HCST 100 The Human Context of Science and Technology

UMBC University of Maryland Baltimore County



Space Shuttle Accidents in Perspective: Challenger & Columbia

November 1, 2003


(NOTE:  This is a generic lesson plan set provided as an example for HCST faculty.  Students may find it useful as a guide to further study.  Specific presentations and sequences in any given year or lecture will vary.  See the appropriate syllabus for details.)


Dr. Ted Foster (Engineering) and Dr. Joseph N. Tatarewicz  (History)

1-week: Lecture, Discussion, Video; (Laboratory Exercise Option)


Distributed Readings:  Brief overview of the event and its context (Collins & Pinch, "The Naked Launch: Assigning Blame for the Challenger Explosion."; Rogers Commission Report select Documents, keyed to Boisjoly Tape on Day Two.


Recommended Readings (Reserve or Web):  Rogers Commission Report and Appendices (full report is on the web); Richard Feynman, “Mr. Feynman Goes to Washington”; Diane Vaughan, The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Culture, Technology, and Deviance at NASA; Columbia Accident Investigation Board Report (full report is on the web).


Day One – The Challenger Accident in Context (Tatarewicz lead)

  • Introduction (NASA TV Video Package from tenth anniversary, TRT 8-min.)
  • Challenger: On January 28, 1986 a space shuttle exploded during its twenty-fifth mission killing seven crew members.  Because of the non-astronaut middle school teacher on board, many school children around the country watched the explosion.  This event halted U.S. crewed space flight for 32 months, and changed NASA decisively.  High-profile investigations found that the technical cause (leaking joints in the solid rocket boosters) was suspected and troubling to engineers and managers before launch, but that for various political and financial reasons they were overruled and pressured to conform and approve launch.  This case shows how a seemingly minute technical issue can have wide-ranging social, political, and other dimensions.  It also introduces the issue of ethical conduct in a technical context where there is ambiguity, conflicting interpretations, and uneven power relationships.
  • The Context: the Space Race; Apollo; Shuttle; previous accidents. (particularly AS-204 in 1967); Teacher-in-Space, the State of the Union Speech, prior launch delays and scrubs.
  • The Space Shuttle vehicle and a normal Launch
  • The events of January 28, 1986
  • Immediate aftermath: no Access to Space (missions lined up, Titan III-C explodes, military satellites rationed, rush to Europeans and Japanese for launch services)
  • The Rogers Commission—reveals technical cause but fixates on “NASA Culture” after Larry B. Molloy and Roger Boisjoly testify.
  • Focus on the critical decision: The Teleconference and the prior Flight Readiness Reviews and other elements of the process.

Day Two – The Critical Decision and its context  (Foster lead)

  • Introduction – Engineering knowledge, prediction, and proof.  Engineering knowledge is a mixture of accumulated information gathered deliberately and serendipitously; engineers try to understand the objects they are designing with only limited insight into what is happening in reality; at various times they must decide, alone and in groups, just what is happening in the engineered object, what will happen to it under various circumstances, and what the consequences would be.  Further, they may be subject to strong social, political, and other forces that try to skew the predictions.
  • Boisjoly Tape – this interview with one of the engineers who tried unsuccessfully to stop the launch discusses the critical decision in detail; the tape runs 20-min total, but pauses several times to allow class discussion of various elements of the decision.  Documents referenced are on the MIT web site (see bibliography below).
  • Conclusion


Day Three – Role Playing the Challenger Flight Readiness Review & Teleconference

Day Four – The Columbia Accident in Context (Tatarewicz lead)

  • Introduction (Columbia Re-Entry Flight Director’s Loop in Mission Control)
  • Columbia: On February 1, 2003 a space shuttle broke up during a seemingly routine reentry, killing seven crew members.  The Israeli astronaut on board had provided the only interest, because of the heightened fear of terrorism.  A high-profile investigation found that the technical cause (damage to the left wing during launch) was suspected and troubling to some engineers and managers during the mission.  For various institutional and technical reasons, the damage was never verified before reentry.  The investigation, which included a political scientist-historian and a sociologist, found that the institutional culture of the agency and contractors played a decisive role.
  • The Space Shuttle vehicle and a normal Re-Entry
  • The events of February 1, 2003
  • Immediate aftermath: restricted access to International Space Station; severe criticism of NASA.
  • The Columbia Accident Investigation Board—reveals technical cause but fixates on “NASA Culture”.
  • Focus on the critical issues: repeated strikes on the orbiter from foam breaking off the external tank during launch, their discussion before and during the mission, and the decision that the strike was benign.

