Why Challenger Was Doomed : The story of the ill-fated space shuttle goes far beyond O-rings, say the officials who were involved. Politics, economics, egos and ambition were also to blame.
On April 7, 1983, the head of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was ushered into the Oval Office. If the U.S. space program had one shortcoming, James Beggs told Ronald Reagan, it was the lack of continuous experience of man in space. The Soviets had stuck with their aging technology but flew astronauts to orbital workshops for missions lasting months, while U.S. astronauts remained grounded waiting for the fledgling space shuttle. The United States, he argued, needed a permanent, orbiting space station.
Beggs wasn’t asking for a courageous commitment; after all, the bulk of
the money would not be needed until after Reagan left office. “He didn’t like to talk about money at all,” Beggs says. “When you got to the point of talking about how much it would cost, he would either turn to (domestic adviser Edwin) Meese or in most cases to (Cabinet Secretary Craig) Fuller and say, ‘Well, let’s work this out with David (Stockman).’ And he’d stop.”
Reagan had trouble with the concepts of the space program, Beggs says. “He was almost technically ignorant. Not quite, but almost. He grasps a few of the broader concepts, but when you start talking in any kind of detail about the broader aspects of the program, his eyes glaze over.”
James Beggs is a very forceful man: tall, immaculate, with a booming voice and an imposing, military bearing. Like NASA administrators before him, he wanted his name attached to a big project. He understood all too well that the space shuttle represented the only power base NASA still had in an Administration that disliked manned spaceflight and seemed determined to turn the space program over to the military. George C. Keyworth, the President’s science adviser and a former weapons designer at Los Alamos, was openly trying to force Beggs to relinquish control of the shuttle to the Air Force, which Keyworth and others thought was better suited for operational responsibilities. Keyworth--a somewhat nervous man who loves slogans and considered himself an important part of Reagan’s White House team--attacked the space station plan as a “motel in the sky for astronauts.”
Beggs was convinced that a successful shuttle would build congressional and public support for the space station. He pressured his managers to make the shuttle a viable commercial rocket system as quickly as possible by vastly expanding its schedule. And he arranged to make a personal pitch to the President--with neither the knowledge nor the approval of Meese or Keyworth.
By the end of the meeting, the President was favorably disposed. And by the end of the year, Beggs was informed that $150 million was included in the fiscal 1985 budget for a space station. In his unpublished memoirs, Beggs’ deputy, Hans Mark, wrote that Beggs “would be remembered . . . as one of the NASA administrators who had succeeded in persuading a President to do something brand new.” But among Administration conservatives, Beggs would be remembered as the man who had humiliated them on the space station. That lingering bitterness would have dramatic consequences for both the shuttle program and for Beggs.
“Of all the organizations that I have dealt with . . . I have only seen one that lied. It was NASA,” science adviser Keyworth says today. “The reason they lie, of course, is because they are wrapped up in a higher calling. In their eyes these are white lies. They tell lies in order to do what has to be done. Because in the end the result will be for the betterment of the public. So they are not lying from evil. But, nevertheless, they are lying.”
AN OLD-LINE REPUBLICAN, BEGGS considered people like Keyworth and other hard-line Administration conservatives “right-wing nuts” who had no influence with the President. It was a crucial mistake.
In the spring of 1983, for instance, interest was building for the first flight of an American woman in space, Dr. Sally Ride, whose parents lived in the Santa Monica Assembly district of liberal Democrat Tom Hayden. Hayden, according to Beggs, called NASA’s Los Angeles office and asked for an invitation to the launch for himself and his wife, actress Jane Fonda. Following its longtime practice for local public officials, NASA sent them one.
“So Fonda and Hayden show up for the Sally Ride launch down at Kennedy (Space Center in Florida),” Beggs says. “And of course, as you would expect, the press swarmed around Fonda like bees do around honey.” The Washington Post gave favorable coverage to Fonda’s visit, and Beggs heard about it quickly.
