Just after liftoff at .678 seconds into the flight, photographic data show a strong puff of gray smoke was spurting from the vicinity of the aft field joint on the right Solid Rocket Booster. The two pad 39B cameras that would have recorded the precise location of the puff were inoperative. Computer graphic analysis of film from other cameras indicated the initial smoke came from the 270 to 310-degree sector of the circumference of the aft field joint of the right Solid Rocket Booster. This area of the solid booster faces the External Tank. The vaporized material streaming from the joint indicated there was not complete sealing action within the joint.
Eight more distinctive puffs of increasingly blacker smoke were recorded between .836 and 2.500 seconds. The smoke appeared to puff upwards from the joint . While each smoke puff was being left behind by the upward flight of the Shuttle, the next fresh puff could be seen near the level of the joint. The multiple smoke puffs in this sequence occurred at about four times per second, approximating the frequency of the structural load dynamics and resultant joint flexing. Computer graphics applied to NASA photos from a variety of cameras in this sequence again placed the smoke puffs' origin in the 270-to 310-degree sector of the original smoke spurt.
As the Shuttle increased its upward velocity, it flew past the emerging and expanding smoke puffs. The last smoke was seen above the field joint at 2.733 seconds. The black color and dense composition of the smoke puffs suggest that the grease, joint insulation and rubber O-rings in the joint seal were being burned and eroded by the hot propellant gases.
At approximately 37 seconds, Challenger encountered the first of several high-altitude wind shear conditions, which lasted until about 64 seconds. The wind shear created forces on the vehicle with relatively large fluctuations. These were immediately sensed and countered by the guidance, navigation and control system.
The steering system (thrust vector control) of the Solid Rocket Booster responded to all commands and wind shear effects. The wind shear caused the steering system to be more active than on any previous flight.
Both the Shuttle main engines and the solid rockets operated at reduced thrust approaching and passing through the area of maximum dynamic pressure of 720 pounds per square foot. Main engines had been throttled up to 104 percent thrust and the Solid Rocket Boosters were increasing their thrust when the first flickering flame appeared on the right Solid Rocket Booster in the area of the aft field joint. This first very small flame was detected on image enhanced film at 58.788 seconds into the flight. It appeared to originate at about 305 degrees around the booster circumference at or near the aft field joint.
One film frame later from the same camera, the flame was visible without image enhancement. It grew into a continuous, well-defined plume at 59.262 seconds. At about the same time (60 seconds), telemetry showed a pressure differential between the chamber pressures in the right and left boosters. The right booster chamber pressure was lower, confirming the growing leak in the area of the field joint.
As the flame plume increased in size, it was deflected rearward by the aerodynamic slipstream and circumferentially by the protruding structure of the upper ring attaching the booster to the External Tank. These deflections directed the flame plume onto the surface of the External Tank. This sequence of flame spreading is confirmed by analysis of the recovered wreckage. The growing flame also impinged on the strut attaching the Solid Rocket Booster to the External Tank.
The first visual indication that swirling flame from the right Solid Rocket Booster breached the External Tank was at 64.660 seconds when there was an abrupt change in the shape and color of the plume. This indicated that it was mixing with leaking hydrogen from the External Tank. Telemetered changes in the hydrogen tank pressurization confirmed the leak. Within 45 milliseconds of the breach of the External Tank, a bright sustained glow developed on the black-tiled underside of the Challenger between it and the External Tank.
Beginning at about 72 seconds, a series of events occurred extremely rapidly that terminated the flight. Telemetered data indicate a wide variety of flight system actions that support the visual evidence of the photos as the Shuttle struggled futilely against the forces that were destroying it.
At about 72.20 seconds the lower strut linking the Solid Rocket Booster and the External Tank was severed or pulled away from the weakened hydrogen tank permitting the right Solid Rocket Booster to rotate around the upper attachment strut. This rotation is indicated by divergent yaw and pitch rates between the left and right Solid Rocket Boosters.
