Voyage Into History
Chapter Seven: The First Month
By William Harwood
"In recent days, the Commission has been investigating all aspects of the decision-making process leading up to the launch of the Challenger and has found that the process may have been flawed. Dr. William Graham, Acting Administrator of NASA, has been asked not to include on the internal investigating teams at NASA, persons involved in that process." - The Rogers Commission
"I made the direct statement that if anything happened to this launch, I told them I sure wouldn't want to be the person that had to stand in front of a board of inquiry to explain why we launched this outside of the qualification of the solid rocket motor or any shuttle system." - Alan McDonald, Morton Thiokol Inc. engineer
NASA struggled to mount a quick response to Challenger's destruction. At 11:40 a.m., less than two minutes after the conflagration, the booster recovery ships Freedom Star and Liberty Star were ordered into the impact area. Those on board were unable to witness the shuttle explosion because of cloud cover, but on the way to the impact zone several pieces of floating debris were picked up. About a half hour after the accident, the Joint Chiefs of Staff were notified and the search and salvage operation was underway.
The Coast Guard was called in to coordinate the early phases of the work, primarily in a bid to recover surface debris, with the help of the Department of Defense Manager for Space Shuttle Support (DDMS) and the Eastern Space and Missile Center at nearby Patrick Air Force Base. Three Coast Guard cutters were en route to the area by that afternoon.
Within minutes of the explosion, the associate administrator for space flight ordered all data about the blastoff impounded for analysis. Within the hour, a meeting was held to assemble an investigative panel to probe the incident. Moore selected Kennedy Space Center Director Richard Smith; William Lucas, director of the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.; Arnold Aldrich, manager of the shuttle program at the Johnson Space Center; James Harrington, director of the shuttle Spacelab program; and Walter Williams, a NASA consultant.
The creation of the panel was merely an interim step to assure control before acting Administrator Graham named a formal mishap investigation board to take over the probe into the disaster.
Viewing videotapes of Challenger's launch, Moore and company initially thought the external fuel tank had detonated but they were at a complete loss as to what might have caused it. In the meantime, the panel had to gear up to brief Vice President Bush, who had been dispatched to the space center to bear the president's condolences to the astronauts' families and to the bereaved launch team.
Before the day was out, the panel had started building a management structure that would grow to include more than 600 people. The overall work of the panel ultimately fell under the umbrella title of the "51-L Interim Mishap Review Board," set up by Graham.
The search for Challenger's wreckage, meanwhile, quickly developed into the largest underwater search and salvage operation since a massive effort to remove mines from European harbors after World War II. NASA spent some $22 million on the shuttle salvage operation alone, utilizing Coast Guard crews, Navy specialists, contract divers, unmanned submersibles and research subs to pinpoint and recover significant debris from the murky seabed, absolutely crucial to space agency engineers who needed the shuttle hardware to confirm theories about what went wrong.
In all, more than 500 divers, crew members and support personnel were involved in the salvage operation along with 10 surface ships and five submersibles, three of them manned. In the weeks after the explosion, NASA engineers examined some 13 million frames from 108 film and 69 television cameras used to document Challenger's launch to glean insights into possible failure scenarios. As of May 1, 1986, the salvage operation had covered 474 square miles in painstaking detail. Some 691 sonar contacts were charted on the debris-littered seabed of which 493 were examined by divers or submarines. Of that total, 82 turned out to be shuttle pieces and 64 were recovered. Ultimately, about 35 percent of the shuttle was returned to shore for analysis.
But the search operation started slowly and throughout was hampered by bad weather, swift Gulf Stream currents on the sea floor and poor visibility underwater. Partly because of NASA's self-imposed news blackout, the salvage operation generated widespread interest and hundreds of reporters and photographers at one time or another camped out on the banks of the Port Canaveral channel in Jetty Park, a county campground that took on a carnival atmosphere, to catch a glimpse of any wreckage that had been found.