Day Five – The Columbia Decisions and their context (Foster Lead)

Day Six – Role Playing the Columbia Decisions concerning the significance of the foam strike







(suggestions for future instructors or for students wanting to learn more)


Published Archives (microfilm)


1.      Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident (Rogers Commission). "Challenger" Commission P.C. Numbered Documents.  Washington: U.S. National Archives, 1986.
Abstract: Microfilm edition (73 rolls) of the primary archival collection available at the U.S. National Archives.

2.            ———. Indexes to Records of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle "Challenger" Accident.  Washington: U.S. National Archives, 1986.
Abstract: M1501 30 cards (microfiche)

Book Chapters


1.      Collins, Harry, and Trevor Pinch. "The Naked Launch: Assigning Blame for the Challenger Explosion." The Golem: What You Should Know About Technology. Harry Collins, and Trevor Pinch, 30-56. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

2.      Feynman, Richard. "Mr. Feynman Goes to Washington: Investigating the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster." What Do You Care What Other People Think?  Further Adventures of a Curious Character. Richard Feynman, 113-239. New York: W. W. Norton, 1988.

3.      Gieryn, Thomas F., and Anne E. Figert. "Ingredients for a Theory of Science in Society: O-Rings, Ice Water, C-Clamp, Richard Feynman and the New York Times." Theories of Science in Society. editors Susan Cozzens, and Thomas F. Gieryn.  Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1991.



4.      Cooper, Henry S. F. Jr. Before Liftoff: the Making of a Space Shuttle Crew.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.

5.      Guilmartin, John F., and John Walker Mauer.  Space  Shuttle Chronology 1964-1973. Houston, Texas: Johnson Space Center, 1988.

6.      Handberg, Roger.  Reinventing NASA: Human Spaceflight, Bureaucracy, and Politics. New York: Praeger, 2003.

7.      Heppenheimer, T. A. History of the Space Shuttle. The NASA History Series. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002-.

8.      Jenkins, Dennis R.  Space Shuttle the History of the National Space Transportation System: the First 100 Missions. 3rd ed. Cape Canaveral, Fla: D.R. Jenkins, 2001.

9.      Jensen, Claus, and Barbara Haveland. No Downlink: a Dramatic Narrative About the Challenger Accident.  New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1996.

10. McConnell, Malcolm. Challenger: a Major Malfunction. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1987.

11. Launius, Roger D., and Aaron K. Gillette. Toward a History of the Space Shuttle: an Annotated Bibliography. Monographs in Aerospace History, no. 1. Washington, DC: NASA History Division, 1992.

12. Lewis, Richard S. Challenger: the Final Voyage. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988.

13. Logsdon, John M. "The Space Shuttle Program: a Policy Failure?"  Science  (1986): 1099-105.

14. Maier, Mark. A Major Malfunction: The Story Behind the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster. VHS Videorecording with supplemental materials.

15. McCurdy, Howard. Faster, Better, Cheaper: Low-Cost Innovation in the U.S. Space Program. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.

16. McCurdy, Howard E. Inside NASA: the Changing Culture of the American Space Program. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.

17. Roland, Alex. "Triumph or Turkey? [Space Shuttle]." Discover 6/11 (1985): 29-49.

18. Shayler, David J. Disasters and Accidents in Manned Spaceflight. New York: Springer-Verlag, 2000.

19. Thompson, Milton O, and  Curtis Peebles. Flying Without Wings NASA Lifting Bodies and the Birth of the Space Shuttle. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1999.

20. Trento, Joseph J. Prescription for Disaster: From the Glory of Apollo to the Betrayal of the Shuttle. New York: Crown, 1987.

21. Vaughan, Diane. The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Culture, Technology, and Deviance at NASA. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1996.

Journal Articles

22. Amier, Mark and Messerschmidt James W. "Commonalities, Conflicts And Contradictions In Organizational Masculinities: Exploring The Gendered Genesis Of The Challenger Disaster." Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology  35, no. 3 (1998): 325-44.

23. Cook, Richard. "The Rogers Commission Failed." Washington Monthly  18, no. 10 (1986): 13-21.

24. Fries, Sylvia Doughty. "Report From the Field: Dealing With Crisis: History and the Challenger Disaster." The Public Historian 10, no. 4 (Fall 1988): 83-88.
Notes: IBID Record # 3348

25. Kay, W. D. "Democracy and Super Technologies: the Politics of the Space Shuttle and the Space Station ." Science, Technology, & Human Values 19, no. 2 (1994): 131-51.