At 73.124 seconds, a circumferential white vapor pattern was observed blooming from the side of the External Tank bottom dome. This was the beginning of the structural failure of the hydrogen tank that culminated in the entire aft dome dropping away. This released massive amounts of liquid hydrogen from the tank and created a sudden forward thrust of about 2.8 million pounds, pushing the hydrogen tank upward into the intertank structure. At about the same time, the rotating right Solid Rocket Booster impacted the intertank structure and the lower part of the liquid oxygen tank. These structures failed at 73.137 seconds as evidenced by the white vapors appearing in the intertank region. Within milliseconds there was massive, almost explosive, burning of the hydrogen streaming from the failed tank bottom and the liquid oxygen breach in the area of the intertank.
At this point in its trajectory, while traveling at a Mach number of 1.92 at an altitude of 46,000 feet, the Challenger was totally enveloped in the explosive burn. The Challenger's reaction control system ruptured and a hypergolic burn of its propellants occurred as it exited. the oxygenhydrogen flames. The reddish brown colors of the hypergolic fuel burn are visible on the edge of the main fireball. The Orbiter, under severe aerodynamic loads, broke into several large sections which emerged from the fireball. Separate sections that can be identified on film include the main engine/tail section with the engines still burning, one wing of the Orbiter, and the forward fuselage trailing a mass of umbilical lines pulled loose from the payload bay.
The Cause of the Accident
The consensus of the Commission and participating investigative agencies is that the loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger was caused by a failure in the joint between the two lower segments of the right Solid Rocket Motor. The specifc failure was the destruction of the seals that are intended to prevent hot gases from leaking through the joint during the propellant burn of the rocket motor. The evidence assembled by the Commission indicates that no other element of the Space Shuttle system contributed to this failure.
In arriving at this conclusion, the Commission reviewed in detail all available data, reports and records; directed and supervised numerous tests, analyses, and experiments by NASA, civilian contractors and various government agencies; and then developed specific failure scenarios and the range of most probable causative factors.
1. A combustion gas leak through the right Solid Rocket Motor aft field joint initiated at or shortly after ignition eventually weakened and/or penetrated the External Tank initiating vehicle structural breakup and loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger during STS Mission 51-L.
2. The evidence shows that no other STS 51-L Shuttle element or the payload contributed to the causes of the right Solid Rocket Motor aft field joint combustion gas leak. Sabotage was not a factor.
3. Evidence examined in the review of Space Shuttle material, manufacturing, assembly, quality control, and processing of nonconformance reports found no flight hardware shipped to the launch site that fell outside the limits of Shuttle design specifications.
4. Launch site activities, including assembly and preparation, from receipt of the flight hardware to launch were generally in accord with established procedures and were not considered a factor in the accident.
5. Launch site records show that the right Solid Rocket Motor segments were assembled using approved procedures. However, significant out-of-round conditions existed between the two segments joined at the right Solid Rocket Motor aft field joint (the joint that failed).
a. While the assembly conditions had the potential of generating debris or damage that could cause O-ring seal failure, these were not considered factors in this accident.
b. The diameters of the two Solid Rocket Motor segments had grown as a result of prior use.
c. The growth resulted in a condition at time of launch wherein the maximum gap between the tang and clevis in the region of the joint's O-rings was no more than .008 inches and the average gap would have been .004 inches.
d. With a tang-to-clevis gap of .004 inches, the O-ring in the joint would be compressed to the extent that it pressed against all three walls of the O-ring retaining channel.
e. The lack of roundness of the segments was such that the smallest tang-to-clevis clearance occurred at the initiation of the assembly operation at positions of 120 degrees and 300 degrees around the circumference of the aft field joint. It is uncertain if this tight condition and the resultant greater compression of the O-rings at these points persisted to the time of launch.
6. The ambient temperature at time of launch was 36 degrees Fahrenheit, or 15 degrees lower than the next coldest previous launch.
a. The temperature at the 300 degree shape than a cold O-ring at 30 degrees Fahrenheit.
b. Temperature on the opposite side of the right Solid Rocket Booster facing the sun was estimated to be about 50 degrees Fahrenheit.
