February 9, 1996
ASBESTOS SCARE LED TO CHALLENGER DISASTER
Ten years ago last month, most of the world reacted in horror when the Challenger space shuttle blew up a few miles off the south Florida coast just a few minutes after launch. TV cameras focused on the anguished faces of family members and friends of the astronauts as the tragedy unfolded before their eyes. The presence among the seven-person crew of Christa McAulife, an attractive young New Hampshire teacher, added the poignancy of the disaster.
The CBS news magazine show "60 Minutes" was among many media outlets which did tenth anniversary pieces on the Challenger disaster. Correspondent Mike Wallace focused on accounts by two retired engineers from the Morton-Thiokol Incorporated, or MTI, the prime contractor. Both these men alleged that they warned officials of NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, that faulty O rings on the space shuttle imperilled the mission. These rubber rings run around the joints in each of the booster rocket's four segments, supposedly making the fit both snug and tight.
According to the MTI engineers interviewed by Mike Wallace, the rings deteriorated rapidly during cold weatherand on the January morning of the Challenger disaster, temperatures were below freezing, and the rings were coated with ice. Nonetheless, NASA ordered the launch to proceed as scheduled. And within minutes, flames burned through one of the rings and ignited an external fuel tank, causing Challenger to explode.
But the story that Mike Wallace and "60 Minutes" did not tell was why the O rings did not work. Incredibly, the reason involves hand-held hair dryers. In the 1970s, the Consumer Product Safety Commission decided that asbestos was too dangerous to use in sealants in these household items, and forbade its use in products to which the public might be exposed. No evidence existed that asbestos was dangerous in dryers, but the CPSC had its way. Fearing litigation, manufacturers started making a different type of sealant altogetherone which did not work nearly so well, but which satisfied regulatory zealots.
So the Challenger engineers had to make do with they called "lucky putty," which was not nearly so sturdy as sealants made with asbestos. The entire sordid story is documented in a book, The Asbestos Racket, by Michael J. Bennett, who reports that Morton-Thiokol engineers raised concerns about the O rings before the launch. As Bennett documents, had asbestos remained as a component of the O rings, the tragedy well might have been averted. This is a hiddenand unreportedcost of the great asbestos scare.
Mike Wallace of "60 Minutes" took the Challenger story a speculative step further, repeating decade-old rumors that NASA went ahead with the launch so that President Reagan could announce a successful space shot during his State of the Union that very evening. Wallace offered no proof of this slanderfor none exists. Instead, Wallace missed a chance to report how a bogus scare cost the lives of seven brave Americans.