Why the Challenger Exploded

Why Challenger Exploded

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
This entry was posted in davidbdale, Lectures. Bookmark the permalink.

27 Responses to Why the Challenger Exploded

  1. runnerd4 says:

    This taught me that causal arguments dig deep into the cause and effect of the event. It doesn’t just say this causes that. It goes back much further and explains why each thing causes the next.

  2. cardinal7218 says:

    This demonstration taught me that you can really make any causal argument as long as you can back it up with evidence or logic. You can get creative and think outside the box about what causes something. As long as you can support your claim, your claim doesn’t have to be the most obvious one.

  3. clementine102 says:

    This demonstration taught me that something so strange that you wouldn’t expect to affect a rocket ship to launch was the cause of the failure of the Challenger. You took a tragic event and related the cause of it to something I wouldn’t expect to be a cause but you proved that cause very well. The cause could definitely be so much more complicated than two simple horses but you narrowed it down to that.

  4. oaktree1234 says:

    This demonstration showed that when writing a causal argument it’s important to really look at the source of the issue. I probably would have said the O rings were the cause of the failed space launch and left it at that. It’s important to remember you can always take it one step further and include more detail.

  5. Nimadhury says:

    This demonstration taught me to look more deeply and “outside of the box” to argue for the reason for something. While there’s most certainly a simple answer, such as the rubber O-rings in this case, to build upon a case it would be better to look into the reasoning behind what ultimately causes something to occur.

  6. bigblue821 says:

    This had taught me that if someone was really determined, they could make a causal argument go back many, many years. The argument does make sense but also has such a degree of separation that it is indirectly causal.

  7. SmilingDogTheProfWants says:

    Casual arguments can be anything you want as long as you can follow a coherent course of events and facts that lead to your claim. It also proves that you can ignore other factors as long as your point can be loosely connected and the topic is interesting and fun.

  8. malcolmyarber says:

    This taught me that causal arguments go deep into the timeline of events. Show’s the causes and effects and why certain events happened. Dives deeper into the reasoning why every event has a meaning behind it and has an effect on the next.

  9. This leads me to believe causal arguments that the challenger exploded due to its environment and different factors. This is also similar to a different writer’s technique known as cause and effect of why something happened and the after affects of why this occurred. This gives an overview of what causes the next thing to occur. Speaking on the ethical reason of why the challenger exploded could also be “wrong place wrong time” explanation.

  10. profs22 says:

    This demonstration taught me that a causal argument is something that you would not normally expect and looks more deeply into the argument and is backed up by reason of how something occured and why

  11. rowanstudent24 says:

    Tis taught me that you go extremely deep in the cause and effect. There are causes to the causes that explain the effect and why it happened. The more causes and detail you add, the clearer the effect becomes.

  12. shadowswife says:

    From the way this causal argument made me feel so confused about how absurd it seemed to be, I can see that a causal argument can be argued with anything no matter how bizarre the claim is. However, you should be able to have enough evidence to prove why you made this claim so it can make sense.

  13. jeffbezos123 says:

    This taught me that the reasoning behind something can be either physical or ethical. Sometimes the answe could be completly diffrent of what you thought of. Like you said, with the example of the two hourses asses.

  14. l8tersk8ter says:

    This taught me that concepts with seemingly no connection can actually be found to have a cause and effect relationship. it also showed that its possible for there to be more than one cause of an effect (O-rings and temperature, rocket explodes), or more than one effect from a cause (two horses, cart width and train width)

  15. dayzur says:

    This taught me that this truly deeper than just a “this thing caused this” and there are a lot of factors that play into what truly happened. As we see, a perfect example is the challenger exploding and the two horses being correlated somehow.

  16. aquarela says:

    This taught me that causal arguments may help us have a fresh point of view through a brainstorming about two themes that don’t seem to be interrelated.

  17. mhmokaysure says:

    This example taught me that although something may seem like a clear cause, when writing about it in a causal argument it does not have to be the focus. As long as you can strongly back something up, it can be the main point in your causal argument, not having to be the obvious and apparent cause.

  18. sonnypetro29 says:

    This taught me that you can make a causal argument about pretty much anything, all you need to do is have some evidence to back your argument up.

  19. comicdub says:

    This demonstration taught me that causal arguments can go down a chain all the way to something really far in the past not just the obvious cause that is right at the surface. This can lead to some really crazy arguments that actually hold true such as the size of two horses assess being the cause of the challenger exploding.

  20. pardonmyfrench13 says:

    This taught me that many things lead to cause and effect, not just one. They can be anything as long as it makes sense and follows a timeline. As long as you can support whatever claim you made, you can come up with some creative causes that many people wouldn’t have even thought of.

  21. sunshine2818 says:

    The causal argument taught me to look deeper and to continue exploring the possibles. You will know if you’ve gone deep enough when you find an unlikely outcome to the question

  22. gooferious says:

    The demonstration taught me that sometimes you have to dig a little deeper to find that answer you need. Try to find the cause and effect by starting at the beginning on known research. With the Challenger they concluded that because of a horse’s ass that first thought ultimately led to the demise of those who died the day the Challenger was launched; while it seems ridiculous the logic behind it makes quite sense as technically one thing leads to another and so on.

  23. corinnebuck1219 says:

    This taught me about casual arguments and how you look for source lf problem and back up with evidence and logic

  24. bluntwriting88 says:

    For causation, the human mind may interpret different points in the decision tree as being the ‘true cause.’ This may extend back as far as the Roman times if we want to examine what really caused Challenger to explode. As we can observe, some such interpretations for causation are not valid, which may obfuscate the true cause and effect relationship. Nonetheless, going deep into detail and exploring the history of events leading to one being examined such as Challenger helps paint a necessary multifactorial picture with adequate depth – only that sometimes one will drown in those depths if too absurd or far removed from the examined events.

  25. gabythefujoshi18 says:

    This demonstration showed me how complex the causal arguments can be. From the NASA story about the Challenger explosion, there was a domino effect in all the causes of the explosion that dates back to the Roman Empire. Causes can be interpreted the way the writer wants to present them and the effect can be connected to causal events that at first glance may not seem to correlate, but to some degree they do. Look behind and dig deeper in finding causes.

  26. tcarter101 says:

    This taught me the reasoning behind the ethical and physical arguments. if they had not forced the scientist to intergrade a piece of technology they weren’t ready to include and instead followed what the scientist said the death could have possibly be prevented.

  27. 612119d says:

    This taught me there is always a cause to and effect and to find the cause you may have to deep and the deeper you dig the more you find out. You can always do extra research to find the cause, in this case we looked deeper into it,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s