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. rushhourilllusion says:

    This demonstration allowed me to learn that causal claims can be broad, or they can be specific, or can take the root of a background. That all of these different ideas are causes. I think it was interesting to learn that you can really go back with these causes to find a root of the issue.

  2. bullymaguire29 says:

    – causes have causes and those causes have causes
    – different layers of causes can all be true at once
    – causes can have a domino effect and in an argument it could change the way you see things

  3. schoolcookiemonster says:

    The demonstration of the Challenger gave me a good idea of what a casual argument is and how to look at it from different perspectives. For example, the challenger could’ve crashed due to the failure of the O-Rings or quite possibly it was the colder temperature that resulted in a lack of safety precautions taken and lead to an explosion. The lecture helped me understand what a causal argument is and how it can have a purpose in some cases.

    • davidbdale says:

      That’s good to hear. The “Reason” a skin care product contains lead could be: 1) it’s more effective with lead than without, or 2) no affordable substitute has yet been found for lead, or 3) nobody has prohibited the inclusion of lead, or 4) cosmetic companies will get away with whatever the law allows, or 5) powerful industries buy preferential treatment for legislators, or 6) . . . .

  4. chance1117 says:

    This demonstration taught me that when asking the question “why?” there is never just 1 single answer. There are many different answers and explanations to one question. For example , one of the explanations to why the challenger failed goes all the way back to roman times with horses and charriots and i’m pretty positive if I was to ask someone who was familiar with the event they would not think about chariots and horses.

  5. njdevilsred17 says:

    This demonstration of the explosion of the rocket had taught me how the idea of the rocket exploding can be described in many ways by others with different causes. The same idea that is being argued can be stated with a different cause by one piece and a completely different cause.

  6. bubbarowan96 says:

    This demonstration of the explosion of the rocket taught me a lesson about how these ideas are causes.

  7. whimsicalwanda says:

    This demonstration has showed me that there can be many (different) views on what causes a problem. Just from the Challenger example there were several causes that could be named. Did the Challenger explode because the O-rings failed or maybe it was too cold out. What was impressive was how the Challenger’s failure could be connected to the Romans and or how Christa’s death could correlate to a horse. The big question is usually why…

  8. When looking at an effect, there can be many different possibilities that can cause it. Looking at the example in the beginning, with the son and the father who was ran over by the carriage, the answer to “why” caught me off guard because I never expected such a straightforward answer of “he was run over by a carriage.” I like this example a lot because it clearly showed that there are many answers to “why” and we must choose one and focus on it.

  9. fatboy489zt says:

    This demonstration has taught me that although it is true that there could be many different causes for one effect, it is our job to actually go through and pick our own cause since it is our argumentative essay that we are working on.

  10. gymrat230 says:

    The answer to why is usually the technical answer, not the ethical answer. Causation is never a simple answer. No one would ever think to blame the Romans for the Challenger explosion, but the argument made is irrefutable. There will always be different perspectives, but we have to stick with ours and make the best argument.

  11. gobirds17 says:

    This example gave me a good understanding on why we need to analyze every perspective of our thesis. There are plenty of answers to our hypothesis and asking why can help us find a beter argument.

  12. xephos1 says:

    For my hypothesis, there is plenty of reasons for my specific issue. I understand a lot more about causal arguments now. From this example of the Challenger I can now gauge what kind of answers I want to provide for my problem.

  13. This example allowed me to see that each cause has its own cause that I never even thought to take into account. For the casual argument, I will try and find the less obvious cause that may have been overlooked before. There are many answers to the question of “why” and we must choose one to focus on.

  14. AnonymousStudent says:

    This article did teach me how important it can be to search for the very last minute cause of your argument. The article teaches me that while the questions imposed by the writer’s thesis may have a simple, surface-level answer at first, but can be looked at deeper and deeper, looking at the very roots of the purpose of the hypothesis, and have an answer that is counterintuitive but can be proven.

  15. This demonstration showed that there are causes to everything. Causes have causes and those causes have causes. At the beginning the word “Why” was shown and when someone is asked “Why” there is always multiple answers. I have learned that with every “why” there are many cause and we have to chose one cause that makes sense and stick to it.

  16. shxrkbait says:

    This demonstration taught me see that a causal argument is never going to be narrow and straightforward. Although you may come up with one cause for something you have to go back and look at the history behind the cause to help explain it better. There are so many answers to the question “why”, that you must pick one and take the time to explain the cause. The cause for what caused the explosion of the rocket was explained in many different ways, each focusing on a different point.

  17. giantsfan224 says:

    There will always be multiple contributing causes to one question. The “Why” will never be easily explained with one cause regardless of how well you think you can do it. The answer may even go back way farther in time than you originally thought.

