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The Challenger Explosion and the New American Space Age

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Jon is a history, space, and aeronautics enthusiast who enjoys writing about current and past events.

The National Aeronautics Space Administration’s (NASA) Space Shuttle Challenger exploded during liftoff on January 28, 1986, commencing a new space era for the United States (Weathers). The explosion initiated a domino effect of issues. It shifted the public opinion on space travel, and the space program started to experience setbacks and resistance, which then influenced pivotal changes within the industry.

What Caused the Challenger Disaster?

Before the disaster, the Challenger shuttle was utilized in a total of nine successful missions, helping to build a successful and viable image of the space organization (Weathers). Nearing the 10th mission, however, some engineers suspected potential technical problems, but despite their concerns, the agency pushed to make the launch window (Weathers).

At the time of the launch, the technical problems warned against by engineers caused the shuttle to explode, killing all seven crew members on board (Weathers). The explosion altered the American perspective on space exploration, forcing the United States to take up a more reserved approach toward future space travel. The fallout of this event caused permanent changes in the United States space industry, many of which remain quite prevalent to this day.

What Changed After the Challenger Disaster?

The altering public opinion, as a result of the incident, played a major role in triggering a variety of delays and resistance against the program. This change in social perspective was the first of many problems that NASA faced after the incident, but despite its innocence, it would pave the path for more issues to come.

In President Ronald Reagan’s speech where he addressed the disaster, he mourned the loss of life: “I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It's all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It's all part of taking a chance and expanding man's horizons. The future doesn't belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave.”

His comments do not directly blame NASA for the accident, and they remain some of the least critical about the failure of the agency. Most media sources and the government questioned the reliability of the space organization (Weathers). After many successes in the industry, this “explosion derailed this [their] progress, and the entire space program was placed in jeopardy. The explosion and its subsequent scrutiny by the government, scientists, and the media left NASA reeling and searching for stability, respect, and direction” (American Decades).

After the tragedy, Reagan reiterated that NASA’s safety should receive the utmost priority, as the opinion of “the American public, [was] already questioning the cost of manned space flight, [and] now also expressed concern for the risk involved” (Weathers). The pressure that society placed upon NASA urged the need for reform, slowing down the agency’s recovery (American Decades). A large majority of Americans were negatively influenced by the accident, and this highlighted the way administration was at odds with public opinion while trying to regain support nationwide.

The explosion began to unveil issues revealing the instability of the space program, from temporary setbacks to NASA becoming an illegitimate entity. On a good note, the problems served as a model for the necessary reforms made to improve these agencies and avoid similar occurrences in the future. Space Shuttle flight was revolutionary, but the “challenger explosion, however, [had] has grounded virtually the entire U.S. space program. Almost all missions planned for this year or next—such as communications, weather, surveillance for arms control, probes to other planets—were designed to be launched from the Shuttle” (Introduction).

As an example, one of the many major programs halted by the Challenger explosion was the Galileo orbiter, which was to be sent to investigate Jupiter’s atmosphere (J. Eberhart). On the other hand, delays and schedule cancelations were the least of NASA’s worries, as the fallout of the disaster could discredit and delegitimize the administration. The space agency made an effort to avoid this downfall, as “the communication task of NASA, industry officials and the Presidential Commission was to negotiate the allocation of blame and punishment in the climate of tragic loss and to reaffirm NASA's credibility as an institution of serving national policy support.” (Browning).

How Did NASA Respond?

NASA formulated a plan to accuse workers of a lower tier of working status within NASA, as opposed to the individuals who headed the responsibilities and represented the face of the agency, in order to retain the label of a viable agency. The plan allowed NASA to fly under the weather in terms of avoiding blame for the incident, and “will build the case that NASA and space industry officials before the accident, and the Presidential Commission after the accident, jointly reaffirmed the integrity of NASA by separating the core of high level decision makers in NASA from the causal chain of responsibility for the accident” (Browning).

Before the incident, NASA’s rushed agenda was becoming problematic, as workers began overlooking and missing the present technical problems. The position this accident placed the agency in brought officials to realize that to avoid future scenarios that might place the administration at risk, the agency would have to drastically change.

The permanent alterations constructed because of the disaster had allowed for NASA’s survival ever since. At the time, the military was closely involved with space agencies because of their work on the frontier of space, where the shuttles would conduct experiments for the Strategic Defense Initiative to protect the United States (Church).

