The Challenger and the Titanic: Avoidable Tragedies

by Erin
Written for January 4, 2007

The twentieth century brought upon a number of tragedies for the United States, many of which were unexpected by the American public. Among these catastrophes include the sinking of the passenger liner Titanic on April 15, 1912 and the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1986. While these horrific events were shocking for many Americans, they should not have surprised the people in charge of these ships. These calamities were neither unpredictable nor inevitable. The disasters of the Titanic and the Challenger were both avoidable tragedies that resulted from blatant irresponsibility.

Commercial and media pressure were factors that contributed to both of these disasters. At the time, the Titanic was the largest, most modern and luxurious passenger liner in the world. It set sail on its maiden voyage on April 10, 1912, and the captain, Edward J. Smith, sought to make a mark on history and break the transatlantic speed record (“Titanic sinking,” ABC-CLIO). In the case of the Challenger explosion, NASA was under pressure to keep up with a regular flight schedule. Morton Thiokol Company suggested safer designs for the joints on the O-rings, which were needed, but all flights would have had to been stopped while the joints were being redesigned. The Marshall Flight Space Center even defended the decision to proceed with the launch. Nobody wanted to fight to stop flights until after the problem was solved. There was a schedule to follow (Jensen 262, 361). Parties involved in both of these tragedies made decisions in response to outside pressure which led to drastic consequences.

Faulty designs in the structures of the Titanic and the Challenger were major influences which resulted in these tragic losses of life. The Titanic had supposedly been designed with the assurance that it was the safest and most reliable ship of the time, but it actually had multiple flaws in its design. One design problem of the Titanic was the steel with which it was made. It was extremely brittle even when it was fresh from the factory and became even more brittle by sailing through the freezing waters. When the ship struck the iceberg, a dent in the steel was not made; the steel ruptured. The collision that the ship made with the iceberg was actually not that major, but the steel of the ship was so brittle that it could not withstand the hit.

The compartments aboard the Titanic were supposed to be impermeable, but the engineers of the ship knew that the compartments on the ship were not actually watertight. The design allowed for individual rooms filling with water to be sealed off from adjacent rooms, but it was still possible that multiple rooms could be breached at any moment. The engineers also knew that if the ship sank by the bow, the water would move over the top and toward the stern, thus rendering the watertight walls useless. Unfortunately, this was precisely what happened to the Titanic the night it sank (Streissguth 12).

In the case of the Challenger, there was a long history of flaws in the shuttle’s design. Long before the flight of the Challenger, even before the first space shuttle flight, it was known that the joints did not function properly. The edges of the two booster segments were not pressed tightly against the synthetic rubber seals, but rather the gap between them widened under pressure. The O-rings were supposed to close this gap, but the joint was never completely sealed. The secondary rings which were supposed to protect the primary ones were ineffective, and the insulating putty did not protect the O-rings. Hot gases could leak through and burn the rubber seals, which actually happened on multiple flights. On the Columbia flight in 1981, five years before the Challenger disaster, the O-rings actually melted as a result of this faulty design. There were years of evidence that illustrated the dangers of this defect which caused the leakage of hot gases which made way for treacherous flames (Jensen 262-275).

However, even with all this proof, this problem was exactly what caused the failure of the Challenger mission. Before even just one second passed, the O-rings in the joint seal were being scorched by searing propellant gases, as indicated by the puffs of black smoke emitted between .836 and 2.500 seconds. The first flame, detected on the right solid rocket booster at 58.788 seconds, redirected backward toward the external tank’s surface. This fire broke through the external tank at 64.660 seconds and mixed with the leaking hydrogen. As a result, the strut that connected the solid rocket booster and external tank broke off and the rocket booster spun around the upper attachment strut. The structure of the hydrogen tank failed at 73.124 seconds and emitted considerable amounts of liquid hydrogen, producing a thrust of approximately 2.8 million pounds. This shoved the hydrogen tank into the inter-tank area, and immediately, there was a conflagration of hydrogen spouting from the bottom of the tank and the liquid oxygen breach in the inter-tank structure. The shuttle was at this point in a total explosive burn at a height of 46,000 feet while speeding through the air at a supersonic speed, with a Mach number of 1.92. The particular cause of this catastrophe was determined to be the destruction of the seals that were supposed to prevent hot gases from seeping through the joint, exactly what the experts should have expected (“Challenger Accident,” American History Online).

This accident could have been prevented if the engineers and experts involved with the space shuttle program were not so negligent. Although they were fully aware of the problem with the joint and the O-rings, technicians at the Marshall Flight Space Company never said anything about the problem. NASA found out about the problem in 1982, more than three years before the failed mission, and wrote about the potential consequences of the malfunction of the O-rings, “Loss of mission, vehicle, and crew due to metal erosion, burning-through, and probable burst resulting in deflagration” (Jensen 275). Destroyed O-rings were found again in 1984, and this time they were more deteriorated than ever before. Nobody bothered to try to prevent flights while trying to fix the problem. The Marshall Flight Space Center wrote an official report that supported the launch, claiming that the issue with the O-rings was not a major crisis. In fact, most people disregarded this dilemma and considered those who were concerned about the O-rings burning as overcautious. Richard C. Cook, a budget analyst from NASA who corresponded with engineers and specialists and was responsible for reporting potential threats to finances, discovered that the joints were faulty and claimed that the people at the Marshall Space Flight Center did not do enough to solve the problem. He added that the senior employees at NASA also were irresponsible, because they would not give a hearing to the concerned engineers. He also said that the O-rings were a “potentially major problem affecting flight safety.” He turned out to be right, and after the Challenger exploded, he wrote, “It was probably preventable – for well over a year, the solid rocket boosters have been flying in an unsafe condition” (Jensen 263).

