How NASA Has Made Space Travel Safer Since Challenger

In the 36 years since the space shuttle Challenger exploded over the Florida skies, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has made a number of advancements in ensuring that space travel is as safe as possible.

Seventy-three seconds into its January 28, 1986, flight out of Cape Canaveral, the Challenger violently broke apart, resulting in the deaths of all seven astronauts aboard. It was the first fatal accident involving an in-flight American spacecraft.

An investigation discovered that the accident was a result of failures within the shuttle's O-rings. These tiny gaskets were designed to seal together portions of the Challenger's two large solid rocket boosters.

However, cold temperatures that day resulted in the O-rings being compromised. This led to a failure within one of the solid rocket boosters that caused an explosion, and, ultimately, the complete break up of the shuttle.

In the aftermath of the investigation, criticism was pointed toward both NASA and Morton Thiokol, the company that built the solid rocket boosters. Reports indicated that both parties ignored warnings from engineers that the O-rings did not function well in low temperatures.

The Challenger explosion remains one of the deadliest disasters in the history of spaceflight.

Challenger Crew
In the more than three decades since the space shuttle Challenger exploded, NASA has made a number of strides in improving safety for astronauts. This has resulted in the risk from space travel being lowered significantly. Here, the crew of the Challenger can be seen in an archived photo—all seven would lose their lives in the disaster. NASA/Getty

In the more than three decades since, NASA has made a number of strides in improving the safety of its vehicles. Following the space shuttle Columbia disintegrating upon re-entry in 2003, resulting in the deaths of all seven astronauts aboard, further alterations were made.

This included a number of changes involving the shuttle's fuel tanks, as well as "the installation of ground-based tracking, imaging and analysis equipment that will record all future launches with unprecedented speed and detail," NASA said. This allowed scientists and technicians to better study the shuttle's launches, landings and inflight activity to monitor for any problems.

The space shuttle program was retired in 2011, and NASA is currently developing flights in conjunction with Elon Musk's SpaceX using his Crew Dragon spacecraft.

Despite the program closing its doors, NASA continued to work on making spaceflights as safe as possible, no matter the vehicle of choice.

The agency's Office of Safety and Mission Assurance (OSMA) works to ensure "the safety and enhances the success of all NASA activities."

This includes "establishing and assuring compliance with NASA mission... strategies, policies, and standards," as well as "providing analysis and recommendations for critical agency safety decisions." The OSMA also performs independent assessments of various NASA technologies to ensure their safety.

Additionally, a specialized verification and validation program was founded by NASA in 1993 to help balance the cost-effectiveness of space travel while still being as safe as possible. This includes managing critical mission software that is used in "NASA's most high-profile missions."

Another division, the Human Research Program, is "dedicated to discovering the best methods and technologies to support safe, productive human space travel." Their work involves reducing the risk to astronauts' health while in space.

Experts have stated that these advancements have greatly reduced the overall risk of flying into the cosmos. noted that "a ride on SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule is about three times safer than a ride on NASA's space shuttle was in the final years of its operation."

NASA official Teri Hamlin told NPR that in its earliest days of use in the 1980s, the risk of a catastrophic disaster during a space shuttle flight was around 1 in 9. By the time the shuttle was retired in 2011, that figure had dropped to only 1 in 90.

In a statement to Newsweek, a NASA official said that the agency "embraces a strong commitment in ensuring the lessons of the past are not only never forgotten, but actively and innovatively integrated into its future endeavors. In 2016, NASA created the Agency level Apollo Challenger Columbia Lessons Learned Program (ACCLLP) to successfully do just that."

"Since its inception 7 years ago, the success of ACCLLP has allowed NASA to share what it has learned with not only the aerospace community, but with a diverse array of others well beyond it. Through this effort, NASA encourages collaborations with many sectors across the US from governmental agencies and throughout the private and public sectors, even extending out to our international allies and partners," the official continued.

Update (02/01/2022, 6 p.m. ET): This story has been updated with a statement from NASA.

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