It’s January 1986 in eastern Florida, and the Challenger space shuttle is preparing to launch. Meanwhile, thousands of miles away in Brigham City, Utah, engineer Bob Ebeling is begging officials to keep the mission on the ground. But Ebeling’s warnings go unheeded – and the tragic consequences still haunt the nation to this day.
Almost two decades before this fateful chain of events, the United States had rejoiced as astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took mankind’s first steps on the surface of the Moon. And having won the race to reach our closest astronomical neighbor, America took its place at the forefront of space travel – a position in which it has remained ever since.
Meanwhile, just before the Moon landings, NASA had begun exploring the idea of a space shuttle – a reusable craft designed to complete multiple manned missions. And then in 1972 officials launched the program. As President Richard Nixon explained in a speech that same year, the endeavor aimed to “transform the space frontier.”
Then, four years after the program’s launch, NASA unveiled its first orbiter. After initially christening the craft Constitution, officials renamed it Enterprise – following a campaign led by fans of the science-fiction series Star Trek. And in 1977 the orbiter passed its first round of tests.
On April 12, 1981, the Space Shuttle program subsequently conducted its first successful launch. The Columbia – the first properly operational orbiter – and its crew of two soared beyond Earth’s atmosphere and into orbit. Two days later, the craft then landed safely in California, ushering in a new period of space exploration. And over the next ten years, four more shuttles joined NASA’s ranks.
Initially, the Space Shuttle program aimed to complete some 50 launches every year, bringing flights down to a relatively affordable $20 million per trip. However, by the time that it concluded in 2011, the project’s 134 missions had cost NASA more than $200 billion – equating to almost $1.6 billion each.
Nevertheless, the Space Shuttle program managed to send hundreds of astronauts into orbit. And together, the missions helped build the International Space Station, carried out vital repairs to the Hubble Telescope and gathered fascinating data about the universe. Yet despite these numerous accomplishments, a shadow remains over the project to this day.
By January 1986 the Space Shuttle program had launched 24 successful missions. And Challenger – NASA’s second orbiter and the successor to Columbia – had undertaken nine of them. Completed back in 1978, the craft carried out its earliest successful mission in April 1983.
After its inaugural launch, Challenger became the jewel in NASA’s crown. Responsible for 85 percent of the agency’s missions, the shuttle carried trailblazing astronauts – including the first American woman and the first African American in space – on their journeys into the cosmos. Sadly, however, its story would come to a tragic end.
In January 1986 NASA was preparing to deploy Challenger on what would be its tenth flight. The mission had multiple goals. Equipped to launch a communications satellite, the craft also bore the Shuttle-Pointed Tool for Astronomy – a project designed to help scientists see Halley’s Comet.
Yet Challenger’s tenth mission had another aim – one that made it of particular interest to everyday citizens. You see, back in 1984 NASA had launched the Teacher in Space Project – an educational program that aimed to foster an interest in science, mathematics and space among younger generations.
NASA invited teachers from across the country to apply to be sent into space as part of the project. As non-astronaut civilians, each of the successful applicants would therefore have the opportunity to join a mission and even conduct lessons from inside a space shuttle. Unsurprisingly, then, some 11,000 educators put themselves forward for the roles.
In 1985 a teacher named Christa McAuliffe from Concord, New Hampshire, took the first coveted role. And so, after taking leave from her teaching job, she began training to join Challenger’s tenth mission. Apparently, McAuliffe hoped to give two 15-minute lessons while in space and broadcast them to millions of students back on Earth.
Joining McAuliffe on Challenger were six other crew members: Francis “Dick” Scobee, Michael Smith, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair and Gregory B. Jarvis. Like McAuliffe, Jarvis was a “payload specialist” – that is, a non-astronaut crew member, albeit in his case one selected for engineering expertise.
For McAuliffe, Jarvis and Challenger’s pilot, Smith, the six-day flight was to be their first trip into space. Commander Scobee and mission specialists Onizuka, Resnik and McNair, meanwhile, were about to embark on their second trips beyond Earth’s atmosphere. Officials scheduled a launch date for January 22, 1986, and the seven-person crew began to prepare for launch.
Challenger’s tenth spaceflight was, however, beset with problems. For starters, liftoff was to take place from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, which led to delays due to issues with a previous mission. As a result, officials rescheduled the launch date for January 23, although they subsequently put it back to the day after.
And that was far from the end of the complications surrounding Challenger’s launch. After a forecast of bad weather at NASA’s emergency landing site in Senegal, officials changed the location to Casablanca in Morocco. However, there were no facilities for a night landing in Casablanca, and so takeoff was again rescheduled, this time to January 26.
Again, bad weather delayed the launch, though, meaning it was re-set for the following morning. And even when that day dawned, technical issues pushed the date back still further, to January 28. What’s more, temperatures at the Kennedy Space Center reached as low as 28 °F that morning – making conditions 15 degrees colder than they had been for any other similar launch.
By now, there were concerns that ice on the launchpad might cause damage to the orbiter when it came to liftoff. And those weren’t the only issues affecting the ill-fated mission. Over the previous six months, engineers had grown worried that cold weather might have a negative impact on some of the craft’s components.
And among the experts who had warned about issues surrounding Challenger’s launch was Bob Ebeling. Born in Chicago in September 1926, Ebeling subsequently moved to San Diego in his youth. Then, after a stint in the U.S. Army, he married a woman named Darlene – with whom he started a family – and studied mechanical engineering at San Luis Obispo’s California Polytechnic State University.
