Why the Challenger Exploded

What do we mean by “Why”?

Donald Barthelme’s short story, “Views of My Father Weeping” begins with two little sections.

An aristocrat was riding down the street in his carriage. He ran over my father.


After the ceremony I walked back to the city. I was trying to think of the reason my father had died. Then I remembered: he was run over by a carriage.

Barthelme is playing with the two meanings of “why.” The son is wondering “for what purpose did my father die?” or “what moral imperative does his death serve?” or “how does the world benefit from his death?”

But the answer he comes up with serves the OTHER meaning of “why.” He died BECAUSE a carriage ran over him. Not “what was the purpose?” but “what was the cause?”

Why Challenger Exploded

In “Why Challenger Exploded” we explore a different ambiguity to questions of “why.” At what point in a long causal chain do we isolate a single CAUSE and identify it as the explanation for “WHY” something happened? 

In January, 1986, the solid booster rockets that were to launch NASA’s space shuttle Challenger into orbit suffered a catastrophic failure 73 seconds into the launch. All seven crew were killed in the disaster, most likely from the impact of their cabin striking the ocean below. The weather in Florida was very cold; ice had formed on the launch pad overnight, but the launch proceeded despite the known risk of low ambient temperatures, partly because of public interest in this particular launch. For the first time, a non-astronaut—”ordinary citizen” Christa McAuliffe—was a member of a shuttle crew. The nation was riveted.

The launch, most uncommonly, was broadcast live on TV. Millions of schoolkids watched as the events unfolded, including McAuliffe’s students, gathered in their classroom to celebrate their teacher’s accomplishment. For 72 seconds, they were jubilant, but then an explosion separated the boosters from the shuttle and the launch catastrophically failed.https://www.youtube.com/embed/fSTrmJtHLFU?version=3&rel=1&showsearch=0&showinfo=1&iv_load_policy=1&fs=1&hl=en&autohide=2&wmode=transparent

The Common Explanation

The immediate cause of the explosion was the failure of O-Rings to contain the immense pressure of combustion within the rocket.

The complicated issue of causation

The answer to the question “Why did the Challenger Fail?” or its corollary question, “Why did Christa McAuliffe die?” is complicated, since no single cause can be isolated.

Several causes can be named, some distant, some immediate, some precipitating.
Among them:

  • The O-rings failed
  • The design required a warm ambient temperature at launch
  • NASA ignored warnings that the weather was too cold
  • The decision to send a civilian to space created pressure to launch
  • NASA was emboldened by the program’s success to take an unprecedented risk

A most unlikely explanation

One explanation very rarely heard is that the Challenger failed because of the way Romans decided to build their horse-drawn carts when Rome ruled most of the known world and could establish a global standard.


Roman war chariots were built with wheels spaced 4 feet, 8-1/2 inches apart. The apparently arbitrary width was determined to be the width of two war horses’ rear ends yoked side by side to the chariot. The standard assured that horses would not pull a too-wide wagon through any opening wide enough only for them.

Before long, the much traveled and justly famous Roman roads developed deep grooves at the established separation, discouraging any other wheel spacings.

As England was part of the Roman Empire, English carts came to adopt the Roman standard to take advantage of the path of least resistance established by the ruts carved by Roman chariots.

Golden Chariot

When railroads first began to replace horse-drawn carts as the preferred mode of transportation for long journeys, the same cartwrights using the same patterns and tools as they used for carts, passed on the standard wheel spacing with which they were already familiar. By 1850, the 4 feet, 8-1/2 inch spacing had become known as the “standard guage” for railroad cars throughout the British Empire, including India, where the connection between Chariots and Railroads is obvious in the photo above.

Early railroads in America naturally adopted the odd but increasingly accepted English “standard gauge” as well. As more track was laid in England and America, deviation from the standard was a costly and foolish error for any investor in a new train line.

Train Tunnel

Tunnels were carved through mountains no wider than necessary to accommodate two trains passing one another, which limited not only the width but also the height of the cars or their cargo. The width of two Roman warhorse rear ends had come to dominate the widths of roads, then rails, then railcars, then tunnels, then what could be hauled in one piece by train through the mountains.

Solid Boosters

The solid rocket boosters that propelled many successful shuttle launches into space are enormous structures, as you can see by comparing them to the trucks following the shuttle conveyor to the launch pad.

When NASA awarded the contract for the design and construction of those boosters to the Morton-Thiokol Corporation of Utah, the die was cast for catastrophe. The boosters could have been built as a solid single piece, but those segments would never have made it through the tunnels they would have to have traversed through the Rocky Mountains on their way to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

So, they were built in sections, shipped in pieces, assembled in Florida, and wrapped by the now-infamous rubber O-Rings that failed so catastrophically on the day of the Challenger disaster.

Why did Christa McAuliffe die? Because of the width of a horse’s ass.

An in-class challenge for several student groups to take the roles of NASA, Morton Thiokol, and other parties to the Launch Decision.

Your Reply

Reply below what this demonstration taught you about Causal Arguments.

68 Responses to Why the Challenger Exploded

  1. g00dsoup says:

    This exercise on casual arguments has shown me how complex a simple argument can be. There really is some sort of “cause” within something if you look deep enough to figure it out. Within “causation,” there is always “causation.”

  2. pinkheart84 says:

    This demonstration has taught me that it may be true for there to be multiple different causes for one effect, but it is our responsibility to go through and chose our own cause.

  3. anonymous123 says:

    This demonstrations showed me that causal arguments can go way further back then you can even begin to think of when you first think of the cause oft something. To see how everything was back tracked made a lot of sense and would be helpful for finding the cause of many things.

  4. Shazammm says:

    Reply below what this demonstration taught you about Causal Arguments.

    This demonstration taught me that causal arguments can have numerous causes embedded in a topic/event/etc. They can either be direct or indirect causes. This demonstration also taught me that causal arguments do not correlate with the “for no reason” example at all.

  5. sunflower0311 says:

    I learned that there are many different layers to causation. The ultimate cause of why something happened can go back a lot farther then you might originally think. Something that may seem to have no relation to the event still could have caused it. Ultimately one cause of the challenger exploding dates back to the Romans because they set the standard for the width of trains. This caused Nasa to not be able to receive the tubes in one piece due to the width and instead they had to assemble them at NASA. This left room for error.

  6. doglover846 says:

    The cause of the challenger exploding wasn’t just caused by the o-rings, it was caused by the temperature, the size of the train tunnels, the width of the train, the distance between the train wheels, and you can just keep going on and on. So really there is always more than one cause that led something to happen

  7. mellowtacos says:

    The challenger exploded because on a chain of reason ultimately because of the width of two horses asses. It’s not a direct reason however it explains the reason for every decision leading up to the explosion.

  8. mellowtacos says:

    The challenger exploded because on a chain of reason ultimately because of the width of two horses asses. Its not a direct reason however it explains the reason for every decision leading up to the explosion.

  9. inspireangels says:

    This demonstration of “Why the challenger exploded” taught me that in a causal argument, there are many different ways to respond to the question “why.” They could ask the reason why it happen or the cause of the situation. It makes us see it from different perspectives and contributing elements that can be involved on an argument.

  10. chickennugget246 says:

    This demonstration taught me that causal arguments can lead back to something that people do not necessarily think about. They could be deeply rooted arguments, having multiple causes within causes. Also, there are so many questions of “why” we could ask within a causal argument.

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