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Flashback: Understanding the Challenger space shuttle disaster

On February 2, 1986, just days after the space shuttle Challenger exploded on January 28, 1986, "Face the Nation" spoke with the acting NASA administrator and the brother of one of the pilots on the shuttle, among other guests
Flashback: "Face the Nation" covers the Challenger space shuttle disaster 23:28

Below is a transcript from the Sunday, February 2, 1986 edition of "Face the Nation" hosted by Lesley Stahl. The show was broadcast just days after thespace shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after takeoff on January 28, 1986,killing all seven astronauts and crew members on board.

Guests included Senator Jake Garn (R-Utah), Patrick Smith, Brother of Challenger Pilot Michael J. Smith, Dr. William Graham, Act Administrator of NASA, Space Historian Alex Roland, and Dr. Hans Mark, former Deputy Administrator of NASA.

MS. STAHL: Welcome to FACE THE NATION. I'm Lesley Stahl. There's new evidence that the firery explosion of the space shuttle started with a fuel leak in the booster rocket on Challenger's right side. NASA released this new film footage of the launch, taken from an angle we haven't seen before. It shows that 15 seconds before the explosion an unusual plume or a flame began spewing from the lower portion of that booster, and it grew larger and larger until the main central fuel tank blew up. Why wasn't the plume detected at the time by NASA ground controllers? We'll ask the Acting Head of NASA, Dr. William Graham.

PRESIDENT REAGAN: Sometimes when we reach for the stars we fall short, but we must pick ourselves up again and press on despite the pain.

ASTRONAUT SALLY RIDE: Turn around and take a bow.

MS. STAHL: Should manned flights continue? Should ordinary civilians fly into space? We'll ask Senator Jake Gran of Utah, the former number two man at NASA, Hans Mark, and Shuttle critic, Professor Alex Roland.

COMMANDER MICHAEL SMITH: My primary interest is to make sure that we get up and back safely.

MS. STAHL: We'll talk to the brother of astronaut and shuttle pilot, Michael Smith.

JOHN GLENN (1962 Film Clip): Roger, this is Friendship VII controlling manually on fly-by wire, having no trouble controlling.

NEIL ARMSTRONG (1969 Landing on the Moon): That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.

ASTRONAUT'S VOICE: Is that beautiful or is that not beautiful?

MS. STAHL: America in space, an issue facing the nation.


MS. STAHL: We spoke with the acting head of NASA, Dr. William Graham, this morning about that flame that appeared in the right booster rocket 15 seconds before the shuttle exploded.

DR. GRAHAM: This is the right solid rocket booster. This is a solid propellant engine that's providing about two and a-half million pounds of thrust, along with the engine on this side, another two and a-half million pounds of thrust during the first two minutes of the ascent. We've identified a plume coming out of this area of the right solid rocket booster, and in comparing the photography of this ascent with previous ascents, no such plume has been seen before, and, therefore, we've identified this as an anomalous situation in the launch, and we're looking at it very carefully.

MS. STAHL: When you point over here to where the plume was coming from, was it on one of these seams? Could it have been' some kind of a bolt or a seam that broke loose, or -- or can't you even draw that kind of a conclusion?

DR. GRAHAM: There is what we call a field joint, an assembly point in the solid rocket booster where we join the segments at the Kennedy Launch Center before we assembled the whole stack. The launch joint is right here. The field joint is right in this area just above this stress ring, at which we attach the solid rocket booster to the expendable tank, however, we haven't yet finished the analysis and measurement on the film to identify the exact point at which the plume appeared. So all I can tell you this morning is that it was somewhere in this vicinity.

MS. STAHL: If you had been able to figure out that there was a major problem 15 seconds before, was there any way that this - that the shuttle itself could have separated and flown back to earth on its own?

DR. GRAHAM: Yes, Lesley. We designed the entire system --

MS. STAHL: There is a way?

