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Investigating the Challenger

Investigating the Challenger

Greene farmer’s lasting mark on shuttle program

Every generation has a seminal moment: for the Greatest Generation it was the bombing of Pearl Harbor; for the Boomers it was Kennedy’s assassination; for the Millennials it was 9/11; and for Generation X it has to be the Challenger accident on Jan. 28, 1986.

Many of the Gen-Xers were watching the event live in their classrooms because New Hampshire teacher Christa McAuliffe had won the Teacher in Space Project to become the first civilian to fly in space. Many teachers co-opted this event into their science lesson plans and within the first minute of the launch, students and teachers watched in horror as the shuttle disintegrated into a fireball over the Atlantic Ocean at 11:39 a.m. that Tuesday morning. All seven crew members died that day, including: McAuliffe; Ellison Onizuka; Ronald McNair; Judith Resnik; Dick Scobee; Gregory Jarvis; and pilot Michael Smith, whose voice was last captured on the flight deck recorder uttering, “uh-oh” upon launching.

An investigation into the accident was initiated by then-President Ronald Reagan on Feb. 3, 1986, and one current Greene Countian had an important role in finding the answer: Dr. Alton Keel.

Keel, who holds his doctorate in aerospace engineering from the University of Virginia, now owns and operates Fairhill Farm, a working cattle farm with beautiful views of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Stanardsville. In 1986, however, Keel was the associate director of the Office of Management and Budget in Washington, D.C. He was finishing what he’d hoped would be his last task before retiring to the public sector when he received a call from the White House on Feb. 8, 1986.

“I had an agreement with President Reagan and Don Regan, who was chief of staff at that time,” Keel said recently. “I had been wanting to leave government for a while and they convinced me to stay one more year to help the new director put together a budget, but the agreement was once we did the budget there’d be fanfare and they’d send me off to the private sector with all kinds of appreciation and acknowledgement.”

But, in the midst of creating that budget, the Challenger accident happened.

“On my final day—Saturday, Feb. 8—after doing a presentation to the Congressional members, I went home that evening,” Keel recalled. “Then the phone was ringing and the White House was calling.”

Regan was calling him to tell him that William Rogers, former secretary of state and attorney general—and chairman of the committee investigating the accident—wanted Keel to be the executive director of the Challenger Commission. Keel was reluctant, ready for his next adventure.

“You’ve got the right background and you’re analytic,” Keel said Regan told him. “I said, ‘You remember our promise?’ He said, ‘Yeah, this is one more task.’ I told him I’d think about it and hung up.”

The phone rang once again—from the White House—but this time it was Rogers saying he’d like to have Keel as the executive director of the commission.

“I told him I’d think about it,” Keel said.

The pair made a commitment to meet up for brunch on Sunday, Feb. 9.

“I walked in and there are two glasses of champagne. He sits down, lifts the glass and says, ‘Here’s to you being the executive director.’ So, I was now the executive director,” Keel laughed.

While the committee had met prior to Keel’s involvement, on Monday, Feb. 10, in the closed session, there was one pivotal event that changed the course of the investigation.

Lawrence B. Mulloy, head of the booster rocket program at NASA-Marshall Space Flight Center, told the committee that everyone, including the engineers at Morton Thiokol—the manufacturer of the solid rocket boosters—agreed it was OK to launch, despite the extremely cold weather. The lowest temperature a shuttle had launched to that point had been at 53 degrees. On Jan. 28, 1986, in Florida, the ambient temperature was 36 degrees.

“Allan McDonald (with Morton Thiokol), who was sitting at the wall, stood up and was shaking. He asked if he could say something and Rogers said yes,” Keel remembered. “He said, ‘We at Thiokol recommended not to launch.’ Then he sat back down because he wanted to clarify there was reluctance.”

Rogers immediately asked McDonald to stand up again and repeat what he’d said.

“He gave a more elaborate explanation of the fact they recommended not to launch because they were concerned about the behavior of the O-ring seal in very cold weather,” Keel said.

The commission immediately went into closed session.

“We had to get control of the process and NASA had not been forthcoming that far,” Keel said. “They weren’t necessarily being untruthful, but they were speaking in partial-truths. They were not being genuine.”