High-powered radio gear was used to keep tabs on the salvage operation at sea. CBS television even brought in special cameras developed for Israeli military forces to film in near total darkness. When ships would glide into port bearing wreckage, crowds of campers would gather around to peer into the cameras, drink beer and quiz reporters on the latest speculation. Collectively, the news crews called themselves the Jetty Rats.
On shore, the investigation was making surprisingly swift progress. The day after the explosion, George Hardy, deputy director of science and engineering at the Marshall Space Flight Center, told the 51-L Interim Mishap Review Board that preliminary analysis of telemetry beamed down from Challenger indicated the right-hand booster's thrust began dropping about 60 seconds after launch and that just prior to the explosion, the rocket was producing 85,000 pounds less push than its counterpart. In addition, Hardy said the booster's steering system had ordered the nozzle to swivel up to 2 degrees in a futile bid to correct the unbalanced thrust.
Another expert said that 1.25 seconds before loss of data, the right-side booster's gyro package, which tells the onboard computers what the rocket's orientation is, showed the booster was moving relative to the rest of the shuttle with its nose heading toward the external tank. This implied that the base of the booster had ripped away from the external tank. Adding fuel to the fire, analysis of 16 mm tracking film showed a plume of flame originating near the booster's aft fuel joint beginning at about 60 seconds after launch. Thus by the end of the second day, NASA managers had a good idea they were dealing with a booster failure, although they did not know whether the failure was triggered by some other malfunction.
No word of the revelations was passed on to the media.
Indeed, the next day, Jan. 30, NASA Public Affairs officers were ordered to draw up a set of guidelines to govern release of information according to the Interim Mishap Review Board's wishes. Later that afternoon, as board members were preparing to fly to Houston for the memorial service with President Reagan, two FBI agents briefed the panel on how the astronaut remains might be analyzed. This apparently came after Coast Guard crews recovered the blasted remains of four astronaut flight helmets, which were turned over to the FBI on Feb. 2 for analysis. It was clear at least some of the shuttle fliers had been decapitated and sources said later the torsos of two astronauts, Resnik and McNair, had been found floating amid shuttle wreckage during the first week of the salvage operation. This information could not be confirmed through any official channel.
Even though NASA refused comment on what might have caused the disaster, Jay Barbree of NBC News was hot on the trail and that night, on NBC's Nightly News, he quoted sources who said film indicated a rupture at or near the shuttle's right-hand aft booster field joint triggered the disaster. On Saturday, The New York Times fanned the fire, publishing a front page story that reported chamber pressure in the right-side booster suddenly dropped prior to loss of data, indicating a possible burn through.
Despite the memorial service in Houston, the board continued its around-the-clock work. Graham viewed 70 mm tracking camera film that showed the crew module flying free of the fuel tank explosion. Stills from the film were not released until two months later. But in a more significant finding, analysis of launch pad film showed a strange puff of black smoke emerging from between the right-hand SRB and the external fuel tank, clearly a sign that something had gone wrong at the moment of solid rocket ignition. Ironically, a camera that would have shown the precise origin of the smoke had failed to operate because of the sub-freezing temperature preceding launch.
The same day, the Coast Guard cutter Dallas returned to Port Canaveral bearing large pieces of Challenger's fuselage, including a jagged chunk of the shuttle's outer skin that was just a few feet from McAuliffe's seat on the doomed spaceship, an emergency "rescue" sign still poignantly visible on its pitted surface. For one time only, NASA provided videotape of the debris within an hour of its arrival at an off-limits Navy submarine dock. The wreckage was found the day before floating 90 miles from Cape Canaveral and it provided gut-wrenching proof of Challenger's destruction. The recovery was made the same day McAuliffe had planned to conduct her lessons from space.
Also found on Thursday was a burned bone and tissue fragment that had washed up on the beach at Indialantic, Fla., about 30 miles south of the shuttleport. Police officer Steven Oakes said the fragment was attached "to a piece of a sock," but it was never revealed if the tissue was human or from one of Challenger's crew members as NASA maintained strict secrecy about the fate of the astronauts, despite increasingly hostile criticism in the media. On Feb. 7, however, NASA issued a "response to query" that said "no identifiable human remains have been recovered."
