Why the Challenger Exploded

What do we mean by “Why”?

Donald Barthelme’s short story, “Views of My Father Weeping” begins with two little sections.

An aristocrat was riding down the street in his carriage. He ran over my father.


After the ceremony I walked back to the city. I was trying to think of the reason my father had died. Then I remembered: he was run over by a carriage.

Barthelme is playing with the two meanings of “why.” The son is wondering “or what purpose did my father die?” or “what moral imperative does his death serve?” or “how does the world benefit from his death?” But the answer he comes up with serves the OTHER meaning of “why.” He died BECAUSE a carriage ran over him. Not “what was the purpose?” but “what was the cause?”

Why Challenger Exploded

In “Why Challenger Exploded” we explore a different ambiguity to questions of “why.” At what point in a long causal chain do we isolate a single CAUSE and identify it as the explanation for “WHY” something happened? 

In January, 1986, the solid booster rockets that were to launch NASA’s space shuttle Challenger into orbit suffered a catastrophic failure 73 seconds into the launch. All seven crew were killed in the disaster, most likely from the impact of their cabin striking the ocean below. The weather in Florida was very cold; ice had formed on the launch pad overnight, but the launch proceeded despite the known risk of low ambient temperatures, partly because of public interest in this particular launch. For the first time, a non-astronaut—”ordinary citizen” Christa McAuliffe—was a member of a shuttle crew. The nation was riveted.

The launch, most uncommonly, was broadcast live on TV. Millions of schoolkids watched as the events unfolded, including McAuliffe’s students, gathered in their classroom to celebrate their teacher’s accomplishment. For 72 seconds, they were jubilant, but then an explosion separated the boosters from the shuttle and the launch catastrophically failed.

The Common Explanation

The immediate cause of the explosion was the failure of O-Rings to contain the immense pressure of combustion within the rocket.

The complicated issue of causation

The answer to the question “Why did the Challenger Fail?” or its corollary question, “Why did Christa McAuliffe die?” is complicated, since no single cause can be isolated.

Several causes can be named, some distant, some immediate, some precipitating.
Among them:

  • The O-rings failed
  • The design required a warm ambient temperature at launch
  • NASA ignored warnings that the weather was too cold
  • The decision to send a civilian to space created pressure to launch
  • NASA was emboldened by the program’s success to take an unprecedented risk

A most unlikely explanation

One explanation very rarely heard is that the Challenger failed because of the way Romans decided to build their horse-drawn carts when Rome ruled most of the known world and could establish a global standard.


Roman war chariots were built with wheels spaced 4 feet, 8-1/2 inches apart. The apparently arbitrary width was determined to be the width of two war horses’ rear ends yoked side by side to the chariot. The standard assured that horses would not pull a too-wide wagon through any opening wide enough only for them.

Before long, the much traveled and justly famous Roman roads developed deep grooves at the established separation, discouraging any other wheel spacings.

As England was part of the Roman Empire, English carts came to adopt the Roman standard to take advantage of the path of least resistance established by the ruts carved by Roman chariots.

Golden Chariot

When railroads first began to replace horse-drawn carts as the preferred mode of transportation for long journeys, the same cartwrights using the same patterns and tools as they used for carts, passed on the standard wheel spacing with which they were already familiar. By 1850, the 4 feet, 8-1/2 inch spacing had become known as the “standard guage” for railroad cars throughout the British Empire, including India, where the connection between Chariots and Railroads is obvious in the photo above.

Early railroads in America naturally adopted the odd but increasingly accepted English “standard gauge” as well. As more track was laid in England and America, deviation from the standard was a costly and foolish error for any investor in a new train line.

Train Tunnel

Tunnels were carved through mountains no wider than necessary to accommodate two trains passing one another, which limited not only the width but also the height of the cars or their cargo. The width of two Roman warhorse rear ends had come to dominate the widths of roads, then rails, then railcars, then tunnels, then what could be hauled in one piece by train through the mountains.

Solid Boosters

The solid rocket boosters that propelled many successful shuttle launches into space are enormous structures, as you can see by comparing them to the trucks following the shuttle conveyor to the launch pad.

