Authors: David Hitt,Heather R. Smith
“It was all the landing systems,” he explained.
Now, that may sound strange, because that had nothing to do with this accident, but the
blue-ribbon panel saw that, as they were looking at our history on shuttle, they saw that one of the bigger problems we were addressing technically with that vehicle was landing rollout. We had a series of cases where we had broken up the brakes on rollout by overheating them or overstressing them. We had some concerns about automatic landings. We had some concerns about steering on the runway in cases of a blown tire or something like that. So they chose to recommend that we do something about these things, put more emphasis on it, make some changes and upgrades in that area.
In the wake of the accident, even relatively low-profile aspects of the shuttle program were reexamined and reevaluated. “
wanted to go back and look at everything, not just the solid rocket boosters, but everything, to determine, is there another
awaiting us in some other system,” recalled Mullane, who was assigned to review the range safety flight termination system, which would destroy the vehicle in the event it endangered lives. “I always felt it was a moral issue on this dynamite system. I always felt it was necessary to have that on there, because your wives and your family, your
[Launch Control Center] people are sitting there two and a half miles away. If you die, that’s one thing. But if in the process of you dying that rocket lands on the
and kills a couple of hundred people, that’s not right. So they should have dynamite aboard it to blow it up in case it is threatening the civilian population.”
While Mullane himself supported having the flight termination system on the vehicles, he said that some of his superiors did not.
I could not go to the meetings and present their position. I couldn’t. I mean, to me it was immoral. It was immoral to sit there and say we fly without a dynamite system aboard. That’s immoral. And we threatened
, we threaten our families, we threaten other people. We’re signing up for the risk to ride in the rocket.
That was another bad time of my life, because I took a position that was counter to my superiors’ position, and I felt that it was jeopardizing my future at
. I didn’t like that at all, didn’t like the idea that I was supposed to just parrot somebody’s opinion and mine didn’t count on that issue. . . . So I did not like that time of my life at all. I had an astronaut come to me once . . . who heard my name being kicked around as a person that was causing some problems. And that’s the last thing you want in your career is to hear that your name is in front of people who make launch crew decisions, who make crew decisions, and basically, it looks like I’m a bad apple. But I just couldn’t do it. . . . I said, “You go. You do it. I can’t. It’s immoral.” By the way, the end of that is that the solid boosters retained their dynamite system aboard. It was taken off the gas tank, making it much safer, at least now two minutes up when the boosters are gone, we don’t have to dynamite aboard anymore, so it could fail and blow you up. But that’s the right decision right there. You protect the civilians, you protect your family, you protect
with that system.
The results from the commission questioned the
culture, and according to Covey some within the agency found that hard to deal with, especially while still recovering from the loss of the crew and vehicle. “Everybody was reacting basically to two things,” Covey said. “One was the fact that they had lost a Space Shuttle and lost a crew, and two, the Rogers Commission was extremely critical, and in many cases, rightfully so, about the way the decision-making processes had evolved and the culture had evolved.”
Those two things together are hard for any institution to accept, because this was still a largely predominant workforce that had come through the Apollo era into the shuttle era and had been immensely successful in dealing with the issues that had come through both those programs to that point. So to be told that the culture was broken was hard to deal with, and that’s because culture doesn’t change overnight, and there was a lot of people that didn’t believe that that was an accurate depiction of the situation and environment that existed within the agency, particularly at the Johnson Space Center.
Personnel changes began to take place, including the departures of George Abbey, the long-time director of flight crew operations, and John Young, chief of the Astronaut Office. “We started seeing a lot of personnel changes in that time period in leadership positions,” Covey said.
I think they were a matter of timing and other things, but George Abbey had been the director of flight crew operations for a long time, and somewhere in there George left that position. Don Puddy came in as the director of flight crew operations, and that sat poorly with a lot of people, because he wasn’t out of Flight Crew Operations; he was a flight director. So that was something that a lot of people just had a hard time accepting. John Young left from being chief of the Astronaut Office, and Dan Brandenstein came into that position. I’m trying to remember what happened in Mission Operations, but somewhere in there Gene Kranz left; I can’t remember when, and I’m not sure when in that spectrum of things that he did. So there were changes there. The center director changed immediately after the
accident, also, and changes were rampant at headquarters. So, basically, there was a restructuring of the leadership team from the administrator on down.
In time, the astronaut corps grieved and adjusted to leadership changes, and their focus returned to flying. “As
does,” Covey said, “once they got
past the grief and got past the disappointment of failure and acceptance of their role relative to the decision-making process, they jumped in and said, ‘Okay, our job is flying. Let’s go figure out how we’re going to fly again.’”
Covey said the
accident caused some in the astronaut corps to be wary of the
leadership structure and to distrust that the system would make the right kinds of decisions to protect them. “I wouldn’t say it was a bunker mentality, but it was close to that,” Covey said.
The idea that, as it played out, that there were decisions made and information that may not have been fully considered, and as you can see from all of it, a relatively limited involvement of any astronauts or flight crew people in the decision that led up to the launch; very little, if any. So that led to some changes that have evolved over time where there are more and more astronauts that have been involved in that decision-making process at the highest levels, either within the Space Shuttle program or in the related activities, where before it was like, “Yeah, those guys will make the right decision, and we’ll go fly.”
Along those same lines, Fred Gregory commented that the tragedy was a moment of realization for many about the dangers of spaceflight.