Keel said the commission took on an investigative role after that, instead of just overseeing the investigation by NASA. They told the president they did not want anyone who was involved with the decision to launch to be involved in the investigation.

The next day, the commission agreed it didn’t want a dog-and-pony show so they decided to hold closed sessions at Cape Kennedy for Feb. 13 and 14.

“We wanted to know what they knew and on day two we wanted every single person who was involved in that one decision in that room,” Keel said.

The following Tuesday, the commission held an open session and even though they’d agreed not to speak about weather in that open session until they had all the information, it did not go as planned.

Another commission member, Dr. Richard Feynman, a theoretical physicist and winner of the 1965 Nobel Prize, decided to do a demonstration. During that televised session, Feynman placed a sample of the shuttle material in ice water to show how it became less resilient and unable to seal at colder temperatures.

“We — the commission —knew that,” Keel said. “The public impression is that was when we discovered it was a problem with the O-ring, but he was doing a little showboating.”

In a fax to NASA prior to the launch, Thiokol wrote it believed the O-ring temperature had to be above 53 degrees at the time of launch. Thiokol also noted that between 47-52 degrees there was “no blow by,” which means gasses seeping past the O-ring in the joint of the booster once it had sealed.

“Project ambient conditions (temp & wind) to determine launch time,” said the fax that lead to a conference call between the company and NASA representatives.

“NASA blew a gasket and basically they said, ‘You’re changing the launch conditions. We won’t be able to launch until April with that criteria. This is outrageous,’” Keel noted.

The Thiokol representatives asked to get off the conference call to review again and after a few hours came back and recommended to launch, saying there wasn’t conclusive evidence that temperature affected primary O-ring blow by. They said if the primary ring didn’t seal then a secondary one would seal. Keel noted those who argued against this choice were the engineers.

“But the analysis was flawed in more than three different areas,” Keel said. “First is about the temperature effect—the temperature does effect it.”

NASA presented evidence of the times there had been an incident on a launch, meaning gas got past the O-ring and either eroded it or made soot between the primary and secondary rings. There had been incidents at 53 degrees, 57 and 58 degrees, 63 degrees, 70 degrees and 75 degrees.

That’s why they believed temperature wasn’t an effective determination of the O-ring’s reliability.

“This is (the data) they were looking at at that time, but now I’m the staff director and trying to look at the data and I said it didn’t make sense,” Keel said. “They were only looking at where incidents had occurred, but that doesn’t tell you the probability. I asked how many flights did you have where there wasn’t an incident and to plot those.”

Every single non-incident flight was at 65 degrees and over. The O-ring was five times less resilient (or slower to respond) at 30 degrees than 70 degrees, Keel said.

“That was kind of disappointing to me; the critical

analysis was flawed,” he said.

Another thing that was wrong with the decision to launch is that the secondary O-ring was not in a good place to seal if the first did fail. When the joint was rocking back and forth during the launch, the gap at the secondary position was actually larger than the primary one.

“It’s called a Critical 1 joint; if it fails, the mission fails and there is loss of life,” Keel said. “You have to have redundancy on the criticality 1. But as they received more data, they had realized they could not count on the secondary O-ring sealing quick enough.”

During the Challenger flight, gas leaked through the right solid rocket motor aft field joint at or shortly after ignition weakened—and eventually penetrated—the external tank filled with liquid hydrogen, which is extremely flammable. In photos, smoke was first discernible by that joint at .678 seconds after ignition. At 58.78 seconds after launch, the first flicker of flame appeared at that joint, which grew into a large plume, causing the structural breakup of the vehicle at about 73 seconds—and the fire spread rapidly.

The third flaw in the process was NASA forcing the contractor to prove it was unsafe to launch.

“The flight condition said they have to prove it’s safe to launch, which is quite the opposite,” Keel said. “Flight conditions said that everyone involved in the flight decision—from contractors to NASA—attests it is safe to launch.”

Keel said the 120-day investigation was a “grueling—rewarding, but grueling—experience.”

The report was presented on June 6 since the commission was under a directive to finish in those 120 days.

The headline conclusion, Keel said, was that there was a fatally flawed decision-making process. The second conclusion was that the design of the O-rings was flawed and the booster would need to be redesigned before any flights could occur. The third was NASA needed to pay more attention to safety.

