Twenty years ago, millions of television
viewers were horrified to witness the live broadcast of the space
shuttle Challenger exploding 73 seconds into flight, ending the lives
of the seven astronauts on board. And they were equally horrified to
learn in the aftermath of the disaster that the faulty design had been
chosen by NASA to satisfy powerful politicians who had demanded the
mission be launched, even under unsafe conditions.

Meanwhile, a major
factor in the disaster was that NASA had been ordered to use a weaker
sealant for environmental reasons. Finally, NASA consoled itself and
the nation with the realization that all frontiers are dangerous and to
a certain extent, such a disaster should be accepted as inevitable.

least, that seems to be how many people remember it, in whole or in
part. That’s how the story of the Challenger is often retold, in oral
tradition and broadcast news, in public speeches and in private
conversations and all around the Internet. But spaceflight historians
believe that each element of the opening paragraph is factually untrue
or at best extremely dubious. They are myths, undeserving of popular
belief and unworthy of being repeated at every anniversary of the

By James Oberg

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