26. Lambright, W. Henry. "Recovering From Space Disaster: the Administrator's Challenge." Space Times 42, no. 5 (2003): 15-17.

27. Langewiesche, William. "Columbia's Last Flight." Atlantic Monthly 292, no. 4 (2003): 58-87.

28. Launius, Roger D. "NASA and the Decision to Build the Space Shuttle, 1969-72." The Historian 57, no. 1 (1994): 17-34.

29. ———. "Toward an Understanding of the Space Shuttle: a Historiographical Essay." Air Power History 39, no. 4 (1992): 3-??

30. Romzek, Barbara S Dubnick Melvin J. "Accountability in the Public Sector: Lessons From the Challenger Tragedy." Public Administration Review  47 (May 1987-June 1987): 227-38.

31. Simons, Elizabeth Radin. "The NASA Joke Cycle: The Astronauts And The Teacher." Western Folklore  45, no. 4 (1986): 261-77.

32. Smyth, Willie. "Challenger Jokes And The Humor Of Disaster." Western Folklore  45, no. 4 (1986): 243-60.

33. Terr, Lenore C., Daniel A. Bloch, and Beat A. Michel. "Children's Memories in the Wake of Challenger." The American Journal of Psychiatry 153 (May 1996): 618-25.

Archives & Manuscripts

34. Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident (Rogers Commission). ""Challenger" Commission Audiovisual Materials."  U.S. National Archives, College Park, Maryland

35. ———. ""Challenger" Commission P.C. Numbered Documents."1986.
Abstract: Official archive of the Commission, available at National Archives:  "The Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident, chaired by former Secretary of State William P. Rogers, investigated the circumstances surrounding the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger shortly after liftoff on
January 28, 1986. The Commission was established in February 1986, pursuant to Executive Order 12546, and it issued its final report in June 1986. At the conclusion of its investigation, the records of the Commission were transferred to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) for permanent preservation. They have been accessioned in the Records of Temporary Committees, Commissions, and Boards (Record Group 220) [see entry 220.19, Guide to Federal Records in the National Archives of the United States (1995)], and are available to the public. "  8-linear feet or 148-boxes.  See INFORMATION FOR RESEARCHERS: RECORDS OF THE PRESIDENTIAL COMMISSION ON THE SPACE SHUTTLE CHALLENGER ACCIDENT http://www.nara.gov/nara/electronic/challngr.html and RECORDS OF THE PRESIDENTIAL COMMISSION ON THE SPACE SHUTTLE CHALLENGER ACCIDENT http://www.archives.gov/research_room/research_topics/space_shuttle_challenger_accident.html

36. Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) manuscripts and other materials will be archived at a future date.  Details may be found in the CAIB Final Report, Volume 1, pp. 235-236, “A.6. Board Documentation System.”



1.      Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident (Rogers Commission). Report of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident, GPO, Washington, 1986.

2.      Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB).   Report Volume I.  (August  2003); Appendices Volumes II-VI. (October, 2003).

Video Recordings


1.      CNN. Terminal Count: What It Takes to Make the Shuttle Fly. 1:00 hrs 2001. VHS Videorecording.

2.      KCTS TV  Seattle. Astronauts. 1:00 hrs. VHS Videorecording.
 Maier, Mark. A Major Malfunction: The Story Behind the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster. VHS Videorecording with supplemental materials.

3.      NASA Television. Challenger Anniversary Video Package. 8 min. 1996. VHS Videorecording.

Web Pages


1.      Adams, Rick. "The Challenger's Final Minutes." Web page, Available at http://www.winternet.com/~radams/chall/. [Note: the link was not functioning 9/1/2003]
Abstract: Reliable compilation of information and links concerning the last recorded words of the crew and the widely circulated hoax transcript beyond 73 seconds.

3.      Dunar, Andrew J. and Stephen P. Waring. "Power to Explore: A History of Marshall Space Flight Center, 1960-1990." Web page, 2001 [accessed 1 June 2001]. Available at http://history.msfc.nasa.gov/book/bookcover.html.
Abstract: Full Text; see especially Chapter IX: The Challenger Accident

4.      Federation of American Scientists. "51-L The Challenger Accident." Web page,  [accessed 7 June 2001]. Available at http://www.fas.org/spp/51L.html.
Abstract: Extensive and well-annotated list of links.