DR. GRAHAM: -- to be -- yes -- to be what we call failoperate, fail-operate, fail-safe. That means, if some component that we think is a -- has a possible mode of failure, were to fail, everything keeps working normally. If it fails -- another one fails, keeps working normally. Finally it fails in a safe condition, and I'll show you what one of those fail-safe conditions is. If there's a problem with the solids or with the expendable tank at any time in the ascent, the pilot can detach the orbitor from the tank at the three mount points, which are here and two at the base, and roll the orbitor in such a way that he is now able to either return to the launch site at Cape Kennedy, or he's -- if he's higher and at a faster point in the trajectory, he can continue on to Europe and land at one of our -- what we call our AL sites, our trans Atlantic landing sites.

MS. STAHL: At 10 miles up where they were?


MS. STAHL: And if they had been able to separate --


MS. STAHL: -- what could they have done?

DR. GRAHAM: If they had been able to detach and had any warning, which is -- which there's no indication they had, but if they had had any warning, the normal safety plan would have been to detach at the mount points and return as an unpowered glider to the landing site at the Cape, at Cape Kennedy.

MS. STAHL: How -- if they were pointing upward, how could they have acted as a glider?

DR. GRAHAM: Well, remember, the orbitor is designed to enter the atmosphere at a seed 10 times the speed of a rifle bullet. It's designed to maneuver at-very, very high speeds, and at that speed they would have used the aerodynamic surfaces to control it into a maneuver and, remember, we had very skilled test pilots piloting this mission, and they would have come out to a flat attitude and then returned to the landing site.

MS. STAHL: Can you just give us a succinct explanation of how it was possible that no one picked up this plume, how -- how that was possible?

DR. GRAHAM: Well, we did pick up the volume. We picked it up from our north range tracking camera.

MS. STAHL: But after -- well after the fact; correct?

DR. GRAHAM: Correct. Exactly.

MS. STAHL: Days after the fact.

DR. GRAHAM: And the reason that it was after the fact and not at real time was that these very heavy, steel casings that :constitute the structure of these solid rocket boosters are some of the sturdiest parts of the entire shuttle system, were considered primary structure and not susceptible to failure. Of course we designed them that way. It wasn't just -- just a chance that they're not susceptible, or we thought them not susceptible, but they were designed with great care and great thought, and everything that we could do to keep them from having any -- excuse me -- any failure modes.

MS. STAHL: Because of the possibility that it happened along a seam though, why were no sensors -- obviously there were no sensors -- attached to any part of that? Wouldn't -- wouldn't it have been logical since these things are bolted on and seamed on to --

DR. GRAHAM: Well, it didn't necessarily happen along the seam. It did appear to happen at least near a seam. In fact, when we assemble the stack, the solid rocket booster segments, of which there are four major ones and then a top and bottom section, we do extensive testing of that joint. We do it in the assembly process and in the check-out process, but we don't check it constantly in flight because it's so primary to the entire mission and in the structure that we have to -- have to have as much confidence as we can possibly engineer into it that it is going to work once it's been checked out.

MS. STAHL: Do you have any regrets about that?

DR. GRAHAM: The -- the astronauts are some of the finest people you'll ever meet, and they're family to all of us. It's been a very tragic situation for us, but we're going to honor their memory by continuing the program, working night and day until we find out what the cause was, correct it and then go on, and as the President has said, our hopes and our journeys don't end here. We're going to continue the space program.

MS. STAHL: Dr. William Graham, the Acting Chief of NASA. We'll be back.


MS. STAHL: Joining us now, Dr. Hans Mark, former Deputy Administrator of NASA, now Chancelor of the University of Texas; Senator Jake Garn of Utah, who was a passenger aboard a shuttle mission last year; and Alex Roland, former NASA historian, now a professor at Duke University. Gentlemen, you heard Dr. Graham tell us that one reason that they did not have any sensors on that right rocket was because they considered that whole part of the space shuttle not susceptible to failure, and yet there have been problems over the years with the rocket boosters. There was a nozzle problem, as I've been told, in 1983. In 1985 apparently workers were using faulty equipment on the rocket. Dr. Mark, you were at NASA during this period. Why are -- why is he saying that they considered this all but fail-safe?