On Saturday, Feb. 1, the same day The New York Times reported the booster pressure discrepancy, the 51-L Interim Mishap Review Board released a short segment of tracking camera film that showed the "unusual plume" on the side of the suspect SRB. But NASA public affairs officers were not allowed to speculate in any manner on what may have caused the obvious jet of flame. Reporters were becoming openly antagonistic over NASA's policy. For example, Public Affairs officers were not allowed to use the word "flame" to describe the film, even though flame was clearly present. They were only allowed to say what appeared to be an "anomalous plume" was present.
Salvage crews had four priorities: recovery of wreckage from the right-side booster; recovery of debris from its counterpart; recovery of crew cabin wreckage and recovery of TDRS debris to ensure classified encryption circuits never fell into the wrong hands.
Rumors about recovery of astronaut remains were the No. 1 topic of debate among reporters and lower-level NASA and contractor employees who were not reticent about passing them on. Sources said robot cameras had photographed Smith and Scobee strapped in their flight seats in the remains of the shuttle's crew cabin; that one of the flight helmets recovered had "human tissue and hair" stuck to the inside; that the contents of McAuliffe's locker were recovered along with her Teacher in Space experiments; that Resnik's makeup kit was found; that the crew cabin had ruptured in flight and the astronauts were strewn across the seabed. None of the rumors about the astronauts' bodies made it into print or on the air except in the most qualified of terms.
Within two days of the explosion, 26 Coast Guard ships and aircraft had fanned out to scour a 8,000-square-mile area. The day after the accident some 1,600 pounds of wreckage was recovered, including electrical controls and personal effects of the astronauts. But on Jan. 30, the NASA accident review board convened and decided to block release of any information about the crew. Coast Guard Adm. R. Cueroni agreed to "control data regarding personnel remains and personal effects," according to NASA's internal history of the investigation.
The pace of the investigation continued unabated through the weekend after the accident amid rumors from Washington that President Reagan was preparing to name a presidential commission to take over the accident probe, thus avoiding a possible conflict of interest within NASA.
On Feb. 2, the 51-L Interim Mishap Review Board met at the Marshall Space Flight Center and reviewed more film of the launching. The data indicated the strange plume of flame appeared "at or near" the aft field joint of the right SRB and that liquid hydrogen propellant escaped from the external fuel tank prior to the shuttle's breakup. Knowing what to look for later, the tank rupture was clearly visible on NASA's launch-day video as a sudden gush of white fuel streaming away from the base of the external tank. But reporters did not know how to interpret the images and NASA was not talking.
Telemetry data showed that at about 67 seconds after launch, pressure in the liquid hydrogen tank started falling sharply, forcing automatic pressurization systems to attempt to make up the loss. Almost simultaneously, the liquid oxygen tank started losing pressure and engineers speculated the 17-inch-wide liquid oxygen feedline had separated causing a massive leak.
Telemetry data also showed that all three main engines began experiencing sharp fuel pressure drops around 72 seconds after launch and videotapes showed what appeared to be Challenger's nose section igniting after the initial fireball, possibly because forward reaction control system maneuvering fuel had detonated or leaked and ignited in the air. The evidence for an SRB rupture was quickly mounting in the media but publicly, NASA had little or nothing to say despite intense pressure from a throng of reporters.
On Feb. 3, President Reagan signed Executive Order 12546, establishing the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident. The blue-ribbon panel was charged with reviewing the events leading up to and surrounding Challenger's launch and to establish the probable cause of the disaster. The panel was given 120 days to reach its conclusions.
Named to lead the commission was William Rogers, former Secretary of State under President Richard Nixon. An attorney general in the Eisenhower administration, Rogers' government career was respected but not distinguished and he was eclipsed during the Nixon years by national security advisor Henry Kissinger. But Rogers brought to the commission a thorough working knowledge of government that served in good stead blunting clamors from Congress for separate investigations that inevitably would have diluted the accident review. Indeed, his work on the commission probably ranks as his highest achievement in government service.
