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Lesson Plan

The Space Race: The Challenger Tragedy

About this Video
This 18-minute video introduces students to the complex and often misunderstood causes of the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, one of the most important cultural events of the 1980s. It examines the rhetorical context for one of President Ronald Reagan’s most memorable speeches. This video is useful for lessons on the U.S. space program, the culture of the 1980s, and as a unit in a business class on organizational culture. The video could also accompany and contextualize lessons that rely on President Reagan’s address to the nation after the accident as a primary source.
Students will learn
  • How the United States sought to expand its space program in the 1980s.
  • How the organizational culture at NASA fostered “normalization of deviance,” setting the stage for the Challenger accident.
  • How the problems of organizational culture that contributed to the Challenger explosion are reflected in other catastrophes, like the 2008 financial collapse.
Lessons From the Challenger Tragedy
Subjects
  • U.S. History
  • Earth and Space Science
  • Science
Topics
  • Space Race
  • Space
  • Ronald Reagan
  • 1980s America
  • The Postwar Era (1945-1980)
  • The Modern Era (1980-Present)
  • Engineering
For Teachers
Introducing the Lesson

On January 28, 1984, just 73 seconds after takeoff, the space shuttle Challenger exploded in the Florida sky, killing all seven crew members.

The explosion stunned millions of viewers who had tuned in to see history being made. Christa McAuliffe, a high school science teacher from Concord, NH, was among the crew, and had promised to teach a class from the shuttle.

Initially, the explosion was attributed to the failure of O-rings on a rocket fuel booster. But a presidential commission investigating the disaster revealed that the O-rings were only part of the story. The commission also concluded that flaws in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s organizational structure and decision-making processes had played key roles in the catastrophe.

For years, NASA knew that the O-rings did not perform well in low temperatures, but those concerns were set aside in the haste to launch, under pressure from NASA’s ambitious plans to expand its shuttle program.

As temperatures dipped below freezing before takeoff, engineers from Morton-Thiokol, the firm that had designed the fuel boosters, warned NASA that the launch should not take place if the temperature dipped below 54 degrees. NASA overrode those warnings.

In response to the commission’s findings, NASA completely redesigned the space shuttle, initiated changes in quality control, and revamped its management culture. Today, the episode continues to teach lessons about engineering safety, ethics in management, and the dangers of succumbing group-think in large organizations, especially when lives are at stake.

Comprehension Questions
  • Apart from its tragic ending, what was unique about the last mission of the Challenger?
  • Why did leaders at NASA feel pressure to go forward with the launch?
  • What technical failure led to the Challenger explosion?
  • What is meant by “normalization of deviance”? How is it related to the Challenger explosion?
Discussion Questions and Writing Prompts
  • How was the Challenger explosion related to a failure of NASA’s leaders to do something different from what they’d been trained to do? How did this same failure contribute to the explosion of the Columbia in 2003?
  • The U.S. space program has always been both symbolic and scientific. Are there other examples of scientific breakthroughs, programs, or missions that have functioned as symbols of America’s power or ideals?
  • In spite of the risks and costs, should the U.S. resume regular missions to space? If another country does initiate regular space missions, how would that affect America’s status in the world?
  • Just as organizations like NASA or the U.S. Navy can fall prey to “normalization of deviance,” is this a problem that whole nations can experience? Both historically and today, has the United States ever experienced catastrophe or failure because of the “normalization of deviance”?
Additional Resources
Transcript for "Lessons From the Challenger Tragedy" Retro Report
President Reagan's Speech to the nation after the tragedy. Reagan Foundation
“Challenger, Columbia and the Nature of Calamity." Retro Report

Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem

Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequences of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact or develop over the course of a text.

Evaluate how historical events were shaped by unique circumstance of time and place, and broader historical contexts

Analyze multiple and complex causes and effect of events in the past.

Skill 3.A: Identify and describe a claim and/or argument in a non-text-based source.

Theme 5: Politics and Power (PCE)