DR. MARK: Well, he did not use the word fail-safe, which is a technical term for -- for this. He said the whole system has a failure mode --

MS. STAHL: Well, he said that rocket was not susceptible to failure.

DR. MARK: No, he -- he said it was highly reliable, which it is. The history of this rocket is that it was developed in the early 1960s for the Titan launch vehicle. We had one failure on the ground, and then we've had -- we've tightened, oh, probably 50 or 60 successful flights with never a failure. The only difference is that the Titan solid is 10 feet in diameter and this one was 12. So, it's - and it's the same -- same seal, if that's where the problem is. It is a highly reliable system. You talked about problems with the nozzle that we had in -- back in 1983. That is a different place.- The nozzle is -- is down here at the -- at the end of the rocket and not in the casing, and the problems we had essentially had to do with -- with -- with striations on the inside of that nozzle that looked at little bit abnormal, and so we went into it in great detail, discovered why it happened and fixed it, but it's -- I can say categorically that that nozzle problem had absolutely nothing to do with this accident.

MS. STAHL: Senator Garn, does it bother you at all, Senator, and someone who went up on the mission, that perhaps they were a little over confident about some part of this system and --

SENATOR GARN: No, I don't think they were over confident about this or any other part of the system. NASA's primary concern has always been with safety. That is one of the reasons that we have not met the schedule that they have talked about, and NASA has been criticized. They were criticized with the mission in December. They were criticized just last Sunday because they canceled 12 hours in advance on a weather forecast. So, if anything, in my opinion, they have been overly conservative.

MS. STAHL: Even though we now know that there was a problem 15 seconds ahead of time that you can see on a tape, but never -- there was no sense at all to anybody at that point --

SENATOR GARN: Well, again, as Dr. Mark said, when you have had so many successful launches with this particular rocket booster, it's been incredibly reliable. You've had 48 of them, two on each of the 24 missions, work absolutely perfectly.

DR. MARK: And the Titan experience, both -- both of them.

MS. STAHL: Professor Roland, I can see that you have a different response here?

PROFESSOR ROLAND: No, not really. I'm a critic of manned space flight in general, and the shuttle in particular, but I have no criticisms at this juncture of NASA. I share the impression of Senator Garn and Dr. Mark, that NASA's record in manned space flight safety has been just remarkable, and I'm inclined at this juncture to let them just conduct their investigation.

MS. STAHL: Let me ask you about another thing Dr. Graham talked about, which is the possibility that had they detected something that the shuttle could have been detached, and they could have found a way to fly home.

DR. MARK: That is a -- there are abort modes that we have in the system. The first one is a return to launch site, which is what Dr. Graham was talking about. The second is a transatlantic abort, where we land in Africa or Europe, and the third is an abort to orbit, and we go once around and then land. This would have been a - a return to launch site, and what would happen is that the two solids would be separated. The tank would be kept on for a little bit to keep the propulsion going for the turn around, and then the vehicle would glide back.

MS. STAHL: In this particular case with maybe 15 seconds --

DR. MARK: Well, I don't know exactly when -- when the return -- I don't remember exactly when the return to launch site abort starts, but my guess is around -- around this point.


MS. STAHL: Senator.

SENATOR GARN: Lesley, there are very tight timeframes, when you consider Cosetsolid rocket boosters only burn for two minutes, and at that point you'd be 25 miles down range, 160,000 feet up and five and a-half times the speed of sound, and so you're less than -- or a little more than half of that. The possibility of exercising an RTLS, a return to launch site, is possible, but at that point, at that critical point I would say it would be very difficult to have performed, whether they had had notice or not, and the possibility of going all the way across the Atlantic, that early in the flight of having a failure, I would say would not be possible.

DR. MARK: That's right. That's impossible.

