Challenger Space Shuttle Disaster: A Tragic Tale of Heroism and Failure

Corporate groupthink, top management believing their own hype, an unwavering belief in technological infallibility, and the marginalization of whistleblowers. No, not the Post Office in 2018, but Nasa in 1986, when the Challenger Space Shuttle exploded 73 seconds after launch and killed all seven astronauts on board. It’s a story told for the first time in full by Adam Higginbotham, whose book Challenger: A True Story of Heroism and Disaster on the Edge of Space is devastating and riveting in equal measures.

Challenger was in its way an American bereavement every bit as seismic as 9/11 and the assassination of JFK. “It was a shattering of confidence in technology and the optimism which went with that,” says Higginbotham.

“In the years before 1986, pictures and video of the shuttle were everywhere in popular culture,” Higginbotham tells me. “And then that was replaced with the image of Challenger’s destruction.” That image sears the soul no matter how many times you watch it: this glorious testament to the might of human daring and ingenuity trailing flame like a comet’s tail as it soars towards space, and then a ball of fire and two arms of smoke reaching out in opposite directions, the thunderous rocket roar suddenly silent, contrails curling and falling like spent fireworks.

“For a few seconds afterwards,” Higginbotham says, “people found it almost impossible to conceive that the shuttle had actually been destroyed right in front of them. Nothing like that had ever happened before.”

“So when I started looking for a subject for my second book, Challenger was already on my mind. Since 1987, when a couple of books were written by journalists there at the time, nobody had really attempted a serious narrative nonfiction account of everything that happened: there have only been individual memoirs and technical or academic takes. But a lot of people who hadn’t been willing or able to talk about it back then were now prepared to do so: and these people are beginning to pass away, so I wanted to tell the story before those memories slipped away with them.” Higginbotham would go on to interview more than 60 people between September 2020 and October 2023, including members of the astronauts’ families, and Nasa officials.

The mission designated STS-51-L was the 25th time the Space Shuttle had gone up, and was watched live by schoolchildren across the nation because a teacher was going into space for the first time. Christa McAuliffe of Concord, New Hampshire, had beaten more than 11,000 applicants for the role, and in the year before the launch she was among the most famous women in America.

The Teacher in Space initiative had been designed to increase public interest in the space shuttle. “It was as if the 16th-century explorer Ferdinand Magellan had proposed to follow up the first circumnavigation of the world by rowing across Lisbon harbour and back,” Higginbotham writes.

The sociologist Diane Vaughan referred to “the normalization of deviance”. As Higginbotham puts it: “You start off with a closely defined set of safety characteristics and gradually, almost unconsciously, expand what the parameters of safety are, until you end up with a situation further down the line where an outsider coming in would say ‘that’s extraordinarily dangerous.’”

Boisjoly’s warnings went unheeded: a fix would take too much time and cost too much money. After he testified at the Rogers Commission and refused to toe the company line, he was shunned by colleagues and managers, and moved away from space work.

Almost four decades on from the Challenger disaster, some lessons have clearly been learnt. Nasa’s contracts with SpaceX and Boeing codify that the chance of overall mission loss can be no greater than 1 in 270; SpaceX puts the faces of astronauts on work orders to remind the engineers that lives depend on them. But each mission is also to some extent a roll of the dice: space travel was, is, and always will be dangerous.