5.      Friendly, Michael. "Gallery of Data Visualization: The Best and Worst of Statistical Graphics: Challenger Disaster." Web page,  [accessed 7 June 2001]. Available at http://www.math.yorku.ca/SCS/Gallery/

6.      James, M. Neil. "DSGN119 - Design as a Generic Tool." Web page,  [accessed 7 June 2001]. Available at http://www.tech.plym.ac.uk/sme/FailureCases/Failure.htm#Challenger%20Space%20Shuttle

7.      Mark A. Haisler and Robert Throop. "The Challenger Accident:: An Analysis of the Mechanical and Administrative Causes of the Accident and the Redesign Process that Followed." Web page, Fall 1997 [accessed 7 June 2001]. Available at http://www.me.utexas.edu/~uer/challenger/chall2.html.
Abstract: Well designed and annotated site.

8.      MIT Online Ethics Center for Engineering and Science. "Roger Boisjoly on the Challenger Disaster." Web page,  [accessed 7 June 2001]. Available at http://onlineethics.org/moral/boisjoly/RB-intro.html.
Abstract: Morton Thiokol engineer Roger Boisjoly's discussion of the Challenger Disaster is separated into seven sections. Each section is then followed by responses and supporting material.

9.      Mottley, Jack G. "ECE 399, Seminar in Electrical and Computer Engineering, Challenger Case Study." Web page, Spring 2001 [accessed 1 June 2001]. Available at http://www.courses.rochester.edu/mottley/ECE399/PDFFiles/ChallengerCase.pdf. [Note: the link was not functioning 9/1/2003]

10. NASA. "Implementation of the Recommendations of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident." Web page,  [accessed 7 June 2001]. Available at http://history.nasa.gov/rogersrep/51lcover.htm.
Abstract: Full text of the NASA Report to the President on implementing the recommendations of the Rogers Commission

11. NASA. "Information on the STS-51L/Challenger Accident." Web page,  [accessed 7 June 2001]. Available at http://history.nasa.gov/sts51l.html.
Abstract: NASA History Office official site, containing both NASA and non-NASA links with no commentary.

12. Ray A. Williamson.  “Developing the Space Shuttle,” from Exploring the Unknown: Selected Documents in the History of the U.S. Civil Space Program, Volume IV: Accessing Space.  Available at: http://history.nasa.gov/sts1/pdfs/explore.pdf

13.  National Air and Space Museum. "The Space Race: Space Shuttle: First Reusable Spacecraft." Web page,  [accessed 7 June 2001]. Available at http://www.nasm.edu/galleries/gal114/SpaceRace/sec500/sec540.htm

14. Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident (Rogers Commission). "Report of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident." Web page, June 1986 [accessed 7 June 2001]. Available at http://history.nasa.gov/rogersrep/51lcover.htm.
Abstract: Full text of the Rogers Commission Report

15. List of  Shuttle contractors: http://science.ksc.nasa.gov/shuttle/technology/sts-newsref/sts-subs.html#sts-subs


A Note about Web Sites


Warning: there are numerous web sites ranging from authoritative to miserably erroneous.  Our comments are intended to help you evaluate the reliability of the information found.  Official and reputable web sites themselves have points of view and their content is slanted or missing certain perspectives.  Even the best sites may contain some errors.


Models and Demonstrations


Solid Rocket Booster Field Joint and O-Rings (plexiglass tumblers & rubber bands)

Gardenia or equivalent garden hose quick-disconnect fittings (yellow, with black o-ring)

Full-Scale Simulated SRB O-Ring (clothesline 37.5-ft x 0.28-in)

Field Joint Tang-and-Clevis Section Model (use tongue-and-groove flooring)

Commercial plastic model kits of the Shuttle stack and orbiter

Commercial solid-rocket motors (available at any hobby store)

Orbiter Thermal Protection System Tile Specimen (available commercially)

External Tank Foam Demonstration Sample (may be fabricated from nearly identical commercially available spray foam insulation)


The Columbia Accident, February 1, 2003 (STS-107)


CAIB Columbia Accident Investigation Board



CAIB Special Media Page



NASA Human Spaceflight Web Page on STS-107




NASA Official Web Page Columbia Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Documents


CBS News Bill Harwood Web Page




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