Case Study #12: NASA Challenger Disaster

On 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).


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 (Sallee, 1986).

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.


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Case Study #12: NASA Challenger Disaster Copyright © by Sam Schechter is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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