“(Michael) Deaver called me the next day and said, ‘What the hell was Jane Fonda doing there? Nancy Reagan is mad and I am mad and everybody is mad,’ ” Beggs remembers. Deaver, the deputy White House chief of staff, later demanded that Beggs fire Brian Duff, a NASA public relations man who was at the event. Beggs, furious, managed to get Duff a similar job at the National Air and Space Museum. “Mary and I were invited to the White House several times before the Fonda incident,” he says, “and never afterward.”
To Beggs, the Fonda incident was a minor irritant. To Keyworth and others it was the chink in his armor that allowed them to push the effort to get rid of him. So when Beggs’ deputy, Hans Mark, resigned in mid-1984, Keyworth says, he wanted only one thing. “We wanted communications. So sure, I wanted somebody I trusted in there. . . . We wanted somebody who was loyal to the President.”
Beggs, eager to get a replacement for Mark, made a classic bureaucratic error. Instead of sending a list to the White House of those he wanted considered, he simply told Personnel Director John Herrington that he needed a deputy. He got a list back from Herrington, and on it “were some very good names. John Young was on it. Jack Townsend of Fairchild was on it. Cliff Duncan of NASA in the Apollo days was on it. And Bill Graham,” says Beggs. “And I reviewed the list and called back and said, ‘Some of these guys are completely acceptable to me, and I would be happy to take any one of them, but this guy Graham has no qualifications.’ ”
William R. Graham--a tall, thin, humorless man--came from the world of military consulting and nuclear warfare and was Keyworth’s personal choice. Keyworth had coached him and sold him to the White House. It was Keyworth’s chance to get even.
Beggs says he told Herrington that the largest group Graham had managed was 12 analysts at the Rand Corp. With 20,000 highly decentralized employees at NASA, Beggs argued that Graham just wasn’t up to the task.
But Beggs had deeper concerns. He had once dismissed as nonsense talk that NASA was being militarized by the Air Force’s joint participation in the shuttle program, and he already had suffered an open revolt over the issue in Houston by pioneers in manned flight. As Beggs went over Graham’s resume, one thing stuck out: Graham was, like Keyworth, a nuclear-weapons expert. For the first time the reality of what Beggs’ colleagues at NASA had been saying hit home.
Beggs interviewed all the candidates, including Graham, in late February, 1985. Then he called Herrington and told him all but Graham were acceptable. In late March, just before Herrington left the White House to head the Energy Department, he took care of the matter. When Beggs called to check on the status of the deputy’s job, Herrington’s successor, Robert Tuttle, told him that Herrington had gone to Edwin Meese III, Beggs says, “and they walked Graham’s nomination into the President and got him to sign it without ever telling me.”
Beggs went to the new White House chief of staff, Donald Regan, and explained his concerns. Regan assured him, Beggs says, that Graham was not his choice for the job and that he would see what he could do. “So I get a call from him about two weeks later,” Beggs recalls, “and he says, ‘I can’t do anything.’ He told me, ‘It’s done. It’s a fait accompli .’ This guy has support on the West Coast from friends of the President. People like Henry Salvatori (one of Ronald Reagan’s earliest supporters for governor of California).”
Beggs refused to approve the appointment for the entire summer until, he says, Tuttle “called me up and said, ‘You have just got to take this guy and do us a favor.’ I don’t know what happened. It was a weak moment or something,” Beggs says. “So I said, ‘All right, I’ll take him.’ Well, I said, ‘You guys owe me a whole bunch.’ ”
IT WAS THE MONDAY AFTER THANKSGIVING. NASA was about to launch three important shuttle missions and begin its most ambitious year yet. And the man at the top, James Beggs, had just been indicted by a federal grand jury in Los Angeles.
The charges alleged that General Dynamics, where Beggs had worked before he came to NASA, had cheated the government on a contract for a new anti-aircraft cannon while Beggs was a vice president there. To Beggs it was a “cockamamie case” concerning a contract he had little to do with and could barely recall. He called the White House and said he would take a leave of absence. “And they came back and said, ‘No, we want you to resign.’ And I said, ‘I ain’t going to resign unless the President asks me to resign.’ ”
The timing could not have been worse. Beggs was turning NASA over to a man he considered wholly unqualified for the job, a novice with a political, pro-military agenda. “I think Graham knew I was going to get indicted,” Beggs says. “I think they told Graham, ‘You get over there . . . then Beggs is going to be indicted, and he’ll be gone.’ The thing they didn’t count on is that the President would give me a leave.”