Engineers at Marshall Flight Space Company and NASA were not the only ones remiss in this case. The company that made the solid rocket boosters, Morton Thiokol, approved the launch even though it was too cold to launch safely. There was ice on the launch pad on that day, which indicated that it was significantly colder than the safe launch temperature. It was 36 degrees Fahrenheit on that fateful day, when Morton Thiokol had said that it was unsafe to launch at temperatures below 53 degrees Fahrenheit. However, they ignored their own advice and permitted the launch anyway. This negligence and overconfidence in dealing with the space shuttle resulted in the lives of seven Americans, including one schoolteacher.

Negligence and overconfidence also came into the picture of the Titanic sinking. Before the ship had even set sail, the designers had believed it to be so invincible that they did not equip it with enough lifeboats to accommodate all of the passengers on board. Instead, the extra space left due to the lack of enough lifeboats was used for the pleasure of the passengers. While at sea, the Titanic received at least six warnings about icy conditions, including one notice from the Amerika the day before the tragedy, but the captain blatantly disregarded the safety of the passengers in his effort to break the transatlantic speed record. Although captains do not usually consider ice and icebergs are particularly threatening, Captain Edward J. Smith was still sailing the ship at an excessively high speed for an ice drift – 21 knots. Smith was the most experienced in the White Star fleet – the line to which the Titanic belonged – and also the highest paid. Yet even with his knowledge of sailing and the sea, he refused to slow down or alter his course to avoid the perilous waters because this would prevent him from making “good time” on the Titanic’s first voyage. The captain, who was overconfident that the ship could not sink, believed that the Titanic was invincible and thus acted so irrationally and irresponsibly with an indifference to the safety of the passengers. His audaciousness and neglect resulted in the loss of 1500 lives (Streissguth 30-33).

Ignorance also played a role in both of these calamities. Since it was the Titanic’s maiden voyage, there was an entirely new crew aboard the ship. They were not well-trained, which resulted in problems later during the ship’s ill-fated journey. The crew participated in no lifeboat drills whatsoever. They were not trained to equip the boats, man the boats, launch the boats, or even lower the boats. All of the crew lacked experience in general in handling lifeboats, and because they were poorly prepared, they could not efficiently set out the lifeboats. They did not load the boats to their maximum capacity until it was much too late. The crew members also could not even handle the oars effectively. Another problem with the boats involved their lack of provisions. Because of the inefficient control over the lifeboats and the lack of survival necessities on the lifeboats, many lives were lost unnecessarily. Only 700 lives were saved, when at least 1200 could have been – a difference of 500 precious human lives (Streissguth 26, 92). The crew’s lack of knowledge on the Titanic clearly contributed to the tragic losses that occurred during the ship’s sinking.

For the tragedy in 1986, the decision to launch the Challenger was flawed because of a lack of knowledge. The people responsible for making the decision to launch were uninformed about many of the factors that were a part of the explosion’s cause. They were completely unaware of the history of the flaws with the O-rings and joint, the leading cause of the mission’s failure. There was ice on the launch pad, and though Morton Thiokol Company discouraged launching at cold temperatures, the decision-makers did not know this either. Had they been aware of all of this critical information, the Challenger probably would not have launched that day, saving the lives of all the people on board (“Challenger Accident,” Facts on File).

The disasters of the Challenger and Titanic were caused by a number of factors, most of which were obviously foreseeable. The irresponsibility demonstrated by the many people involved with the ship and the shuttle was clearly the decisive reason why these catastrophes occurred. All humans are fallible, but these mistakes should not have happened. The remissness of the people in charge of the Titanic repeated itself 74 years later with the Challenger, and this blatant irresponsibility from two different years and time periods left similarly indelible and tragically unnecessary marks on the history of the United States.

Works Cited

“Challenger Accident.” American History Online. Facts on File, Inc. 13 Oct 2006.

Jensen, Claus. No Downlink: A Dramatic Narrative About the Challenger Accident and Our Time. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1996.

“Report on the Space Shuttle Challenger Explosion.” Discovering U.S. History. Gale Research, 1997. History Research Center. Thomson Gale. 13 October 2006.

Streissguth, Thomas. The Sinking of the Titanic. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 2002.

“Titantic Accident and the Radio Act of 1912, 1912.” Discovering U.S. History. Gale Research, 1997. History Resource Center. 13 Oct 2006.

“‘Titanic Sinks Four Hours After Hitting Iceberg.'” American Decades CD-Rom. Gale Research, 1998. History Research Center. Thomson Gale. 13 Oct 2006.

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