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Challenger: An Accident Rooted in History...
Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident

On the morning of January 28, 1986, the Challenger space shuttle exploded within seconds of takeoff, killing its seven astronauts. The incident sparked a presidential commission and inquiry into the causes of the disaster. The chart was prepared for the presidential commission investigating the Challenger incident. The first illustration was the legend and placed on the overhead projector initially; the second illustration, the chart proper, subsequently replaced the legend on the projector. Because the commission was interested in the relationship between temperature and O-ring damage, they directed staff members to prepare a chart that would show this relationship.

Questions to Consider
  1. What relationship does the chart show?

  2. Is it effective in presenting the data that illustrates the relationship between temperature and O-ring damage? Explain the reasons for your thinking.

  3. How would the mode of presentation (seeing the legend first, having it removed, and finally seeing the chart without the legend) have affected an audience's understanding of the chart?

  4. One shuttle manager's estimate of the odds of a Challenger-type disaster occurring were 1/100,000. If NASA were to launch one shuttle every week (i.e., 52 launches per year), approximately how long would it take for a disaster to occur if his estimate were accurate? What historic circumstances might have influenced his thinking?


a) Legend


b) Chart


Source: Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident, vol. 5 (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1986.) pp. 895-896.


Related Links

  • Federation of American Scientists
    Under "Education and Outreach," an excellent collection of primary sources (in Adobe Acrobat), including wills and probate inventories. A comprehensive and very useful collection of commentary and annotated web links associated with the Challenger incident.