Graham stepped into the job of acting administrator eight days after he came to NASA. Instead of leaving the agency, Beggs remained in an office down the hall from his old quarters. The White House told Graham that Beggs would stay on to provide “continuity and consultation.” But Graham found Beggs “aggressive and hostile,” and as acting administrator Graham felt undermined because Beggs kept telling NASA executives that he would soon be back in charge. “It put the staff in a tough position,” Graham says, “because they’d just say, ‘Well, if I do something that Beggs finds objectionable and he comes back, he’ll be in a position where he can make my life very difficult.’ ”
Beggs complains that Graham never once asked him for advice; Graham puts the blame on Beggs. “It seemed to me that if I were in a job and a deputy had come in, even if he hadn’t been my choice, I would at that point have taken some interest in trying to . . . assure myself that he was obtaining the information he needed,” Graham says. “But with Beggs, the output was exactly zero.”
When Graham visited Cape Kennedy, he says, he found launch crews that were grossly overworked by Beggs’ increased launch schedule. And Graham knew it was going to get worse. The next shuttle flight was scheduled for December, with a congressman aboard. Graham was so concerned that he postponed that flight until early 1986 to give launch crews time off for the holidays.
ROCCO PETRONE SHED NO tears when Beggs took his leave. Petrone was trying to deal with what he considered the worst of Beggs’ decisions. To reduce the costs for shuttle operations, Beggs had contracted with Lockheed--which had nothing to do with building the shuttle--to process the vehicles for launch. That meant that for the first time, Rockwell, Martin Marietta and other major contractors were not servicing the vehicles they understood so well. In some cases, the shuttle system had been damaged by workers who were unfamiliar with it.
In 1975, Petrone--a huge man of Neopolitan heritage--had been in charge of manned spaceflight for NASA. He spent long nights at Federal Office Building Six in Washington studying shuttle design plans and looking at the projected launch rates and costs, and he understood where the trade-offs to make it all work would come from. Petrone knew that this was more a political than a space vehicle. Yes, NASA administrators were correct when they called it the most sophisticated spaceship that man had ever built. They were right when they said that it was the most complicated ever built. But they never said that it was also the most dangerous.
That year, after 32 years in the space program for the Army and NASA, Petrone had quit, because he did not want to participate in what he saw as the combination of self-delusion and lies that were being used to sell the shuttle. But before he left, he put together a report that made nonsense of the official claims of the shuttle’s operational capabilities, cost per launch and refurbishment time between flights. He did not leak his views to the press. He simply prepared reports for a NASA management that he hoped would listen someday. Then he walked away.
Six years later, however--a few months before the maiden flight of the Columbia in April, 1981--Rockwell asked Petrone if he would come back to help them fly the shuttle. Space, he says, was in his blood, and he finally agreed.
What he found when he came back as a contractor was that the NASA he had given his life to had been destroyed. In Washington, NASA was dominated by Beggs. Every time he turned around, Beggs was cutting engineers out of the shuttle program to save money. At Cape Kennedy, the spirit and dedication Petrone remembered were gone. He could not understand how Rockwell had been required to file hundreds of thousands of documents on Apollo so that NASA would have a history of every part, yet the vastly more complicated shuttle was flying without a serious paper trail to trace responsibility.
Petrone told Beggs that the shuttle was a good vehicle, but not perfect. He agreed with others at NASA that Beggs was pushing the shuttle too hard and too fast.
Petrone was receiving complaints from his engineers that Lockheed Corp. was using unauthorized tools and small parts around the four orbiters. The shortage of engineers meant that NASA couldn’t check up on all of Lockheed’s work.
