Challenger incident pushed NASA forward

For most people walking by Resnik House on Jan. 28, it might have been just another ordinary day. However, last Friday marked the 25th anniversary of the space shuttle Challenger explosion, where Carnegie Mellon alumna Judith Resnik was one of the seven astronauts who lost their lives. Resnik, in addition to being the second American woman in space, received a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Carnegie Mellon.

The Challenger explosion is unforgettable for those who witnessed it. Joy and excitement turned into fear and sadness in the space of a few seconds for all those who lived through that event. Humans were reminded that their technologies are not infallible and that accidents can happen even in the most controlled and precise environments. NASA let a schoolteacher on board and arranged for a live broadcast for schoolchildren around the country.

However, just 73 seconds into the flight, spectators watched as the shuttle burst into pieces that trailed white smoke.

How could such an accident have happened? The shuttle had only been created four years prior to the accident, so the technology was not outdated. An investigation following the incident revealed that a small “O-ring” seal had failed in the right solid-fuel tank on the Shuttle. The cold weather leading up to the launch had made problems in the faulty ring worse, and hot gases were able to leak through the seal. The problem worsened as more gases and flames leaked through the failed seal, until the fire caused the liquid fuel tanks to ignite. The force of this ignition tore Challenger apart, killing the entire crew.

Following the accident, people looked for answers. The Reagan administration was anxious to provide them, and the ensuing investigation revealed truths about NASA’s process. The public learned that NASA engineers had voiced misgivings about the mission, but the officials at NASA had not paid proper attention to these complaints. “There certainly was a very big push at the time to talk about having more open communications so people weren’t afraid to go up the chain and push the management if they needed to,” said Tom Ludwinski, a scientist who worked on the Challenger.

The space shuttle program was halted until the investigation was finished and the government had evidence that measures had been taken to make space flight safer for all involved. The budget for NASA was increased from $15.5 billion to almost $21 billion so that the organization would have enough money to fix problems. This was important because America did not want to lose funding for the space shuttle program.

Rosy Ludwinski worked on the Challenger’s thrust structure for the main engine. “Leading-edge programs like this — it’s dangerous. There’s no doubt about it that they’re doing things that are on the cutting edge, so the astronauts — they know the risks that are involved. And it was an extreme tragedy, but that’s what advances science eventually, and they helped to do that by playing that role,” she said.

As a distinguished alumna of Carnegie Mellon, Resnik continues to inspire the students and professors here to have the courage to chart new frontiers.