MS. STAHL: Did NASA tell Congress anything that they're not telling the public? I know there was a briefing for Congress, Senator, yesterday.

SENATOR GARN: No. No. We -- they have released what we know. I have seen the same films that been released to the public.

MS. STAHL: Do you, any of you, feel that what -- from what we know as of this morning that we should absolutely stood manned flights until all of the things that we're talking about are -- are absolutely fail-safe, or do you think that we should go ahead, knowing that these kinds of unforeseeable accidents should continue? Senator?

SENATOR GARN: Lesley, we have to continue. You will never make space flight fail-safe, any more than you have made automobile travel fail-safe. We must continue with manned space flight.

MS. STAHL: Alex Roland.

PROFESSOR ROLAND: I agree that we have to continue, and a single accident, especially in the light of NASA's remarkable safety record, should not deflect us per se from the manned space flight program. My only argument is that we should not fly people in space unless it's necessary because space flight is always going to be dangerous. A certain number of accidents are bound to happen from time to time.

MS. STAHL: And what about civilians? What about people who -- who have not made this their life's work?

DR. MARK: Well, you know, I was in on the design of the shuttle 15 years ago when we first conceived the whole vehible that you see before you, and the thing we had in mind from the very beginning was to design a spaceship that could handle ordinary people. We felt that unless space flight became something that ordinary people could eventually do, there was no meaning to it, and so the vehicle was designed with low acceleration, and with a cabin atmosphere equal to the atmosphere in this room.

MS. STAHL: The question is, are we ready? The question -- doesn't this show that this is still experimental and that it -- it's --

SENATOR GARN: Lesley, Christa was well enough qualified and did a good enough job at NASA to have been a full time astronaut. She was a volunteer. She sought it out of 11,000 people. She was carefully selected, and let me tell you one more thing. Mission specialists, most of them were civilians. On my flight Dr. Ray Seddon a medical doctor, a surgeon who went to work for NASA. Dr. Jeffrey Hoffman, an astronomer who wanted to be an astronaut. So most of the mission specialists are civilians.

MS. STAHL: What did they tell you about the self-destruct mechanism and when it might be used, and -- and -- tell us about that and what you thought about that?

SENATOR GARN: Lesley, we had complete training all the way through. You rehearse every phase of that launch in little bit pieces. You rehearse every possible failure over and over again, and you have long sims that last two days where you live in the simulator, even eat, sleep in the simulator. So every crew --

MS. STAHL: What about that self-destruct --

SENATOR GARN: -- every crew member is totally informed about every phase of flight. You're taught about the RTLS s, the TAL sites, the destruct mechanisms.

MS. STAHL: What was going through your mind at that point, about a minute fifteen. Do you remember?

SENATOR GARN: Absolute sheer excitement. We launched only 55 seconds left in our launch window. "Charlie Walker and I were sitting next to each other clapping, cheering, because we didn't think we were going to go. That crew was so excited at that point about just in another minute they were going to be in orbit.

PROFESSOR ROLAND: Lesley, I'd like to say that I don't think the issue is whether it's civilians or-NASA employees or military people. If the crew has something worthwhile to do in space, they should go. If not, they shouldn't, and the issue isn't civilian or military.

MS. STAHL: Well, do you think -- how -- what percentage of these flights involve functions that are important to the United States, or to science, or to medicine, that could be done without human beings?

PROFESSOR ROLAND: I think a large proportion. In fact, the larger proportion, and what we've done, unfortunately, with the shuttle program is insist that every space craft we put up have a crew aboard.

MS. STAHL: Well, do you agree with that, that most of what is being done up there could be done by robots and by other means?

DR. MARK: Lesley, I can't agree with that. I've -- I have flown, in my experience, for 30 years now, 25 years unmanned payloads, manned payloads. I've seen all these experiments. There is no question that there is no substitute for human judgment and human imagination on the spot.

MS. STAHL: But what about the things that they're doing up there, you know? What about launching satellites? Robots could do that; right?

