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How an Organizational Breakdown at NASA Let the Challenger Lift Off

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The "massive malfunction" that killed seven astronauts aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986 also forever changed NASA, an agency that seemed infallible. What breakdown in the decision-making process led to the shuttle lifting off? The organizational structure of NASA itself played a bigger role than you might imagine.

In a new 20-minute documentary produced by Retro Report and The New York Times, the managers and engineers who were involved in the decision to send Challenger up that January day describe what went wrong. The engineers at Morton-Thiokol, the makers of the O-rings that failed during launch, had recommended against launch because of the unusually cold temperatures that day. But NASA's managers reversed the engineers' recommendation—and the Challenger lifted off.


It's a heartbreaking video—the people who played a role in the disaster are still grappling with their responsibility, almost three decades later. "[NASA] was viewed internationally as a fantastic place. The Apollo missions gave it an aura of invincibility," says Diane Vaughan, the author of a book about the decision. "No one was expecting anything to go wrong." [Retro Report]