7. Other joints on the left and right Solid Rocket Boosters experienced similar combinations of tang-to-clevis gap clearance and temperature. It is not known whether these joints experienced distress durin,g the flight of 51-L.
8. Experimental evidence indicates that due to several effects associated with the Solid Rocket Booster's ignition and combustion pressures and associated vehicle motions, the gap between the tang and the clevis will open as much as .017 and .029 inches at the secondary and primary O-rings, respectively.
a. This opening begins upon ignition, reaches its maximum rate of opening at about 200-300 milliseconds, and is essentially complete at 600 milliseconds when the Solid Rocket Booster reaches its operating pressure.
b. The External Tank and right Solid Rocket Booster are connected by several struts, including one at 310 degrees near the aft field joint that failed. This strut's effect on the joint dynamics is to enhance the opening of the gap between the tang and clevis by about 10-20 percent in the region of 300-320 degrees.
9. O-ring resiliency is directly related to its temperature.
a. A warm O-ring that has been compressed will return to its original shape much quicker than will a cold O-ring when compression is relieved. Thus, a warm O-ring will follow the opening of the tang-to-clevis gap. A cold O-ring may not.
b. A compressed O-ring at 75 degrees Fahrenheit is five times more responsive in returning to its uncompressed shape than a cold O-ring at 30 degrees Fahrenheit.
c. As a result it is probable that the Orings in the right solid booster aft field joint were not following the opening of the gap between the tang and clevis at time of ignition.
10. Experiments indicate that the primary mechanism that actuates O-ring sealing is the application of gas pressure to the upstream (high-pressure) side of the O-ring as it sits in its groove or channel.
a. For this pressure actuation to work most effectively, a space between the O-ring and its upstream channel wall should exist during pressurization.
b. A tang-to-clevis gap of .004 inches, as probably existed in the failed joint, would have initially compressed the Oring to the degree that no clearance existed between the O-ring and its upstream channel wall and the other two surfaces of the channel.
c. At the cold launch temperature experienced, the O-ring would be very slow in returning to its normal rounded shape. It would not follow the opening of the tang-to-clevis gap. It would remain in its compressed position in the O-ring channel and not provide a space between itself and the upstream channel wall. Thus, it is probable the O-ring would not be pressure actuated to seal the gap in time to preclude joint failure due to blow-by and erosion from hot combustion gases.
11. The sealing characteristics of the Solid Rocket Booster O-rings are enhanced by timely application of motor pressure. a. Ideally, motor pressure should be applied to actuate the O-ring and seal the joint prior to significant opening of the tang-to-clevis gap ( 100 to 200 milliseconds after motor ignition).
b. Experimental evidence indicates that temperature, humidity and other variables in the putty compound used to seal the joint can delay pressure application to the joint by 500 milliseconds or more.
c. This delay in pressure could be a factor ih initial joint failure.
12. Of 21 launches with ambient temperatures of 61 degrees Fahrenheit or greater, only four showed signs of O-ring thermal distress; i.e., erosion or blow-by and soot. Each of the launches below 61. degrees Fahrenheit resulted in one or more O-rings showing signs of thermal distress. a. Of these improper joint sealing actions, one-half occurred in the aft field joints, 20 percent in the center field joints, and 30 percent in the upper field joints. The division between left and right Solid Rockter Boosters was roughly equal. b. Each instance of thermal O-ring distress was accompanied by a leak path in the insulating putty. The leak path connects the rocket's combustion chamber with the O-ring region of the tang and clevis. Joints that actuated without incident may also have had these leak paths
13. There is a possibility that there was water in the clevis of the STS 51-L joints since water was found in the STS-9 joints during a destack operation after exposure to less rainfall than STS Sl-L. At time of launch, it was cold enough that water present in the joint would freeze. Tests show that ice in the joint can inhibit proper secondary seal performance .