In addition, because of the extraordinary pressures that Beggs had put on the system to make it economical, shuttle parts were being cannibalized from one orbiter for use on another to keep up the schedule.
There was another, more serious problem. By the end of 1985, the seals on the shuttle’s solid rocket boosters (SRBs) had failed 10 out of 23 flights. To prevent an interruption in the flight schedule, waivers were signed that allowed the flights to continue despite the safety threats. In fact, NASA was flying the shuttle on backup systems, a violation of a mission rule that had been in effect since Alan Shepard flew a quarter century earlier.
Former Deputy Administrator Hans Mark had ordered a review of the solid rocket motor joints more than a year earlier. “The O-ring seal problem did gain my attention again just before I left NASA,” he says. “On the 10th flight we noticed some charring of the O-rings in the lower field joint. This phenomenon had been observed once before, on the second flight, but when it did not reappear, we thought it was a one-time event. When we saw it again on the 10th flight . . . I issued an ‘action item’ asking for a complete review of all the solid rocket motor seals and joints. Unfortunately this review was never held.” After Mark left NASA, the matter apparently was dropped.
“Both the people at the Marshall Space Flight Center and Thiokol apparently decided that they would develop a plan to fix the O-ring seal problem rather than review the problem with higher-level NASA management,” Mark says. “It is for this reason, of course, that nothing was done for 15 months.”
Mark says he discussed the O-rings and the burn-through with Beggs. Beggs denies it. Mark says, “I find that hard to believe, but things do slip the memory. You know, I certainly knew about them.”
WILLIAM GRAHAM’S FIRST FLIGHT EXPERIENCE as acting administrator was the January launch of the Columbia with Rep. Bill Nelson of Florida aboard. On Jan. 6, 1986, the countdown was being turned over to the automatic sequencer at T minus 31 seconds. The computers aboard Columbia detected a temperature drop in the main engines below safety limits and terminated the countdown. NASA quickly diagnosed the problem: The launch crew had inadvertently drained 18,000 pounds of liquid oxygen from the main tank. If they had overridden the temperature-indicator warning light, Columbia would not have had enough fuel to make it into orbit.
It was a sobering experience for Graham. NASA told the press that a “mechanical failure” postponed the flight. Although Graham had delayed the flight by a month to ease the pressures on the launch crew, flight-processing demands still had many workers putting in 40 straight 12-hour days.
There was another dangerous incident on the Nelson flight. A member of the launch team broke off a temperature probe in the prevalve of the orbiter. The broken probe went through the plumbing and endangered one of the shuttle’s main engines. Had the fueling incident not stopped the launch, the shuttle would have taken off with the probe in the engine valve. And that could have caused the engine to consume itself in flight, destroying the crew and the vehicle. Nelson’s flight was finally launched on Jan. 12.
On Jan. 15, the flight-readiness review was held for Challenger Mission 51L. For the public, the highlight of the flight was Christie McAuliffe. She had been training since July, and unlike some of the other “passengers” the astronauts had had to contend with, including one who had to be restrained on an earlier flight, McAuliffe was considered a professional. Judith Resnick, Gregory Jarvis, Ellison Onizuka and Ronald McNair were the mission specialists. Piloting Challenger was Navy Capt. Michael Smith, a rookie astronaut. Francis Richard Scobee was the mission commander, on his second flight.
In December, as the big solid-fuel rocket boosters were stacked for 51L, none of the seven crew members were aware of field-joint problems in the SRBs or the difficulties of shipping and assembling the ungainly booster segments. They also had no way of knowing that a 1977 Consumer Product Safety Commission ruling, banning asbestos in certain paint products, would have a tragic effect on the flight.
Through the first 10 missions, NASA had used an “off-the-shelf” putty made by the Fuller O’Brien Paint Co. in San Francisco to help seal the field joints of the SRBs. Fuller O’Brien, fearful of legal action because of the asbestos ban, stopped manufacturing the asbestos-based putty. NASA began buying a different putty from a New Jersey company. Booster experts at Marshall noted that the new putty did not seem to seal the joints as well as the old, but they continued to use it anyway.
