Disaster Blamed on O-Rings, Pressure to Launch

By Boyce Rensberger and Kathy Sawyer
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 25, 2006

The Challenger accident was caused by the failure of a solid rocket booster joint that NASA and the booster manufacturer had failed to improve despite eight years of warnings that it was dangerous, the presidential commission investigating the disaster said in its final report yesterday.

A major reason for the space agency's failure to heed the warnings, the report says, was pressure to meet an "over-ambitious" schedule of 24 shuttle flights a year by 1990. The pressure caused such extensive disruption that the shuttle program probably would have soon broken down, even in the absence of an accident, it says.

The commission's study goes well beyond the problems with the joints. It found serious flaws in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's overall safety program, its system of checking flight hardware, its crew training, its testing of the orbiter engines, its paper work and its abrupt and disruptive changes in flight payloads to accommodate commercial customers.

In addition, it says spare parts were being cannibalized from one shuttle for another and that program technicians were overworked and fatigued. All these factors compromised flight safety, it says.

The strongly worded report calls for a sweeping overhaul of NASA's management practices. It also urges the creation of several safety review panels within the agency as well as an outside body to ensure that the booster joint is redesigned to meet stringent criteria set out in the report.

And it urges a return to use of the more traditional unmanned expendable rockets for launching payloads, concluding that "reliance on the shuttle" created "a relentless pressure on NASA."

The 256-page report, which includes photographs, charts and diagrams, lays out a highly detailed and richly documented case that the space agency's management practices have failed for years to resolve a variety of safety problems, including the joints.

"I think, in a sense, this is a kind of national tragedy that a lot of us are to blame for," commission Chairman William P. Rogers said at a White House ceremony yesterday when he formally presented the report to President Reagan. "I think, in a sense, the administration, Congress, the press -- all of us were too optimistic, too willing to accept the fact that this [shuttle] is operational. I don't think there's anything to gain by trying to assess blame."

Yet Lawrence B. Mulloy, head of the booster program at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., and the Marshall Center itself figure prominently in the report as the most serious trouble spots. The report says the panel found evidence that some of Mulloy's commission testimony was false. The report says Marshall failed to communicate serious safety problems to NASA headquarters.

Mulloy earlier was transferred from his previous job, a move Rogers referred to yesterday as "constructive."

"NASA's attitude historically has reflected the position that 'we can do anything,' and while that may essentially be true, NASA's optimism must be tempered by the realization that it cannot do everything," the report says.

The destruction of Challenger and its seven-member crew Jan. 28 was an accident that did not have to happen, the report says, citing not only the unheeded warnings but a number of close calls in flight since the second shuttle launch in 1981.

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