DR. MARK: Sometimes and sometimes not. It depends on the satellite that you're launching. It depends on what you want it to do.

SENATOR GARN: There is no doubt, Lesley, there's a balance between man and unmanned. Both aspects are required. Man can do some things better than robots. Robots can do some things better than man.

MS. STAHL: Gentlemen, we are fast running out of time, but I did want to ask Senator Garn if he's thought about why it is that the whole country seems to have reacted with such a sense of sadness over this.

SENATOR GARN: Americans have always identified with adventure, with frontiers, with exploration, with people who climb mountains like Everest, and this really is the last frontier for America, and our future is in snace. As we look at the world problems, its social problems, all of the difficulties we deal with, there are answers out there in space that will benefit every one of God's children on the face of this earth.

MS. STAHL: Senator Garn, gentlemen, thank you very much. We will be back with more.


MS. STAHL: Shuttle pilot Michael Smith had wanted to be an astronaut since he was 16 years old. A highly decorated Navy pilot, he loved to fly. I asked his younger brother Pat if they had ever talked about the risks of the job.

MR. SMITH: All military pilots don't consider themselves risk takers. They learn their job and they know that their job is a dangerous job, but they look at it from the standpoint of -- of a job, not as a -- as a matter of taking risk. Every military pilot that I know of has lost a good friend in -- in the flying capacity, so that everyone is aware of the risk, but you don't dwell on it. I asked him one time, I said, "How do you get out of this thing in the event that we have a problem?" He said, "Well, you fly back to the -- to the earth," and that was the last time we discussed it.

MS. STAHL: Now, what about all this talk that there shouldn't be any more manned flights, that they should just be unmanned and let robots do all the work?

MR. SMITH: The manned space program has a very definite place in -- in the -- in the future of this country, and I believe it will go on, and I believe the majority of the -- of the American people realize that it will. I was asked if it was worth seven lives, and I said, "That's a hard question for me to answer because one of the lives was somebody so very dear to me," but I believe the country needs the manned space program.

MS. STAHL: You haven't had any second thoughts about that? I know that NASA obviously is saying this, and the President is saying this, but you're in a different place and a different position. You're not part of that.

MR. SMITH: No, I'm not.

MS. STAHL: And so I -- I ask you again, no second thoughts?

MR. SMITH: No second thoughts. I'm going to miss the heck out of him. I loved him dearly, but no second thoughts.

MS. STAHL: You know, the whole country is shaken by this. Everybody seems to have taken this more profoundly than almost any other disaster or catastrophe since John Kennedy was assassinated, and I wonder if -- if you've been thinking about that and -- and you can give us your own explanation for why we've all taken this so hard?

MR. SMITH: Back when the space shuttle program first started it was really something that caught the attention of the American people. It was man flying into space and flying back. It was Star 15 Trek. It was something that -- that really gathered our fancy, and then, of course, the tremendous media coverage on -- on Christa has led into some of this, plus the fact that the horror of what happened Tuesday being seen on the television screens all over the United States, and then I think such things as -- as the cameras focusing in on -- on the President and then some of the families yesterday. The American people really -- really love this program, and I think they've finally begun to realize that these people at NASA, especially these astronauts, really love America, and it's been a reciprocal thing.

MS. STAHL: When you get together with Jane and the children and your larger family, what are you all talking? What are you saying to each other?

MR. SMITH: Well, we just -- when we first got together, the -- the two brothers and my sister and Jane's family, we just thought, well, you know, we're never going to be together like -- like we have been again. There's -- there's one missing, and then as time wears on we just think about it's going to be just a tremendous, a tremendous loss. I don't think we, any of us, have realized it. He's not going to walk back through the door again. But then again, we're looking ahead, and we're directing our efforts towards the space program and -- and all of us are very positive about it, and then we're -- we're directing our efforts towards making sure that people know Mike would want the space program to go ahead.

MS. STAHL: Pat Smith. I'm Lesley Stahl. Thank you for joining us.

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