STS61C The end of innocence

postpone the launch because they knew the O-rings could not withstand extremely cold weather conditions. At 36 Celsius, Challenger's launch was the coldest yet attempted. Their pleas to keep the Shuttle on the ground were ignored.

Schedule pressure was also blamed. Nine missions were flown in 1985, but at a cost. One top-secret Department of Defense flight in January resulted in O-ring damage so severe that it should have grounded the fleet. Another mission in July got off the ground only after a dangerous on-the-pad shutdown of the three main engines; even when the Shuttle finally headed into space, an engine failed during ascent and almost forced the crew to make an emergency landing in Spain. Moreover, parts were being cannibalised from other Shuttles to maintain the facade that the vehicles were flying 'routinely'.

Many analysts have remarked privately since Challenger that, even if the disaster had not happened, the project would have ground to a halt or the flight rate severely curtailed before the end of 1986. According to a Shuttle manifest published at the end of 1985, an incredible two dozen missions were pencilled-in for 1987! It was inconceivable that launch rates of two missions each month could be achieved, when even one mission a month was stretching NASA to its limits. Yet the mindset of many was to deny the problems and go on as if the Shuttle was an operational spaceliner.

The immediate consequences of the Challenger disaster in terms of the Shuttle's future direction were that all commercial launches were forbidden by the White House and transferred instead onto expendable rockets. New laws dictated that future missions should only be flown if they explicitly required the presence of a human crew to assure success, required the Shuttle's unique capabilities or were in response to ''compelling circumstances''. Such circumstances could, at the discretion of NASA's Administrator, involve the launch of national-security satellites or payloads that supported the United States' foreign policy interests.

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