The mission was to last six days, and the original launch was set for Jan. 22. But work slippage on the flight carrying Congressman Nelson caused the launch to be postponed to the 26th, Super Bowl Sunday. For NASA, a launch on the same day as the football game would be a public relations bonanza. The day before the launch, however, Graham scrubbed the mission. The Air Force’s meteorological experts had predicted bad weather. As it turned out, the next day proved to be beautiful.
THE LAUNCH WAS RECYCLED 24 HOURS TO Monday, Jan. 27. Former Congressman Don Fuqua, then chairman of NASA’s oversight committee, was sitting in his office watching preparations on closed-circuit NASA television while a staffer briefed him on the newly proposed transatmospheric vehicle. Fuqua occasionally glanced up to see how the countdown was progressing. “That’s when they went up and (found that) someone had wrung a bolt off in the door latch,” Fuqua says.
Rocco Petrone, watching the same picture on closed-circuit television in California, would soon discover that an unauthorized tool and bolt had been used on Challenger. Fuqua was furious. “Instead of signing for it and saying, ‘You know, there is a door latch broken,’ nobody ever admitted it. You are supposed to sign all the way up to supervisor that it’s clean.”
What’s more, the launch crew didn’t have an emergency tool kit with them. By the time a tool was found and the repairs were made, the crosswinds familiar to the Cape began blowing across the shuttle runway. An abort landing would be difficult in high winds. The launch was scrubbed again at 12:36 p.m.
Within half an hour, a teleconference involving Thiokol personnel and NASA officials at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., discussed the effect that extremely cold temperatures would have on the solid rocket boosters if Challenger was launched in 24 hours. Meetings went on all afternoon and through the night.
Morton Thiokol Project Manager Allan J. MacDonald voiced his concerns about low temperatures affecting the O-rings to his superiors in Utah. At 8:45 Monday evening in a teleconference, Thiokol engineers urged NASA not to launch the next day unless the temperatures of the O-rings were at least 53 degrees Fahrenheit.
At 11:15, Kennedy Space Center officials told MacDonald not to concern himself with either the high seas affecting the booster recovery area or the cold. Arnold D. Aldrich, manager of the shuttle system in Houston, was not informed of the O-ring concerns, and General Manager Phil Culbertson did not pass the information on to Graham. The highest-ranking NASA official at the Challenger launch was Phil Culbertson. Although it was only Graham’s second launch as acting administrator, he decided to leave the Cape and return to Washington. For the first time in shuttle history, neither the NASA administrator nor his deputy would be in either control center--in Houston or at the Cape.
One reason Graham wanted to go back to Washington was that Beggs had been causing him political problems on Capitol Hill. It had become obvious that Beggs was not only dealing directly with NASA officials such as Culbertson on agency issues but that he was also talking regularly to several senators. Beggs concedes that he was doing everything he could to sidetrack Graham’s campaign to be named permanent administrator. Graham had an appointment that morning with the Republican leader of NASA’s oversight subcommittee, Rep. Manuel Lujan of New Mexico.
At 3:10 a.m., the launch crew began pumping liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen into the separate tanks inside the giant external tank of Challenger. With the super-cold fuels contributing to the 27-degree temperature and with the 10-m.p.h. wind, the launch pad was a bitingly uncomfortable place to be.
The field joints, the O-rings and the putty sealing them reached a temperature of 29 degrees. The O-rings were already shrinking and hardening from the cold, and the surrounding putty had congealed into a greasy substance.
AS JAMES BEGGS DID MOST DAYS, HE LEFT his home in the affluent Westmoreland Circle section of Washington and drove to NASA headquarters on the clear and cold morning of Jan. 28. He turned on the closed-circuit NASA television set in the seventh-floor executive suite and saw ice all over the launch tower. Beggs says he was shocked that the countdown was still going forward. It was not so much ice damage to the tiles that concerned him--all that would do was lengthen the turnaround time for the next flight. What worried him was “internal ice.”
