Rocket Seals Failed Twelve Times in Past

By Boyce Rensberger and Michael Specter
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, February 10, 1986

Some of the primary rubber seals that protect a space shuttle's booster rockets from burning through the wall -- the kind of problem that apparently doomed Challenger -- have failed at least 12 times on previous missions, current and former NASA officials said yesterday.

In all previous cases, according to the officials, backup seals prevented the boosters' white-hot gases from burning through. Had both rings failed, the earlier shuttle flights could have sustained the kind of booster burn-through that is thought to have led to the explosion that destroyed Challenger Jan. 28.

The seals are 12-foot-diameter rings of synthetic rubber, called O-rings, that encircle each segment of the booster at levels where its segments are joined. Each booster is made up of four fuel-containing cylindrical segments that are stacked so that the lip of one segment slides into a deep groove on the other. Steel retaining pins hold the tongue-and-groove joint together.

Inside each groove are two O-rings that are supposed to seal the gap and prevent the booster's high-pressure exhaust gases from leaking. The first, or primary, O-ring is supposed to be sufficient, but a secondary O-ring, running parallel to the first, is installed as a backup if the first burns through.

Acting NASA administrator William R. Graham said last Sunday that the plume of flame that burst through the wall of Challenger's right-hand booster was at or near the joint between the two lower segments. This is the same joint at which primary O-rings failed on some previous flights.

Concern about the effectiveness of the seals has been growing since last Thursday when a National Aeronautics and Space Administration official told the presidential commission investigating the disaster that on previous shuttle flights, the first O-ring has burned through. After launch, the boosters normally parachute into the ocean to be recovered, inspected and reloaded with fuel for another flight.

"We have seen evidence of what we call blow-by of those seals, some erosion of those seals, the primary seal," said Judson A. Lovingood, deputy manager of shuttle projects at the Marshall Spaceflight Center in Huntsville, Ala., which is responsible for the boosters. "We've never seen any erosion of the secondary seal. We have seen evidence of soot in between the two seals."

Lovingood told the panel, which is chaired by former secretary of state William P. Rogers, that the "anomaly" was "thoroughly worked and that's completely documented on all the investigative work we did on that."

Although Lovingood said, under oath, that no secondary seals were found damaged after a flight, The New York Times reported yesterday that it had obtained a NASA internal memorandum, dated July 23, 1985, saying, "Not only has the first O-ring been destroyed, but the second has been partially eaten away." According to the memo, the joint at which the seals failed was the same one near which space agency officials say the plume emerged during the Challenger launch.

The memo, to Michael B. Mann, head of the shuttle program's resources analysis branch, from Richard C. Cook, his subordinate, warned that "the charring of seals" posed "a potentially major problem affecting both flight safety and program costs."

"There is little question," the Times quoted the memo as saying, "that flight safety has been and is still being compromised by potential failure of the seals and it is acknowledged that failure during launch would certainly be catastrophic."

Mark Weinberg, a spokesman for the Rogers commission, said yesterday that NASA had been asked to produce all internal documents dealing with the seals. Graham, while refusing to comment on the Times report, said the agency would comply and promised the commission "full cooperation from all NASA employes."

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