On the 30th anniversary of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, Space Safety Magazine is publishing articles under “Witness to Tragedy”, depicting the personal stories and viewpoints of those who witnessed it from within. This is the third and last article of the series.

In 1985, following Spacelab’s first two flights, I was appointed as head of the Safety Assurance Section in the newly formed Product Assurance Systems Division in the Product Assurance and Safety Department at the European Space Agency (ESA) technology and research center (ESTEC) in the Netherlands. At the time of the Challenger disaster, I was participating in an early ESA Columbus program review. I was reviewing the contractor’s project documentation when a member of the ESA team came into the review room and announced that Challenger had exploded just after launch, with loss of the crew. We were, of course, all shocked and stunned. I was particularly affected, partially due to my new responsibilities for systems safety assurance, but also because I had previously met Dr. Judith Resnik, the other woman crew member (apart from the teacher Christa McAuliffe) to lose her life on Challenger. Needless to say, little review work was accomplished for the rest of the afternoon. We were all wondering what had caused the accident and whether the Shuttle program would continue, and if so, when that would that be. As we were working on a Shuttle-dependent program (ESA’s contribution to the International Space Station) we were particularly concerned.

Within the Product Assurance and Safety Department, our immediate sympathies were with the families of the crew and with our colleagues at NASA. My ESA safety responsibilities had already brought me into contact with Safety, Reliability and Quality managers at NASA Headquarters in Washington and at the Marshall Spaceflight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. In fact, I was due to travel with my department head to Washington for a safety meeting at NASA Headquarters within the next couple of weeks. While this meeting was at a difficult time for NASA, it did go ahead as planned. In some ways the timing was fortunate for us as we were there during sittings of the Rogers Commission and while new information on the possible cause of the failure was coming to light. We were very lucky to be able to sit in on the Rogers Commission meeting where, following the questioning of NASA’s Mr. Mulloy on the operation of the solid booster seal joints, Dr Richard Feynman performed his O-ring in iced water demonstration. This highlighted his concern with solid booster O-ring integrity at the low temperatures which occurred on launch day. It later came to light that he had previously been tipped off about this by astronaut Dr. Sally Ride. The press picked up on his demonstration and it made headlines the following day. Co-incident with this was NASA’s release of the photographs showing the puffs of smoke on the right hand side solid booster joint just after booster ignition, a shocking revelation. It was a very interesting and valuable visit, but of course we didn’t achieve what we had originally intended to do.

At that time, ESA was beginning the Columbus and Hermes human spaceflight projects, so we in the Product Assurance Systems Division had initiated a study into spaceflight safety requirements and methods, which produced some very valuable results. Following the Challenger disaster it was decided to initiate a further study to evaluate existing safety processes in other “high tech” industries and also to determine what other space agencies were doing to enhance human space flight safety. The study was completed just over a year later and significantly influenced the further development of ESA’s safety program, technical requirements, and safety analysis. The report’s findings are still valid, and, unsurprisingly, some of its conclusions are the same as some of those in the Rogers Commission Report. The real disappointment that I have is that, in spite of all the good intentions following the Challenger disaster, it seems that some space flight safety lessons remained to be re-learned all over again some years later as in the fatal Columbia disaster.

-Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster and Investigation


About the author

Keith Wright

Keith Wright

Keith Wright was a systems engineer at Bendix Aerospace responsible for the pre-launch operations of the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package at Kennedy Space Center from 1968 until 1972. At the end of the Apollo program he returned to Europe to work in Europe’s expanding space program. In 1975 he became Systems Safety Assurance engineer on the European Space Agency (ESA) contribution to the Shuttle program, the Spacelab project, at the European space research and technology center (ESTEC) in the Netherlands. From 1985 until his retirement in 1994, Keith was head of the Safety Assurance Section in the ESA’s Product Assurance and Safety organization.