The first four missions we called test flights, and then on the fifth mission we declared ourselves operational. We were thinking of flying journalists, and we had Pete Aldridge, who was the secretary of the air force. [about to fly]. I mean, we were thinking of ourselves as almost like an airline at that point. It came back safely. Everything was okay, even though there may have been multiple failures or things that had degraded. When we looked back, we saw that, in fact, we had had this erosion of those primary and secondary O-rings, but since it was a successful mission and we came back, it was dismissed almost summarily. I think there was a realization that we were vulnerable, and that this was not an airliner, flying to space was risky, and that we were going to have to change the approach that we had taken in the past.
During the investigation, new light was shined on past safety issues and close calls. Astronaut Don Lind recalled being informed of a situation that occurred on his 51
mission, less than a year earlier.
What happened was that Bob Overmyer and I had shared an office for three and a half years, getting ready for this mission. Bob, when they first started the
investigation, was the senior astronaut on the investigation team. He came back from the Cape one day, walked in the office, slumped down in the chair, and said, “Don, shut the door.” Now, in the Astronaut Office, if you shut the door, it’s a big deal, because we tried to keep an open office so people could wander in and share ideas. . . . So I shut the door, and Bob said, “The board today found out that on our flight nine months previously we almost had the same explosion. We had the same problems with the O-rings on one of our boosters.” We talked about that for a few minutes, and he said, “The board thinks we came within fifteen seconds of an explosion.”
After learning this, Lind traveled out to what was then Morton Thiokol’s solid rocket booster facility in Utah to find out exactly what had happened on his flight.
Alan McDonald, who was the head of the Booster Division, sat down with me. . . . He got out his original briefing notes for Congress, which I now have, and outlined exactly what had happened. There are three separate O-rings to seal the big long tubes with the gases flowing down through them at about five thousand degrees and 120 psi. The first two seals on our flight had been totally destroyed, and the third seal had 24 percent of its diameter burned away. McDonald said, “All of that destruction happened in six hundred milliseconds, and what was left of that last O-ring, if it had not sealed the crack and stopped that outflow of gases, if it had not done that in the next two hundred to three hundred milliseconds, it would have been gone all the way. You’d never have stopped it, and you’d have exploded. So you didn’t come within fifteen seconds of dying, you came within three-tenths of one second of dying.” That was thought provoking.
In the wake of the
disaster, all future missions were scrubbed and the flight manifest was replanned. Some missions were rescheduled with new numbers and only minor changes, while other planned missions and payloads were canceled entirely.
Recalled Charlie Walker of the electrophoresis research he had been conducting, “The opportunity just went away with the national policy changes; commercial was fourth priority, if it was a priority at all, for shuttle manifest. . . . Shuttle would not be flying with the regularity or the frequency that had been expected before.”
The plans to use the Centaur upper stage to launch the
spacecraft from the shuttle were also canceled as a result of the accident. Astronaut Mike Lounge had been assigned to the
Centaur flight, which was to have flown in spring 1986 on
. “So when we saw
explode on January 28, before that lifted off, I remember thinking, ‘Well, Scobee, take care of that spaceship, because we need it in a couple of months.’ We would have been on the next flight of
Lounge recalled that his crew was involved in planning for the mission during the
launch. They took a break from discussing the risky Centaur mission, including ways to eject the booster if necessary, so that they could watch the 51
launch on a monitor in the meeting room. Lounge said the disaster shone a new light on the discussions they’d been having. “We assumed we could solve all these problems. We were still basically bulletproof. Until
, we just thought we were bulletproof and the things would always work.”
Rick Hauck, who was assigned to command the
Centaur mission, was glad to see the mission canceled. “Would it have gotten to the point where I would have stood up and said, ‘This is too unsafe. I’m not going to do it’?” Hauck said. “I don’t know. But we were certainly approaching levels of risk that I had not seen before.”
For Bob Crippen, the
accident would result in another loss, that of his final opportunity for a shuttle flight. The ramifications of the accident meant that he ended his career as a flight-status astronaut the same way he began it—in the crew quarters for Vandenberg’s
-6 launch complex, waiting for a launch that would never come. In the 1960s that launch had been of the Air Force’s Manned Orbiting Laboratory. In 1986 it was shuttle mission 62
“If I have one flying regret in my life, it was that I never had an opportunity to do that Vandenberg mission,” Crippen said.
We [had been] going to use filament-wound solid rockets, whereas the solid rockets that we fly on board the shuttle have steel cases. That was one of the things, I think, that made a lot of people nervous. . . . We needed the filament-wounds to get the performance, the thrust-to-weight ratio that we needed flying out of Vandenberg. So they used the filament-wound to take the weight out. After we had the joint problem on the solids with
; most people just couldn’t
get comfortable with the filament-wound case, so that was one of the aspects of why they ended up canceling it.
As the agency, along with the nation, was reevaluating what the future of human spaceflight would look like, what things should be continued, and what things should be canceled, the astronauts in the corps had to make the same sorts of decisions themselves. Many decided that the years-long gap in flights offered a good time to leave to pursue other interests, but many stayed on to continue flying.
“I think it was a very sobering time,” Jerry Ross said. “I mean, we always knew that that was a possibility, that we would have such a catastrophic accident. I think there was a lot of frustration that we found out fairly soon afterwards that the finger was being pointed at the joint design and, in fact, that there had been quite a bit of evidence prior to the accident that that joint design was not totally satisfactory. Most of us had never heard that. We were very shocked, disappointed, mad.”