The other members of the commission were equally distinguished, representing a broad range of talent and professional experience.
Two members of the panel were astronauts. Neil Armstrong, a veteran of two space flights and the first man to walk on the moon, served as vice chairman of the commission. An engineer by training, Armstrong was able to use his background as a NASA astronaut as a valuable tool during the course of the probe. Armstrong's role was complimented by astronaut Sally K. Ride, veteran of two shuttle missions and the first American woman to fly in space. Throughout the commission hearings, Ride asked penetrating questions that were obvious reflections of the concerns of the astronaut office. After all, it was her professional colleagues who perished aboard Challenger.
Another heavy hitter was Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman, fabled for his piercing mind and powers of concentration, who quickly emerged as one of the strongest members of the commission. Too smart to be fooled by even the most obtuse explanations of arcane shuttle systems, Feynman was sharply critical of NASA's SRB risk analysis and even published his own appendix to the commission's final report. In that appendix, he claimed the space agency's management structure had relegated the working engineers, who truly knew the problems and risks associated with the hardware, to the lowest ranks of NASA management while those at the top were more concerned about keeping Congress satisfied with over-optimistic projections on progress.
The other members of the commission were:
-Dr. Albert "Bud" Wheelon, a physicist by training, a member of the president's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board and group president of Hughes Aircraft Co., a major space contractor.
-Robert W. Rummel, formerly vice president of TWA Inc. and president of Robert W. Rummel Associates Inc. of Mesa, Ariz., an aerospace consulting firm.
-Dr. Arthur B.C. Walker Jr., professor of applied physics at Stanford University and a consultant to the Aerospace Corporation and the Rand Corporation.
-Eugene E. Covert, professor of aeronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a consultant to NASA on rocket engine design. Covert played a key role in the development of the shuttle's liquid-fueled main engines.
-Robert B. Hotz, former editor of Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine who previously served as a member of the General Advisory Committee to the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.
-David C. Acheson, a partner in the Washington, D.C., law firm of Drinker, Biddle and Reath and formerly senior vice president and general counsel for Communications Satellite Corp.
-Maj. Gen. Donald J. Kutyna, director of the Air Force Space Systems and Command Control and Communications division. Kutyna also would emerge as a major player on the commission.
-Brig. Gen. Charles "Chuck" Yeager, former experimental test pilot and the first man to break the sound barrier, a feat immortalized in Tom Wolfe's "The Right Stuff." Yeager played only a minor role in the commission's investigation - he attended just one hearing - because of previous commitments.
During the first public hearing held by the commission on Feb. 6, a panel member asked Jesse Moore what the letters "STS" stood for. "STS" is a NASA acronym that stands for "space transportation system," the agency's ubiquitous and preferred name for the shuttle program. The question prompted moans among space reporters and stony silence from NASA engineers in the audience, who perhaps did not take the panel seriously. The real work of the investigation, they knew, would be done by NASA engineers as part of an internal probe.
But the commission members quickly learned the ropes and it was soon clear the panel was a serious entity hell-bent on getting to the root cause of the Challenger disaster. If any NASA engineers failed to take the commission seriously after its first month on the job they were rudely awakened.
The commission members were sworn in and quickly buckled down to work. During the next four months, the panel interviewed more than 160 people and held more than 35 formal investigative sessions, in the process generating almost 12,000 pages of transcripts. Some 6,300 separate documents representing another 122,000 pages also were examined. To accomplish this herculean task, more than 1,300 NASA employees were utilized at one time or another along with more than 3,100 employees of space agency contractors. The work was directed by a team of 15 investigators assembled by Dr. Alton G. Keel Jr., associate director of the Office of Management and Budget, who was appointed executive director of the commission on Feb. 10.
