Explain why the Challenger explosion happened and how it could have been prevented.

Quick answer:

The Challenger explosion was caused by faulty o-rings that didn't seal sections of the solid rocket booster correctly and led to improper venting of exhaust gasses. It might have been prevented by delaying the launch until warmer weather arrived or by using o-rings suited for colder weather.

Expert Answers

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The space shuttle Challenger exploded on January 28, 1986. The disaster occurred seventy-three seconds after liftoff at an altitude of nine miles. All astronauts were killed in the disaster.

After an extensive investigation, it was determined that faulty o-rings were to blame for the disaster. The shuttle's solid rocket boosters were built in segments. Each segment contained the fuel, and the segments were kept separated from each other with rubber o-ring seals. Rubber is flexible, but it becomes less flexible in cold conditions. The night before the launch was an usually cold Florida night. An early-morning inspection of the shuttle and launch pad showed that a significant amount of ice had built up. When Challenger was launched, the air temperature was only thirty-six degrees. This was fifteen degrees colder than any previous launch.

Engineer Allan McDonald repeatedly discouraged launching in such cold conditions due to safety concerns. His concerns were directly related to the o-rings. McDonald was worried that the cold temperatures wouldn't allow the o-rings to flex and seal properly and that would result in a fuel leak and immediate explosion. He was partly correct. The frozen o-ring did fail at launch; however, the hole was almost immediately resealed by aluminum oxides. This prevented any flames from escaping that could cause an explosion. Then, thirty-seven seconds into the flight, the shuttle was subjected to strong wind sheering. Those wind sheers broke open the seal and resulted in the final breakup of the space craft.

As for how the disaster could have been prevented, there are a number of possible answers. The launch could have been delayed until warmer weather arrived. Better cold-weather o-rings could have been used, too.

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