
have realized that cold weather would cause the joint to fail. He also
admitted that looking back there was a point in which "we took a
step too far" (Fishmen, 1986). The Presidential Commission later
implied that Mulloy lied in his testimony to the commission. They say
that contrary to his testimony, the seriousness of concern about the weather
was not communicated. Mulloy's quotes in the media and accusations by
the Presidential Commission begin to erode NASA's credibility. The general
public began to lose confidence in NASA's top executives.
Secondary Evidence. All three of the major networks stopped carrying
live coverage of shuttle launches years prior to Challenger. The only
live coverage of the launch was carried on CNN. The Houston Chronicle
published a blow by blow article describing how the event was covered
by the media. Three networks interrupted programs, (Hodges, 1986). The
chronicle describes how quickly the three major networks were able to
respond to the crisis. CBS's Dan Rather had arrived for work early that
day. After being notified of the tragedy, Rather rushed to one of CBS's
flash studios. CBS was on the air with Rather's report within six minutes
after the explosion. During the report, Rather almost lost his composure
as he listed the names of the crew then said, "lest we forget what
brave people these are. Those who dare to take wings and touch the face
of God," (Hodges, 1986, p. 26).
NBC's Today show carried the launch on the West Coast edition, since it
was still on during that time frame. As soon as NBC's New York office
realized what happened it threw it on the air. NBC caught reporter Jay
Barbee saying "it's falling to pieces," (Hodges, 1986, p.26).
Shortly after the accident, White House spokesman Larry Speaks held a
press conference. People from the Pentagon and Congress and even former
astronauts were being quoted on TV stations across the country.
The only ones not being quoted were NASA officials. Soon after the accident
there were over 400 reporters at the Kennedy Space Center (Hodges, 1986).
The Houston Chronicle ran quotes from the final transmission from Challenger.
NASA informed Challenger "You're go for throttle up," and Commander
Francis R. Scobee replied, "Roger, go at throttle up" (Byars,
1986, p.1). Steve Nesbitt, of the public affairs office at Johnson Space
Center, said, "We have no downlink. Flight controllers are looking
very carefully at the situation. Obviously we have a major malfunction,"
(Byrar, 1986, p.1). After that, media questions were referred to NASA
Headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Scholarly Journals. On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union began
the space race with the launch of Sputnik. By July of 1958 the United
States had responded with the Space Act, which created the National Aeronautics
and Space Administration (NASA). In 1983 Russian testing of the shuttle
Buran pressured NASA to speed up the development of the U.S. shuttle program.
The Russian space program was also very close to launching the Mir Space
Station. In 1982 Reagan pressured the space program by announcing that
"the first priority of the United States Space Transportation System
(STS) is to make the space launch system fully operational and cost-effective
in providing routine access to space," (Washington: The Commission,
1986, p. 164).
Discussion. Challenger falls into two categories on the Crisis
Type Matrix (Coombs, 1995). As a human-induced error, the normal operations
and product defects would put it in the Accident categories. Because members
of NASA knew of the risk and chose to launch anyway, the explosion could
also be categorized as a transgression. As an attachment strategy, (Coombs,
1995) says an organization uses transcendence when it defines the crisis
in a larger goal that the public accepts. The example of this would be
both the media and president referring to the astronauts as "brave
pioneers of the future."
By using future, he discounts any speculation that the space program may
be in jeopardy. Instead Reagan likens their dedication to that of the
great explorer Sir Francis Drake, who died aboard a ship off the coast
of Panama. The president also encouraged parents to sit down and talk
to their children about the disaster. He told parents to explain that
these men and women had a hunger to explore the universe for the betterment
of mankind. They were given a challenge and they met it with joy. Although
sad, they died serving us, serving their country (Reagan, 1986).
NASA took several big hits to their credibility. The initial handling
of information to the media created suspicion and distrust. Stories about
transporting astronauts' bodies on Navy trucks in bags began to arise.
With a lack of information the media was forced to get its information
from less reliable sources. Contradictory statements along with the Presidential
Commission implying that Mulloy was less than truthful further eroded
NASA's credibility in the eyes of the American public.
A month after the Challenger exploded, the Los Angeles Times published
a survey about Americans confidence in the space program. The survey found
that although most Americans remained supportive of the space program
they had lost trust in NASA. Most of those surveyed cited NASA's decision
to launch as the primary reason for the loss of confidence (Redburn, 1986).
It took years for NASA to regain its credibility.
A decade after the disaster many media outlets looked back at the tragedy.
Most agree that it is now viewed as a turning point for NASA. Using repentance
as a forgiveness strategy, NASA ordered safety changes from stem to stern
on the space shuttle fleet. The O-ring seals were redesigned. Engineers
fashioned a rudimentary escape system that would allow the crew to bail
out if the plane was heading for an impact over the ocean. The safety
team of managers was expanded to include independent safety experts, private
contractors, and mission managers to supervise the countdowns. For the
space program itself, most agree the ordeal brought positive changes,
including an improved safety record and restoration of public confidence
Prior to the disaster some might argue that NASA's press kit included
too much information. The press kit was very thorough and was over 30
pages long. These kits provided the media with critical background information
for putting together initial releases. Dan Rather went on air at 10:45
a.m. and didn't sign off until 4:13 p.m. With the lack of information
from NASA, reporters were forced to look for information elsewhere. Video
of Christa McAuliffe's family and friends at Cape Canaveral going from
expressions of joy to disbelief and horror filled the airwaves (Hodges,
1986). Film of children of Christa McAuliffe's Concord school was also
aired throughout the afternoon. NASA had no choice but to rebuild their
organization after its mistakes were published in the Presidential Commission
report (Washington: The Commission, 1986, p. 164).
As supported by the survey published in the Los Angeles Times, framing
the astronauts as pioneers and hero's by the president and media saved
public confidence in the space program. The program survived the public
distrust in the organization itself. With the Russian space program running
at full speed, American's realized they couldn't afford to abandon their
space program. For NASA to gain forgiveness from the public they had to
rectify the problems with the shuttle program and their own decision-making
process. Their addressing of every issue in the commission's report showed
their acknowledgement that the system was broke.