After graduating in 1952, Ebeling then took a job at Convair – the manufacturing firm responsible for making some of NASA’s first rockets. And ten years later, he joined the Utah-based supplier Thiokol, which in 1974 secured a contract to build rocket boosters for the Space Shuttle program.
The boosters were composed of several sections – with rubber O-rings used to seal a number of parts together. When the shuttles launched, moreover, the rings flexed, stopping combustible fuel from leaking out of the rocket. And yet some engineers grew concerned that the erosion of these parts could have catastrophic consequences.
Ebeling oversaw the assembly of the boosters after their construction at Thiokol. But in the lead-up to the Challenger launch, he began to worry that the components were not up to scratch. He was concerned, in fact, that the colder temperatures might cause the O-rings to stiffen, leading to a potentially deadly fuel leak.
Ebeling wasn’t alone in his concerns, either; there were at least four other engineers who shared them. “We all knew if the seals failed, the shuttle would blow up,” engineer Roger Boisjoly told NPR back in 1986. And as the launch drew nearer, these experts knew that somebody had to speak up.
According to NPR, on the morning of January 27, the day before Challenger was due to launch, Ebeling telephoned his superior Allan McDonald, in Florida, to express his concerns. Apparently, a teleconference was then arranged, and the engineers got an audience with NASA officials – but they failed to bring them around to their point of view.
Initially, Thiokol officials agreed with Ebeling and Boisjoly that the launch should be delayed. However, despite the data with which they were presented, NASA representatives decided that they could wait no longer. “My God Thiokol,” Marshall Spaceflight Center’s Lawrence Mulloy is quoted by NPR as having said to them. “When do you want me to launch? Next April?”
So, having failed to convince NASA to postpone the launch, Ebeling went home to his wife, Darlene, distraught. And that evening, he apparently shared his fears about the impending fate of Challenger and its crew. “It’s going to blow up,” UPI quoted him as having said. The following morning, too, he reportedly echoed those words while en route to Thiokol’s Utah base.
While driving with his daughter Leslie to watch the launch, it seems that Ebeling couldn’t contain his worries. “He said, ‘The Challenger’s going to blow up. Everyone’s going to die,’” she told NPR. “And he was beating his fist on the dashboard. He was frantic.” But at first, it appeared as though his fears might have been unfounded.
Indeed, the launch initially looked to have been a success. And because Ebeling and his fellow engineers believed that a defective O-ring would cause the shuttle to explode upon liftoff, they thought for a moment that the mission was in the clear. For more than a minute, in fact, Challenger soared upwards through the sky, having seemingly escaped disaster.
Behind the scenes, though, things had gone terribly wrong. And as Challenger went into full-throttle mode, a violent explosion ripped through the shuttle. Below, a crowd of hundreds watched in horror as the craft disintegrated before their eyes, while millions more witnessed the disaster live on TV. Back in Utah, Ebeling and Boisjoly broke down.
As America subsequently struggled to cope with the loss of all seven crew members, President Ronald Reagan gave a heartfelt speech. “The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave,” he told the nation. “We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of Earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.’”
Three weeks after the disaster, Ebeling then gave an interview to NPR – although he chose to remain anonymous at the time. “I could have done more,” he told journalist Howard Berkes. “I should have done more.” And, sadly, the fate of Challenger would haunt the engineer for the rest of his days.
Meanwhile, June 1986 saw the publication of the Rogers Commission Report. With members including former astronauts Neil Armstrong and Sally Ride, the report’s investigation had sought to find out the reason behind the fatal disaster. And sure enough, they determined that the O-rings had caused it – just as Ebeling had predicted.
The O-rings had apparently failed just as the shuttle launched. However, a buildup of residue within the fuel had initially stemmed the subsequent leak. For 73 seconds, then, the residue kept the shuttle from exploding. And yet wind dislodged the blockage – just moments before the boosters were due to be left behind.
The commission ultimately concluded that the Challenger disaster had been an accident – albeit one “rooted in history.” And the report also noted that both Thiokol and NASA had been aware of the problem but had failed to act accordingly. “NASA did not accept the judgement of its engineers that the design was unacceptable,” it read.
In the aftermath of the accident, NASA suspended the Space Shuttle program for two years. And even though the project eventually restarted, Challenger was not to be the last of its tragedies. In 2003 another seven astronauts died when the shuttle Columbia broke apart while re-entering Earth’s atmosphere.
Eventually, in 2011, NASA ended the program – with the ambitious reach for the stars forever marred by the loss of 14 lives in total. Challenger, meanwhile, became a byword for workplace ethics and a popular case study for many would-be engineers. But for Ebeling, it was a horror that remained all too real.
Ebeling left Thiokol soon after the disaster. Then in his later years, he joined Utah’s Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge as a volunteer. In fact, when the sanctuary flooded, Ebeling drew on his engineering knowledge to help rebuild it. The Challenger disaster continued to haunt him, however, and he remained convinced that he hadn’t done enough to stop it.
Thirty years after the accident, journalist Howard Berkes returned to interview Ebeling in his Brigham City home. And this time, the engineer decided to reveal his true identity – even though he still blamed himself for what had occurred. “I think that was one of the mistakes that God made,” he told Berkes in 2016. “He shouldn’t have picked me for the job. But next time I talk to him, I’m gonna ask him, ‘Why me. You picked a loser.’”
Still, following the publication of Berkes’ article, it became clear that many people disagreed. Soon afterwards, Ebeling received a flood of supportive messages. And former NASA and Thiokol officials also reached out to the engineer and reassured him that he was free from any blame. Then, two months after the interview, Ebeling died. “You helped bring my worrisome mind at ease,” he told well-wishers before his passing. “You have to have an end to everything.”