Meanwhile, off the coast of Florida, the shuttle salvage operation had expanded to include 10 Coast Guard and Navy ships and 15 aircraft covering 20,000 square miles of ocean in a bid to recover any wreckage that might still be floating. After 11 days, more than 11 tons of debris had been recovered by 28 ships. By this point in the search operation, some 30,000 square miles had been covered by ships, 60,000 square miles by 13 planes and helicopters that had spent 260 hours in the air.
The search zone at points extended as far north as Charleston, S.C., but on Feb. 4 it was cut back sharply with recovery teams focusing on 17 underwater targets identified by sonar. Despite a flurry of published reports and rumors, there was still no word on Challenger's reinforced crew module or any positive identification of booster fragments. But one of the "debris fields" detected by sonar was thought to include pieces of the right-hand solid rocket, by this point widely acknowledged to be the cause of the disaster.
On the news front, The New York Times ran a story Feb. 5 that linked the presumed booster failure with cold temperatures. Two days later, NASA would tell the Rogers Commission temperature was not thought to be a factor in the accident.
In the meantime, salvage crews located what appeared to be the remains of the Inertial Upper Stage booster of the TDRS satellite, which had been blown out of Challenger's cargo hold when the shuttle broke up. On Feb. 7, the search for surface debris was called off, the day after the Navy salvage vessel USS Preserver pulled into Port Canaveral to spearhead the underwater salvage operation. The next day, Feb. 8, the Preserver, with 22 divers aboard, located wreckage of what turned out to be the Inertial Upper Stage booster. Remains of the TDRS satellite itself, however, eluded detection.
That same day, the Rogers commission held a closed hearing in Washington. Stanley Klein, director of the FBI's counter terrorism effort in the United States and abroad, briefed the panel members on the status of various terrorist organizations around the world and he also supplied some grisly evidence about the fate of the astronauts.
"I have been working with NASA since the explosion by offering FBI laboratory services to NASA, and we were in receipt of some hairs and fibers on Feb. 2 from NASA that we have examined in the FBI laboratories and the exams have been completed, and we do have human hair, Negro hair, Oriental hair and hair from two different brown-haired Caucasians. And what is interesting, according to the laboratory, is that there were no signs of heat damage to any of the hair, which is surprising. The hair came from face seals, fragments of helmets and helmet liners and headrests."
This information was not revealed to the media until August.
The New York Times scored another coup on Feb. 9 when it reported a long history of prior concern about the solid rocket booster joints based on internal NASA memos leaked to the newspaper by disgruntled employees. The Times said a waiver was signed in December 1982 changing the classification of the booster fuel segment joints from "criticality 1R" to "criticality 1."
Criticality 1 systems are those in which a single failure results in loss of vehicle and crew. A "1R" system means redundancy is available, that is, the system or item in question has a backup in case of failure. According to the "failure effects summary" of the document in question: "Actual Loss - Loss of mission, vehicle, and crew due to metal erosion, burn through, and probable case burst resulting in fire and deflagration." Other memos leaked to the Times showed a clear history of O-ring damage, or erosion, during flight from impingement of hot gas from burning propellant.
The story prompted a request from the Rogers Commission to NASA for all documents relating to the booster joint design and development history. A closed hearing was held Feb. 10 to review the issue, a hearing Keel said later was the turning point in the investigation.
That same day the Times reported the SRB memos, the Navy began using a robot submersible to probe the depths for remains of Challenger's right-side booster, thought to be resting some 40 miles offshore in 1,100 feet of water. In addition, NASA announced the next three shuttle flights had been postponed indefinitely, the first clear sign of the obvious, that NASA was facing a lengthy delay before resumption of shuttle flights.