When NASA awarded the contract for the design and construction of those boosters to the Morton-Thiokol Corporation of Utah, the die was cast for catastrophe. The boosters could have been built as a solid single piece, but those segments would never have made it through the tunnels they would have to have traversed through the Rocky Mountains on their way to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

So, they were built in sections, shipped in pieces, assembled in Florida, and wrapped by the now-infamous rubber O-Rings that failed so catastrophically on the day of the Challenger disaster.

Why did Christa McAuliffe die? Because of the width of a horse’s ass.

Your Reply

Reply below what this demonstration taught you about Causal Arguments.

About davidbdale

Inventor of and sole practitioner of 299-word Very Short Novels. www.davidbdale.wordpress.com
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27 Responses to Why the Challenger Exploded

  1. honeysucklelilac says:

    there is always an explanation for your explanation, make sure your casual argument is the absolute starting point as to why something happened. the saying might be cliché but think outside the box and dig deeper than what is presented to you in your findings.


  2. carsonwentz1186 says:

    What this taught me about causal arguments is that something that happened years ago can be tied to something that happened fairly recently and can be connected to the weirdest and most interesting things.


  3. mrmba1 says:

    There’s always a larger picture, and cause is not always the same as reason. Sometimes the true reason behind things has to be researched and the first assumed conclusion is not always the correct one- or at least not the only one.


  4. compiistudent says:

    This discussion showed just how much of a domino effect somethings can have. This means that there are explanations that keep getting added on. So when you write a causal argument, you have to boil it down to the last possible explanation, to the point where you can’t explain any further.


  5. thecommoncase says:

    It taught me that finding the true cause of something is not always simple, and that there are many different factors that can be looked into that could potentially lead to the cause.


  6. icedcoffeeislife says:

    This demonstration has made it clear how there are different causes to why something has happened. You have to decide which one is the most important to you. This has helped me have a better understanding of how to set up my causal argument essay.


  7. justheretopass says:

    This taught me to not just settle for a why but to look deeper in your why explanation. You have to strive to find the explanation at which we stop finding explanations.


    • davidbdale says:

      Depending on the scope of your investigation, yes. You might be looking for the ONE physical cause: fuel explodes. But why it leaked has one cause too. And why O-rings were required has a cause. Etc.


  8. person345 says:

    This lesson taught me that the cause of something may not be what it seems. When the Challenger exploded, we instantly thought that it was because of the ice, but it was actually because the rocket boosters were made in four pieces instead of one. The cause of something is more thought provoking than you think.


  9. This taught me that a causal argument can have a ridiculous amount of layers. An explanation can always be further elaborated on or explained. There are so many unseen or unspoken factors that go into any given variable of an argument, and many that are often disregarded, such as the width of two horse’s asses playing into the death of a teacher on a rocket.


    • davidbdale says:

      I wonder if I should tell the story backwards. What do you think, Pop? O-rings/assembled parts/size of tunnels/width of train tracks/width of chariot wheels/width of two horses? I think giving away the punch line at the start might create an anticlimax.


  10. johnwick66 says:

    This lesson taught me two things. One is that in your cause and effect argument you need to make sure you give a explanation that doesn’t require another explanation. Then two, if you look hard enough you could likely pull a cause and effect argument for something from anything if you look hard enough (the width of two horses caused the challenger to explode)


  11. christianity19 says:

    This demonstration taught me about a casual argument is that you can see it from different ways and see what actually happened. Even it also taught me that casual argument is one that focuses specifically on how something has caused, or has led to, some particular problem.


  12. imgoingswimming says:

    This demonstration showed us that when we try to find the cause of an issue we need to find the root of the problem. Is it a parking brake failing that caused your car to roll down a hill, or was it gravity that pushed it down the hill? You need to then look deeper into why in certain cases like the O ring failure on the challenger. In this case, it was because of the average size of the road that we let the Romans decide caused it to have to be made in multiple pieces in order for it to be traveled.


  13. capched says:

    I learned that there is more than one reason for things happening. Some reasons can’t be explained, such as gravity causing things to be pulled downward towards the Earth. Anything can cause everything to happen.


    • capched says:

      Also, this helped me to understand that there is much more to a cause than meets the eye. Causal Arguments require a basis of understanding so that analyzing the cause won’t be too difficult.


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