ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

Richard Feynman - The Man Who Explained the Challenger Disaster

Updated on December 14, 2012

The Last Flight of the Challenger


Space Shuttle Challanger - A Morning that Went Terribly Wrong

On January 28, 1986 at 11:39 EST, the world was stunned by the TV images of the space shuttle Challenger blown to bits in the sky before our eyes. The explosion happened only 73 seconds into the flight. All seven crew members perished.

We had grown so accustomed to technological marvels that we expected nothing less than routine success. There had been 24 successful space shuttle flights prior to the loss of the Challenger. A study concluded that about 85 percent of Americans had heard about the disaster within an hour. One reason for the intense interest in what had become a routine mission was the presence on board of a schoolteacher, Christa McAuliffe. She was the first member of a project called the Teacher in Space.

It would be 32 months before another shuttle launch. President Reagan appointed the Rogers Commission to investigate the disaster. Named after its chairman, former Secretary of State William P. Rogers, the 14 member commission LINK included former astronauts Neil Armstrong and Sally Ride, and Chuck Yeager, the first man to break the sound barrier. The most significant member of the Rogers Commission was the famous theoretical physicist Dr. Richard Feynman.

Feynman's ID badge while at the Manhattan Project


Richard Feynman

Richard Feynman was born in Far Rockaway, Queens, New York. He never lost his New York accent. After graduating from Massachusetts Institute of Technology he received his Ph.D from Princeton. The British journal Physics World did a study in 1999. In a poll of 130 leading physicists around the world, Feynman was ranked among the top ten greatest physicists in history. Feynman was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics in 1965. One of the things Feynman was famous for was his ability to make difficult concepts easy to understand, such as using drawings to explain the actions of sub atomic particles. These drawings became known as Feynman Diagrams. His independent way of doing things brought him at odds with Commission Chairman Rogers, who wanted the members to follow a schedule agreed to by the commission members. Rogers once said "Feynman is becoming a real pain."

Feynman interviewed engineers from NASA as well as well as engineers at Morton Thiokol, the manufacturer of the O rings, the objects that would eventually be blamed for the Challenger disaster. He challenged the commission's finding that NASA was capable of handling future safety concerns. In his dissenting minority report he concluded that there were fundamental misunderstandings at NASA about the statistics used to determine safety. The NASA numbers held that the odds of an accident were one in one hundred thousand. Feynman determined that the odds were more like one in one hundred. If the commission did not agree to include Feynman's minority report he insisted that his name be removed from the commission.

The O rings on the Challenger were rubber rings that formed a seal between the sections of the solid rocket booster. On the fated flight, one of the O rings failed allowing hot gas to escape and ignite.

Feynman Makes the Complex Simple

Just as Feynman helped make theoretical physics more understandable with his Feynman Diagrams, in his testimony at the televised commission hearing he made it easy for the world to understand what happened on that terrible morning. As you can see in the video to the left, Feynman, with his charming New York accent, took an O ring and plunged it into ice water. When he withdrew it, he demonstrated how the rubber ring did not return to its shape before immersion. thus explaining how the O ring failure caused the disaster. The night before the launch, the temperature at the Kennedy Space Center plunged to 18° Fahrenheit, well below what Morton Thiokol had determined was the minimal safety temperature of 40° Fahrenheit. Feynman could have blathered on and on with numbers and charts and scientific jargon. Instead he used a simple physical demonstration that anyone watching could readily understand.

Feynman realized that his job was not to show everybody how smart he was. His job was to help everybody to understand the reason for a tragedy.


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment
    • rfmoran profile imageAUTHOR

      Russ Moran - The Write Stuff 

      8 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Thanks for stopping by K. None of us will ever forget the Challenger.

    • kschimmel profile image

      Kimberly Schimmel 

      8 years ago from North Carolina, USA

      I well remember Challenger. Thanks for keeping its memory alive.


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)