Throughout the early phases of the search operation, salvage ships carried out a carefully planned exercise to map the seabed in the 330-square-mile primary search area with high-resolution sonar. The resulting data base provided targets for divers and submersibles to investigate. This complex and time-consuming operation was orchestrated by Navy salvage experts led by Capt. Charles "Black Bart" Bartholomew based at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
Bartholomew, the Navy's Supervisor of Salvage, led the effort to recovery hydrogen bombs lost at sea when a B-52 crashed off the coast of Spain. Throughout the recovery operation, Bartholomew would hold court at the Cocoa Beach Holiday Inn jacuzzi late at night, sources said, drinking beer and talking about aspects of the salvage that would have given NASA officials nightmares had they known.
Along with the logistics nightmare imposed by such a widespread search area, the weather refused to cooperate and high seas and wind frequently forced salvage ships to remain in port. But on Feb. 16, the four-man crew of the submersible Johnson-Sea-Link-2 photographed wreckage believed to be from Challenger's right-side booster. Two days later, the NR-1, a small nuclear-powered submarine operated by the Navy, joined the salvage operation and played a key role in examining deep-water debris in the SRB impact zones.
"The recovery of physical evidence from the ocean floor will be a time consuming, laborious and difficult task," said Graham. "This is not a salvage operation in the classic sense, this is an evidence recovery operation and therefore must be handled in a much more precise and careful way."
In Washington, the Rogers Commission met behind closed doors on Monday, Feb. 10, to review the booster joint controversy fanned by The New York Times. It was clear Rogers was displeased that documents and memos about the rocket had been obtained by a newspaper but not provided to the commission by NASA.
"I think it goes without saying that the article in The New York Times and other articles have created an unpleasant, unfortunate situation," he said. "There is no point in dwelling on the past. The important thing is to be sure that the commission has all the appropriate documents and as much as possible we would hope that NASA and NASA's officials will volunteer any information in a frank and forthright manner. We don't want to be in a position that we have to ask for anything in advance."
It was during this hearing that the commission received the first explanation of the Jan. 27 launch debate from Lawrence Mulloy, manager of the solid rocket program at the Marshall Space Flight Center. He said the end result of a teleconference was, "we all concluded that there was no problem with the predicted temperatures for the SRM (solid rocket motor) and I received a document from the solid rocket motor project manager at Thiokol to that effect, that there was no adverse consequences expected due to the temperature on the night of the 27th."
But Alan McDonald, a Morton Thiokol engineer at the Kennedy Space Center, painted a disturbing picture of internal debate and cloudy data. He would later detail the following account:
After Challenger's launch scrub on Jan. 27, NASA managers rescheduled blastoff for 9:38 a.m. EST on Jan. 28. The weather outlook called for clear skies with sub-freezing temperature overnight. That bothered Thiokol engineers, who knew that on the previous record-cold launch Jan. 24, 1985, major O-ring erosion was noted after the shuttle Discovery's boosters were recovered and inspected. Ironically, that was Onizuka's first space flight.
To get to the bottom of the issue, a teleconference was scheduled the night of Jan. 27 to discuss the O-ring concern. At 8:45 p.m., six Thiokol engineers and six NASA managers convened the meeting. Thiokol presented a series of charts outlining a history of previous O-ring erosion and "blow by" for the primary seal. Company data from subscale tests indicated the O-rings lost resiliency in lower temperature, which could interfere with their ability to seat properly during the crucial half-second pressure rise at motor ignition.
Robert K. Lund, vice president of engineering at Thiokol in Brigham City, Utah, ended the presentation with a recommendation to delay the launch until temperatures rose to at least the 53 degrees, matching conditions with Discovery's January 1985 takeoff. Mulloy then asked for a formal recommendation from Joseph Kilminster, vice president of Space Booster Programs with Thiokol's Wasatch Division. Kilminster replied that based on the data in hand, he had no choice but to support the recommendations of the engineers.