Keel, who grew up near Langley Air Force Base, said he had space in his blood. Langley was the start of the space program. Neither Keel nor the commission wanted to take down NASA in the process.

“NASA was clearly a treasure,” he said. “I was proud of holding NASA accountable, but not destroying the reputation of the institution. I felt we fulfilled that.”

He said the commission itself spent a lot of time making sure it got it right, taking depositions from anyone who said they had information about the accident.

“We were so careful—almost to a fault—that we won accolades from everyone,” he said. “We said we weren’t going to ignore anything; we didn’t care how bizarre it was.”

They were told it was aliens that shot it down, or the Navy or Russians, and even that God did it.

“That’s in the Congressional record now,” he said.

Keel said NASA had become complacent, as well. He said in his opinion, NASA should never have put civilians on the shuttle.

“It was too risky,” he said. “Every person on every shuttle flight should have been a professional who knew the risk—basically a test pilot. The risk of failure was (nearly) 2%. If you had 2% of the domestic airlines fail, you’d have thousands of flights crashing every day, but the probability of failure in a commercial aircraft is quite small—more than 1 in a million.”

Keel said he took only one day off in that entire time and that was Easter Sunday.

“I had a colonel from West Point on staff and it was like three or four o’clock in the morning and I decided I was going to ask everybody how they felt about the experience,” Keel said. “I started with the colonel and he said, ‘Well, Dr. Keel, let me put it this way: it’s like having gone to Ranger School. I’m really glad I went to Ranger School, but I’d kill the (person) who asked me to do it again.”

Rogers wrote in a letter to President Reagan talking about Keel’s work ethic.

“Dr. Keel is a highly talented person who has excellent judgment and an orderly mind and a zeal for perfection that is unique,” the letter read. “He made a major contribution to the success of our work and gained the respect and admiration of all of us.”

In addition to Rogers, Keel and Feynman, other committee members were: retired astronaut and first man to walk on the moon Neil Armstrong, who was named vice chairman; David Acheson, a diplomat; Eugene Covert, an aeronautics expert and former chief scientist of the U.S. Air Force; Robert Hotz, editor of Aviation Week and Space Technology; Maj. Gen. Donald Kutyna, director of Space Systems and Command Control and Communications; Dr. Sally Ride, who was the first female American astronaut in space; Robert Rummel, longtime space expert and former vice president of engineering for TWA; Joseph Sutter, an engineer for Boeing and part of the team that developed the Boeing 747 aircraft; Dr. Arthur Walker Jr., professor of applied physics at Stanford; Dr. Albert Wheelon, a physicist and member of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Agency Board; and Brig. Gen. Charles E. Yeager, retired Air Force general and first person to break the sound barrier in level flight.

It wasn’t for several more years that Keel would get his wish and head into the private sector, serving as an ambassador to NATO among other government positions.

After several decades living in apartments and condos in or near Washington, D.C., Keel decided it was time to move away from the city. .

“The only dirt I had was in the flower pot on my balcony,” he said. “I woke up one morning with the desire to own dirt. So, I started looking and looking. It took me 12 years to make a decision, to find a place and move out of D.C. I finally found a place in Stony Point and leased it for a few years. The weekends kept getting longer and longer and longer, so I started looking around in this area and I found this farm and loved it. I bought it within 24 hours.”

He said he’s never looked back at his decision to move to the country.

“It saved my life, frankly, getting the change of pace. I love it. I love the people,” he said. “Even when I was coming down for a weekend, there’d be a point in the journey—we’d call it a stress line—when you could see the Blue Ridge Mountains for the first time and go, ‘ahhh.’”

He has some cottages for rent on his property now and he said often when people visit from Northern Virginia they drive up the driveway with tears in their eyes from the relief.

Keel’s love for the land prompted him to create a South River land conservation group and encourage everyone nearby to place their properties into conservation, too. He said today there is about 2,500 acres of land in that area in conservation. He also serves as secretary on the board of directors of the Piedmont Environmental Council.

“I’m not against development, but I would like to not see every farm turning into a development,” he said. “Development has its place and it should stay in its place. I’m proud of that accomplishment, as well.”

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Editor, Greene County Record

Terry Beigie is the Editor of the Greene County Record in Stanardsville. She can be reached at or (434) 985-2315.

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