'Challenger: The Final Flight': What was the Rogers Commission? Here's how Richard Feynman played a role

The Rogers Commission consisted of the most illustrious members of the American scientific community at the time, including Neil Armstrong


                            'Challenger: The Final Flight': What was the Rogers Commission? Here's how Richard Feynman played a role
Rogers Commission (NASA / Public domain)

On January 28, 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart 73 seconds into its flight, killing all seven crew members aboard. The crew consisted of five NASA astronauts, a payload specialist, and the "first private citizen" selected to fly in space. Netflix's latest docuseries, 'Challenger: The Final Flight' is a four-part miniseries that explores everything from the personal lives of the crew members, to the reasons for the disaster. Through the testimonies of the crew's family members, we learn more about Commander Francis R Scobee, pilot Michael J Smith, mission specialists Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, and Judith Resnik, payload specialist, Gregory Jarvis, and citizen astronaut, Christa McAuliffe.

The docuseries also showed the growing concerns about the solid rocket boosters, in particular, the O-ring seals which were shown to be unstable and brittle in lower temperatures. The warnings were given months prior to the Challenger shuttle launch in 1986, but the correlations between lower temperatures and O-ring seal failures were not seen to be considerable enough to push the launch that winter morning. 

The Challenger explosion was the first major disaster for NASA, which up until then was used to celebrating its many successes. In the aftermath of the explosion, the then-President Ronald Reagan's administration formed the Rogers Commission to investigate the accident and resulted in a 32-month hiatus in the shuttle program. However, Reagan instructed William P Rogers, the chairman of the commission to make sure that NASA was not painted in a bad light.

The Rogers Commission consisted of some of the most illustrious members of the American scientific community at the time, including retired astronaut Neil Armstrong, Nobel laureate Richard Feynman, Boeing engineer Joseph Sitter, American astrophysicist and first female American astronaut, Sally Ride, Air Force general Donald Kutyna, and more.

It was Sally Ride who had secretly provided Kutyna with NASA test results showing the O-rings became stiff when they were too cold. However, Kutyna was not sure of how to present this to the commission. His friend, Richard Feynman would come to play a big role in this after he roped him in. During a televised hearing, Feynman famously demonstrated how the O-rings became less resilient and subject to seal failures at ice-cold temperatures by immersing a sample of the material in a glass of ice water. Kutyna believes that because it was Feynman who presented this, it was hard for the commission and NASA to ignore the findings. Later, Kutyna likened the Challenger situation to an airline permitting one of its planes to continue to fly despite evidence that one of its wings was about to fall off.

The Rogers Commission could not but pinpoint NASA's attitude and the O-ring seal failure when it reached its conclusions. The solid rocket booster was to be redesigned completely and to this day have performed without incident.

Unfortunately, NASA's disaster-free streak was broken in 2003 when the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated as it reentered the atmosphere, killing all seven crew members. As it was with the Challenger, it was discovered that the cause of the explosion had, in fact, been pointed out as concerning before.

'Challenger: The Final Flight' is now streaming on Netflix.

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