In commission testimony, both McDonald and Roger Boisjoly, a Thiokol engineer involved in ongoing studies of seal redesigns, claimed Hardy said he was "appalled" by the company's position. Mulloy challenged Thiokol's recommendation, in effect telling the company to prove it was not safe to launch Challenger. Kilminster then called a recess and after a lengthy debate in which Lund, Boisjoly and Arnold Thompson, supervisor of SRB cases, objected, Kilminster signed a telefax recommending blastoff. At the Kennedy Space Center, McDonald continued to lobby for a launch delay but he was told the decision would stand. Kilminster's telefax arrived at the space center at 11:45 p.m. but shuttle program manager Aldrich, the next link in the launch chain of command, was never informed of the debate. Neither was Jesse Moore.
"Well, I think in view of the very serious nature of this and the fact that it will be scrutinized for years that we should have precisely what the data was before we present it," Rogers said.
The commission, clearly disturbed by these revelations, scheduled two additional hearings to probe the matter further and on Feb. 14, the panel again questioned Mulloy along with top Morton Thiokol officials. Two days later, after digesting the information, Rogers issued a statement that changed the tone of the investigation:
"In recent days, the Commission has been investigating all aspects of the decision-making process leading up to the launch of the Challenger and has found that the process may have been flawed. Dr. William Graham, Acting Administrator of NASA, has been asked not to include on the internal investigating teams at NASA, persons involved in that process."
As the commission's report would later point out, the Rogers statement signified the panel members had become active participants in the investigation instead of mere overseers. The immediate result was the removal of Moore and company from the space agency's internal investigation.
Two days after the commission learned of the launch debate, The New York Times ran a story citing internal NASA documents that clearly raised concern about the effects of cold weather on booster joints and O-ring seals.
After the hearings that revealed the "flawed decision making," the presidential commission organized itself into four investigative panels and began trips to various NASA field centers on fact-finding missions. Meanwhile, the NASA investigative board had been restructured and renamed the 51-l Data and Design Analysis Task Force to support the commission's probe and work continued at a furious pace.
On Feb. 11, Terry Armentrout, an investigator with the National Transportation and Safety Board, told the group that wreckage recovered at sea indicated Challenger did not suffer any form of explosion. Rather, it broke apart under aerodynamic forces as the external tank disintegrated in supersonic flight. At this time, blow-by of the primary and secondary SRB joint O-rings emerged as the prime candidate in the disaster.
On Feb. 17, Feynman visited the Kennedy Space Center to investigate a report in Aviation Week and Space Technology that launch pad engineers had detected abnormally cold temperatures on the right-side booster prior to launch. The case against the booster was heating up.
On Feb. 19, Col. Edward O'Connor, orchestrating the salvage effort for NASA, told reporters that five large debris fields had been identified in the rectangular search zone off the coast of Florida. Videotapes and photographs taken by the crew of the Johnson-Sea-Link-2 were released that showed pieces of the right-hand booster's steering system and a large section of a rocket nozzle with fish swimming lazily nearby. The photographs indicated no large pieces of the 80-ton rocket survived the brutal impact on the ocean. The next day, Rear Adm. Richard Truly, a veteran shuttle astronaut, was named to replace Moore as associate administrator for space flight. Moore continued as director of the Johnson Space Center, a post he was named to before the Challenger disaster.
On Feb. 23-24, large pieces of Challenger's three liquid-fueled main engines were recovered by the crew of the Preserver and later brought to shore and fragments of the shuttle's left-side booster were identified on the seabed. The main engines, minus their nozzles, appeared remarkably intact, though jagged holes in turbopumps gave vivid evidence of the fiery results when one of the powerplants shuts down in an oxygen-rich environment.
At this point in the salvage operation, nine surface ships, two manned submarines and three robot submersibles were still involved. The Johnson-Sea-Link-2 alone cost the Navy, and thus NASA, $12,600 a day to operate and the cost of the overall project was approaching $5 million. Provided by the non-profit Harbor Branch Foundation, the Johnson-Sea-Link-2 was a godsend to Navy salvors because of its ability to move about on the seabed for extended periods bringing a battery of video and still cameras to bear.