“With condensation you get internal ice around the piping of those main engines, and you change the frequency of vibration. When you get a frequency of vibration, you get a cascading effect, and you can shake yourself to pieces,” Beggs says.
Beggs then learned that the sea state was marginal for recovery of the $26-million solid boosters. “So I wouldn’t have launched,” he says. “It was a bad decision. I told two people--who shall be unknown--’You ought to go call these people and tell them to think hard about launching. I can’t tell them, but you can.’ ”
Phil Culbertson, who had gone to Beggs for advice several times since Beggs took his leave of absence, was on his own for the launch of 51L. As the senior NASA official on the scene, he was the one person who could say no to launching under such extreme conditions. A few minutes before liftoff, he left his station in a small glass enclosure above the main floor of the firing room and took an elevator to the top of the 50-story Vehicle Assembly Building for a good view of pad 39B.
Graham arrived at his office at 7:15 a.m. He remembers seeing the ice on NASA television. He made the “presumption that the people who were working there knew what they were doing.”
A NASA driver took Graham to his 11 a.m. appointment with Congressman Lujan. Before he left NASA, Graham forgot to remind Phil Culbertson to keep an open telephone line between headquarters and the Cape. Graham feared that if there were a launch emergency, “everybody picks up the phone at once . . . and you just sit there without even a dial tone.”
Graham recalls turning up the television set in Lujan’s office a few minutes before the liftoff. Fuqua did the same in his office. At NASA headquarters, Beggs watched NASA television. The Challenger flight crew was strapped into their seats, lying on their backs. The final minutes to liftoff were filled with banter and technical references.
At 6.566 seconds before the solid rocket motor ignition, the Challenger’s general-purpose computer issued the first of three commands to fire the main engines. Commander Scobee said, “There they go, guys.” After checking all of Challenger’s systems, the same computer decreed Challenger fit for flight, and at zero, lit the solids. In the time between zero and one second, at precisely .650 seconds, the fate of Challenger and its crew was sealed.
The O-rings and new putty did not react well to the cold. The enormous pressure from the gases inside the SRBs caused them to expand. As they did, the booster segments rotated against each other. Although the falling ice, the distance and the steam obscured it, a puff of ominous black smoke streamed out of the lower field joint of the right booster as Challenger broke its mooring bolts and lifted off.
At the end of the first second, Smith told the crew, “Here we go.” At seven seconds the big stack began to roll over on its back. The flame was pouring out of the SRBs and main engines. Every second, the pressure against the lower joint increased. At 12 seconds the surging heat in the booster melted the O-ring and putty and created a temporary seal. At 19 seconds Pilot Michael Smith commented on the stiff winds buffeting the Challenger. At T plus 40 seconds Challenger tore through the sound barrier at 19,000 feet.
At 43 seconds the Challenger throttled down its main engines to 60% of their thrust. The solid boosters, which cannot be throttled down, continued to provide 80% of the enormous power necessary to attain Earth orbit. As Challenger entered Max Q, the period when the shuttle faced its greatest dynamic pressure, the ride shook the stack, and the vibration broke the temporary seal. The O-ring failed.
At T plus 57 seconds, Scobee announced that the main engines were being throttled up. As the crew felt the unbelievable rush of power, they had no idea what was happening to the right solid rocket booster propelling them. Mike Smith yelled, “Feel that mother go!”
Heat at 5,800 degrees began to emerge from the joint in a plume of flame. It traveled around the entire lower right SRB joint. The thrust from the plume caused the struts connecting the right solid to the external tank to break loose. At 72.1 seconds into the flight, the swiveling booster smashed into the stubby right wing of Challenger and swiveled back to smash through the thin aluminum skin of the external tank. That blow breached the walls of the hydrogen and oxygen tanks. The thin skin of the giant external tank became the target of the wayward plume.
FUQUA LOOKED AT THE TELEVISION screen and watched the explosion. “First I thought it was staging, because the solids came off, and then I looked at my clock, and I said, ‘That’s not two minutes! Something has happened, because they burn (for two minutes), and it’s been a little over a minute--73 seconds.”