This partnership stresses the importance of NASA for national interests: “Any substantial delay in shuttle flights will almost certainly push back the day when a U.S. space station is orbiting the earth. Delay could cause the most grief to the shuttle's biggest customer: the Pentagon” (Church). This exhibits the shift from NASA’s close relationship with the military, most likely due to tensions with the Soviet Union at the time, toward the later interest it sparked in the private sector.

The relations between space programs and the military began to fade over time, as the government began questioning: “Would Congress put up the money in an era when the Gramm-Rudman Act dictates severe slashes in many federal spending programs, including the NASA budget? Any request that Congress do so would intensify a debate about the future of the space program” (Church).

Similarly, in other branches of government, some “White House officials were considering setting up an independent group that would also examine the U.S. role in space” (Church). From this statement, it became increasingly apparent that the government started to veer away from their antiquated yet ambitious space programs and toward a new image of the agency. Also, it highlights how the fate of NASA lies in the hands of the U.S. Government, as they dictate NASA’s federal budget and influence the spending of their funds.

According to experts, if NASA wanted to continue an aggressive agenda, it “will have to procure the necessary systems at lower cost and more quickly than it has in the past," but “it will also need to reduce operating and procurement costs of existing NASA programs” (Crane). These changes tried to accommodate the delayed projects and ambitions, but due to the reduced budgets, the administration would remain limited in future space-related activities.

The fallout of the Challenger accident dealt a considerable amount of damage to NASA, ultimately leaving the space agency with a more reserved approach to space exploration. Emphasizing the imbalance between their aims and abilities, NASA’s space “shuttle is generally regarded as a dazzling technological achievement, critics have long complained that NASA let it become an obsession that swallowed too large a share of the scarce space dollars” (Church). Mimicking the prideful and aggressive ego of the United States, this statement resembles how the outdated space program attempted more feats than were manageable.

NASA had been tackling major feats for 33 strong years, but the Challenger explosion changed all that in an instant, nearly trashing their reputation and putting NASA on the chopping block with an uncertain future. Although it was not the first problem NASA had faced having to do with technical failures (Apollo 11), this incident especially triggered the changes that led to the NASA society would recognize today.

What's Next for Space Exploration?

After analyzing the fallout of NASA and comparing the type of programs to those of today, it can be deduced that NASA’s less aggressive plans have influenced private companies, with money at their disposal and with fewer restrictions, to pursue the space industry alongside NASA. With reductions to NASA’s federal budget over the years, recent technological advancements in the private space sector have begun a new type of space race to Mars and beyond headed by corporations such as SpaceX and Virgin Galactic. The Challenger explosion ultimately brought to light the advantages of privatizing space travel. While it closed some doors of opportunity on NASA, it opened others to private investors and dreamers.

Works Cited

  • Browning, Larry D. “Interpreting the Challenger Disaster: Communication under Conditions of Risk and Liability.” Industrial Crisis Quarterly, vol. 2, no. 3/4, 1988, pp. 211–227. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/26162761. Accessed 27 Apr. 2020.
  • Church, George J., and Jay Branegan. “PUTTING THE FUTURE ON HOLD The CHALLENGER Explosion Will Set Back the Entire Space Program.” TIME Magazine, vol. 127, no. 6, Feb. 1986, p. 38. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=cookie,ip,cpid&custid=s6222685&db=aph&AN=57886569&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
  • Crane, Keith W., et al. Challenges in the Space Sector. Institute for Defense Analyses, 2019, pp. 25–34, Assessment of the Utility of a Government Strategic Investment Fund for Space, www.jstor.org/stable/resrep22819.7. Accessed 27 Apr. 2020.
  • “[Introduction].” Issues in Science and Technology, vol. 2, no. 3, 1986, pp. 22–24. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/43308981. Accessed 26 Apr. 2020.
  • J. Eberhart. “Challenger Effects: Galileo Options.” Science News, vol. 129, no. 8, 1986, pp. 119–119. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3970499. Accessed 27 Apr. 2020.
  • "Space Exploration." American Decades, edited by Judith S. Baughman, et al., vol. 9: 1980-1989, Gale, 2001. American Decades, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/CX3468303236/GVRL.americandecades?u=milw99542&sid=GVRL.americandecades&xid=41a47bd9. Accessed 26 Apr. 2020.
  • "Ronald Reagan: Challenger Disaster Speech (1986)." World History: The Modern Era, ABC-CLIO, 2020, worldhistory.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/1758783. Accessed 26 Apr. 2020.
  • Weathers, Lori. "Challenger Explosion." World History: The Modern Era, ABC-CLIO, 2020, worldhistory.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/1758785. Accessed 26 Apr. 2020.

© 2020 Jon Tobon

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