The work was slow but steady. In the first week of March, O'Connor said of 227 sonar contacts mapped on the ocean floor since Jan. 28, 17 had turned out to be shuttle components and 25 were unrelated to the accident. The rest had yet to be investigated by divers or submarines, an indication of the painstaking nature of the work. The debris recovered represented only about 10 percent of the shuttle and 8 percent of the external fuel tank. Of the solid-fuel rockets, only fragments of the right-hand booster's aft assembly had been recovered.
"I'd say the biggest piece I have seen is probably 10 feet high and 10 to 12 feet across," Lt. Cmdr. James Holloway, commander of the NR-1, said in an interview. "There've only been a couple of those. Almost all the rest is small. Most of the area I've been operating in, visibility under water has been 15 feet or less so you aren't seeing off a long distance and seeing a great deal underneath you. We generally have been locating pieces by sonar and then easing in on them to within visual range or else we just run along the bottom at an altitude of 10 to 15 feet."
On Feb. 25, the commission held a public hearing in Washington in which McDonald, who had emerged as a media hero, was a star witness. He recounted in vivid detail what transpired during the launch-eve debate and his feelings of dismay when Kilminster agreed to sign the launch recommendation.
"I made the direct statement that if anything happened to this launch, I told them I sure wouldn't want to be the person that had to stand in front of a board of inquiry to explain why we launched this outside of the qualification of the solid rocket motor or any shuttle system," he said.
The same day, NASA Administrator Beggs, under indictment for allegedly defrauding the government while an executive with General Dynamics Corp., resigned his office, ending a five-year stint at the helm of the space agency. The next day, the commission called NASA officials to testify in response to Thiokol testimony on the debate over clearing Challenger for blastoff. The commission was still concerned about the waiver that changed the classification of the booster seals from criticality 1R to criticality 1, an admission that during the pressure transient, the secondary O-ring could not be counted on to provide a redundant backup. So much for the wording of the waiver. Mulloy and his engineers at the Marshall Space Flight Center made a different interpretation, much to the dismay of the Rogers Commission.
"It was our judgment that we were redundant at ignition," Mulloy testified.
Ride was particularly displeased.
"Now, all criticality 1 items are reviewed and signed off all the way up the NASA chain, all the way up to Level 1 (NASA headquarters), and have to be signed off and understood at a very high level," she told Mulloy. "It would concern me, I guess, if I thought that on the day before launch or even the week before launch that engineers were allowed to decide, even based on good engineering data, that well, it was OK to consider that a criticality 1R because we have added up the tolerances and we have done this sort of analysis and so we think that we have a redundant seal during these (first) 160 milliseconds."
Kutyna put it this way: "If this were an airplane, an airliner, and I just had a two-hour argument with Boeing on whether the wing was going to fall off or not, I think I would tell the pilot, at least mention it."
More officials were called to testify the next day about the danger of ice on the launch pad prior to blastoff. Charles Stevenson, leader of the ice inspection team, showed the commission new photographs that showed closeup views of the black smoke that erupted from the booster at ignition. Rogers asked Stevenson if he had any thoughts on what might have caused the smoke.
"Well, our conclusion would be speculation, but if you want that, I will speculate," Stevenson said, prompting laughter.
"Well, go ahead," Rogers replied.
"Engineers don't like to speculate, but based upon our photo data, and we have analyzed all of the photos, we feel that that is a leak. It may or may not be related to temperature, and we feel it is coming out of, the most likely spot is the joint between the aft booster and the aft segment."
It was the first official word from a NASA engineer directly linking the disaster with a booster rupture. As the commission's report would later say, the three days of hearings in Washington served to "focus the commission's attention on a need to document fully the extent of knowledge and awareness about the problems within both Thiokol and NASA."
At the Kennedy Space Center, officials announced 1,000 layoffs based on completion of work and the impact of the Challenger disaster. At that time, the agency announced it expected a minimum 12-month delay before the resumption of shuttle flights. And as the days passed, an increasingly grim picture of mismanagement, slipshod communications and possible negligence was slowly but steadily emerging that would change forever the way NASA conducted its affairs.
Chapter Eight: The Second Month