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Soul-Searching, Anguish Grip Space Agency

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By Kevin Klose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 18, 1986

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, long the most exotic and glamorous of federal bureaucracies, is deep in painful soul-searching about how, and why, the 25th launch of a space shuttle ended in fiery death and destruction.

The self-appraisal at NASA has been etched sharply into the national consciousness by the finding of a presidential commission investigating the Challenger explosion that the decision to launch the flight Jan. 28 "may have been flawed."

Tentative and carefully couched, that phrase has raised the most painful and disturbing question of all: Was the disaster a result of blind chance, or could the lives of the seven astronauts have been spared if men and women on the ground had done their jobs better?

The question is made more compelling by the presence aboard Challenger of Christa McAuliffe, 37, the New Hampshire school teacher who would have been the first of what NASA called "citizen passengers" to ride a shuttle.

Last night, a presidential commission member was at Cape Canaveral to investigate reports that unusually low temperatures had been recorded shortly before liftoff on a solid rocket booster thought to be at fault in the explosion.

The sense of anguish is unmistakable at NASA's white marble headquarters at the foot of the Capitol, where black crepe drapes displays of photographs of the crew and Challenger Flight 51L's colorful shoulder-patch emblem.

It was disclosed last week that, for at least three years, some senior NASA managers were troubled that the joints of the shuttle's massive, segmented solid rocket boosters were not being sealed properly on previous flights. Post-flight inspecions had shown that hot exhaust gases could penetrate the joint's rubberlike O-ring sealers, threatening a catastrophic rocket failure.

Since no provision is in place for the crew's escape while the SRBs blaze the craft toward orbit, the sealing problem was extremely grave. Yet, even as they sought a solution, NASA officials stepped up the pace of flights and began suggesting that the shuttle was about to be pronounced fully operational.

A burn-through of the right booster is thought to be the primary cause of the explosion that destroyed Challenger after 73 seconds of flight. Photographs released last week by NASA show a puff of black smoke emerging from the side of the booster at liftoff and, 58 seconds later, a jet of white-hot fire erupting near one of its joints.

The unpleasant implications of this coincidence were strengthened when the booster's manufacturer, Morton Thiokol Inc., reported that the O-ring sealers do not function well in temperatures below the low 40s and said that it initially recommended delaying the Challenger launch because of the unusual cold that morning at Cape Canaveral.

[CBS News, quoting anonymous sources, reported last night that Thiokol engineers, the night before liftoff, were unanimous in emphatically advising NASA not to launch.]

The space agency seems headed for rough moments as the commission, headed by former secretary of state William P. Rogers, probes these questions.


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© 1986 The Washington Post Company

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