Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster

Length: 2 weeks (2 x 2 hour lecture sessions)

Aims: To illustrate the importance of materials science in a real life situation and to encourage  students to consider the role of an engineer in the workplace.

Key Skills: Individual study, written communication, research skills.

Student Output: Individual Report

Background to Case Study

On 28th January, 1986, seven people were killed on the space shuttle they were piloting, the Challenger, when it exploded just over a minute into flight.  The technical cause of the disaster was the leak (blow by) of fuel from one of the solid rocket booster (SRB) joints resulting in rupture of the external fuel tank and shuttle break up.  The leak was caused by rubber o-rings not completely sealing the SRB joint as the abnormally low temperatures experienced at the launch site affected the materials properties (making the rubber less resilient to structural vibrations).  However, technology was not the only contributor to this disaster, other issues such as management, ethics, political and social pressures all had their part to play.  This case study examines the main issues surrounding the Space Shuttle Challenger incident and demonstrates the complex nature of a real-life problem.

First Lecture Session:

This session is used to outline how and why the disaster occurred. Clips from a NASA video are used to present technical information on the topic, and video clips of an interview with an engineer involved in the disaster is used to give further insights into the event. You are encouraged to address issues as they arise and participate in class discussion. After this sessions you should research independently into the topic to gain a greater understanding of the case study.

Second Lecture Session:

This includes three mini-lectures by technical experts which cover, the political history of the program, the impact on society of the teacher in the space program and the technical cause of the disaster (rubber O’ring performance and rocket booster design). These are approximately ten minutes long and after each presentation you are expected to interview the experts to find out further information.  The session finishes with a role play exercise which requires two volunteer students to act out a telephone conversation that took place between the NASA government and the technical engineers from the company Morton Thiokol.

Learning Outcomes

At the end of the case study you should be able to

  • present information to an appropriate level and format as demonstrated by a report in the style of a popular science article
  • explain how the space shuttle challenger disaster resulted from a number of different factors
  • describe how rubber has different mechanical properties at different temperatures
  • explain how increased engineering knowledge has led to improvements in space shuttle safety


You are expected write an article in the style of a popular science magazine (for example New Scientist/Materials World) considering one aspect of the overall problem. Students are given example articles from Materials World as guidelines for the required technical level and format of their report. (Tips for report writing and example popular article

Useful Resources:

Lewis, Richard S., Challenger: the final voyage, Columbia University Press, New York, 1988.

McConnell, Malcolm, Challenger: a major malfunction, Doubleday, Garden City, N.Y., 1987.

Trento, Joseph J., Prescription for disaster, Crown, New York, c1987.

Vaughan, Diane, The Challenger Launch Decision, The University of Chigago Press, London 1996.