A block away in Lujan’s office, Graham watched Challenger climb. He keeps his wristwatch programmed to the length of time it takes the solid booster to burn. Graham looked at his watch and could not believe what he saw. “I turned to Lujan, and I said, ‘Something’s very wrong here.’ ”
Nine miles above the Atlantic, Mike Smith could see the nightmare outside his window on the right side of Challenger. Seventy-three seconds after the launch, he said, “Uh-oh!”
What looked from Earth like a disintegrating orbiter caught in a fireball was not. The explosion was, in fact, less than 15% of the energy Challenger was capable of releasing had everything possible gone wrong. The aerodynamic stress of the solids breaking away caused Challenger to come apart.
The force of the explosion separated the pressure vessel, or the crew cabin, from the aluminum and tile structure that was once the orbiter. The blast probably did not seriously injure any of the crew members. Evidence indicates that Dick Scobee’s emergency egress air pack was never turned on. But Michael Smith’s air pack was probably turned on by either Judith Resnick or Robert McNair. Recovered gauges showed that much of the air in the pack was used. The crew member was breathing for several minutes.
The cabin dropped 65,000 feet in two minutes and 45 seconds. Challenger’s cabin and crew slammed into 80 feet of water at 207 miles an hour. No one survived.
PHIL CULBERTSON COULD ONLY LOOK AT the empty and smoldering launch complex and watch the twisted clouds in the sky that had been Challenger. “I ran back downstairs, went back in the firing room and (said) we needed a room in which we could gather people together and develop a course of action. I didn’t say it quite that rationally, but it was something like that,” Culbertson remembers.
It would be an hour before Graham spoke to Culbertson. In the meantime, Beggs instructed Culbertson over the phone. Graham now says that, for him, the bottleneck in communications at NASA was Phil Culbertson. “I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt in the process. Afterward, unfortunately, there were a couple of instances where it became very clear he wasn’t communicating important information. . . . One was . . . the problem with the O-rings.”
According to Culbertson, he had indications that the O-ring was the cause of the loss of 51L within two hours of the tragedy, and informed Graham. “I didn’t want to talk to him too long because he was in a hurry to get to the White House. I called him a second time to let him know that we had an indication it was an SRB. I told him it was either an SRB or a rupture in the main tank, because we had, with one of the early camera shots, seen flame at the aft end of the external tank.”
Yet Graham says: “They told me 10 days later. And as the general manager, one of his (Culbertson’s) jobs was to act as the communications channel from the line programs, in particular the Office of Space Flight and so on, to me. And here I was put in the position of talking to the media, talking to the President, testifying--it was, I think, 10 days after the accident that he finally came to me and said, ‘Say, there’s going to be an article in the New York Times tomorrow, and it mentions O-rings, and I thought maybe you ought to know about the O-ring problem.’ ”
Immediately after the accident, Beggs had looked around the office for Graham and asked, “Where the hell is he?”
“He should have been down there, particularly in view of the troubles we’ve had. But he was on the Hill,” Beggs says. “I said to his gals out in the office, ‘As soon as he gets back, let me know, because we need to do some things and do them quickly.’ So he came in about half an hour later, and I said, ‘Bill, two things. One, you should get on an airplane and get your ass down to Kennedy immediately.” Beggs also suggested that Graham form an internal investigation board immediately, because he feared data from the launch could get “cold” and be lost.
Graham remembers Beggs handing him a list of names for an investigating committee. “And I said, ‘Thank you very much.’ Those were literally the first words he (Beggs) had spoken to me since he had been indicted.”
James Beggs resigned from NASA shortly after the Challenger tragedy to concentrate on his legal battle. Science adviser George Keyworth left the White House to open a Washington consulting firm and was replaced by William Graham. Phil Culbertson remains general manager of NASA, now headed by James Fletcher.
Adapted from “Prescription for Disaster: From the Glory of Apollo to the Betrayal of the Shuttle,” by Joseph J. Trento with reporting and editing by Susan B. Trento. To be published in February by Crown Publishers Inc. Copyright 1987 by Joseph J. Trento.
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