14. A series of puffs of smoke were observed emanating from the 51-L aft field joint area of the right Solid Rocket Booster between 0.678 and 2.500 seconds after ignition of the Shuttle Solid Rocket Motors.
a. The puffs appeared at a frequency of about three puffs per second. This roughly matches the natural structural frequency of the solids at lift off and is reflected in slight cyclic changes of the tang-to-clevis gap opening.
b. The puffs were seen to be moving upward along the surface of the booster above the aft field joint.
c. The smoke was estimated to originate at a circumferential position of between 270 degrees and 315 degrees on the booster aft field joint, emerging from the top of the joint.
15. This smoke from the aft field joint at Shuttle lift off was the first sign of the failure of the Solid Rocket Booster O-ring seals on STS 51-L.
16. The leak was again clearly evident as a flame at approximately 58 seconds into the flight. It is possible that the leak was continuous but unobservable or non-existent in portions of the intervening period. It is possible in either case that thrust vectoring and normal vehicle response to wind shear as well as planned maneuvers reinitiated or magnified the leakage from a degraded seal in the period preceding the observed flames. The estimated position of the flame, centered at a point 307 degrees around the circumference of the aft field joint, was confirmed by the recovery of two fragments of the right Solid Rocket Booster.
a. A small leak could have been present that may have grown to breach the joint in flame at a time on the order of 58 to 60 seconds after lift off. b. Alternatively, the O-ring gap could have been resealed by deposition of a fragile buildup of aluminum oxide and other combustion debris. This resealed section of the joint could have been disturbed by thrust vectoring, Space Shuttle motion and flight loads induced by changing winds aloft.
c. The winds aloft caused control actions in the time interval of 32 seconds to 62 seconds into the flight that were typical of the largest values experienced on previous missions.
ln view of the findings, the Commission concluded that the cause of the Challenger accident was the failure of the pressure seal in the aft field joint of the right Solid Rocket Motor. The failure was due to a faulty design unacceptably sensitive to a number of factors. These factors were the effects of temperature, physical dimensions, the character of materials, the effects of reusability, processing, and the reaction of the joint to dynamic loading.
(The following is taken from a paper entitled "Secondary Factors Contributing to the Flaw That Caused the Space Shuttle Challenger Explosion." The paper was written for a technical writing class at the University of Texas in Austin by mechanical engineering student Matt Woodfill. August 14, 1991, Austin, Texas.)
The Redesigned Solid Rocket Booster Seal/Joint
The conclusion of the Presidential Commission's investigation of the Challenger accident was a series of recommendations to help assure return to safe flight of the shuttle. The most important recommendation was the redesign of the SRB joint/seal. Joints should be understood, tested, and verified. In this light, the joint design should provide for dimensional tolerances, transportation and handling, test procedures and inspections, environmental effects, recovery and reuse, as well as flight and water impact test loads. The new design must also include realistic tests that simulate as closely as possible launch conditions and all operating conditions during shuttle flight [Lewis, 1986].
The redesign of the joint/seal shown on the card added a third O-ring and eliminated the troublesome putty which served as a partial seal. Bonded insulation replaced the putty [Lewis, 1986]. A capture device was added to prevent or reduce the opening of the joint as the booster inflated under motor gas pressure during ignition. The third O-ring would be added to seal the joint at the capture device. The former O-rings would be replaced by rings of the same size (.28 inches thick) but made of a better performing material called fluorosilicone or nitrile rubber. Heating strips were added around the joints to assure the O-rings did not experience temperatures lower than 75 degrees Fahrenheit regardless of the surrounding temperature. Also, the gap openings which the O-rings were designed to seal were reduced to 6 thousandths of an inch from the former gap of 30 thousandths of an inch [Lewis, 1986].
Having discussed the redesign of the SRB seal/joint, John Thomas, manager of the redesign work at the Marshall Space Flight Center, stated, "We were charged in the redesign effort with two objectives." He continued, "The primary objective was to design a safe joint and the secondary objective was to utilize existing hardware if we could design a safe joint in that pursuit. I believe we have done that [Lewis, 1986]."
Lewis, S. R., Challenger The Final Voyage , (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988)