  18. beforeverge says:

    When searching for the reason of a conclusion, there could be multiple causes or a series of causes. This ties into our causal argument since we should look at all different perspectives. We need to find the real source of reasoning for our thesis.

  19. This taught me the the causal argument can find basically anything to support what you want to say as long as it’s relevant, and can in some way contribute to the overall thing that you’re trying to say. I didn’t expect you to say that Christa McAuliffe died because of the size of a horse’s ass, and it didn’t make sense when you first explained it, but as you went into depth, it was still confusing, but I see how you could use that as ammunition for your argument. I don’t know how I’m going to get to this point of persuasion, but I’m more than prepared to get there.

  20. mochaatrain says:

    The reason why something has happened can not be narrowed down to one thing. However, we can go in-depth on “a” answer not “the” answer. When answering a question for our cause/effect argument, we will need to search for the question that has a history. Just like the reason for the O rings on the challenger, it has a history that can be uncovered. The causes will go back further than we could ever imagine.

  21. alwaystired247 says:

    This demonstration gave me a better idea of how to write my casual argument. I would have never thought to go back to the beginning of time to find answers. Instead, I would have most likely searched for the technical and easy answer. Now I will have a lot of easier of a time knowing exactly what to research, as well as which train of thought to follow, when I am writing my argument.

  22. duck says:

    This demonstration gave me a better idea on how to write a causal argument, as it can be a very broad, obvious argument, or you could go back and find connections between points in time that led to an event, like a butterfly effect.

  23. tacotyphoon says:

    This demonstration showed me that clausal arguments are basically just a series of answers to the same why question. I want to keep answering the question and provide as many answers as possible.

  24. This demonstration gave me a good understanding of how my casual argument should be structured. Think about the 6 yer old kid who will never be satisfied of your anwer when he asks multiple times why. I will be using this to develop my casual argument since I now know that one answer to why isn’t enough.

  25. rubes1256 says:

    This demonstration gave me better knowledge of how to approach my arguments. I definitely would not have thought to go back so far to find the reasons for why different things occurred now.

  26. The lecture taught how one question could be answered multiple ways. You can give a very clear and to the point observation that many would see and agree with, or you could go another way that will still answer the question but involve a more thought out explanation. People might not support it but it will offer better depth to the argument.

  27. Gir says:

    This demonstration showed me the ways of causes and effects how one cause can lead to an effect on many others. This doesn’t mean there’s only one cause. This means that there are more than one conclusion and research into one claim or cause can reveal others.

  28. sillyinternetperson says:

    The demonstration helped me understand that giving a multitude of causes for something sways the reader in your favor. Compile a bunch of causes that you deem valid and write them in your argument piece. There is always more than one reason for something.

  29. oni says:

    The obvious answers are not always the best answers. Sometimes we have to look at a completely different angle in order to see what could have been. Answers can almost never be narrowed down to one idea, it usually has a history to it. It’s not for the purpose of being different just to be different, it’s to challenge a new idea maybe not considered before. Answers to questions can change based on anything, even little ideas. This is helpful for writing my arguments, as i sometimes substitute new ideas and originality for already agreed upon points just to be safe.

  30. This demonstration showed me that casual arguments can be very broad in a way with maybe different answers that can be expressed. When first looking at the reason why the Challenger blew up, you could come up with different general responses but also dive deep into the information being presented. As we dove into the reasons why the Challenger failed, more involved answers and explanations had appeared.

  31. Caravan says:

    This demonstration was fantastic and definitely helped me. For one, it emphasized the multiple different reasons that can and often will exist for any given occurrence, as well as the importance of clarifying if our claim or question is moral or causal. Furthermore, the proving of the legitimacy of an argument so ridiculous at face value, that the Challenger explosion was caused by the “width of a horse’s ass”, is great. It shows how one causal relationship can be made up of several different causal relationships in a chain, and how this chain can be expertly maintained. The width caused the Romans to build chariots a certain way, this way caused roads to develop in a certain way, which led carts to be developed a certain way, which led trains to be developed a certain way, then trains to tunnels to cross-continental travel by train to having to ship the parts of the Challenger in pieces bound by the very same O-Rings that failed and led to the explosion.

  32. hollyp715 says:

    A simple three letter word, such as “why” can have more than just one meaning behind it. The way we interpret the question can provide our response or reaction with a different meaning. Answering the question in a variety of ways will provide the argument with a stronger foundation.

  33. This demonstration has showed me that there’s never one answer to why something happens. there are always contributing factors which eventually will lead to an event happening.

  34. peanut2348 says:

    this taught me that there is never an answer of why things happen. This also taught me to always triple check things because sending it off.

  35. clevelandbrown03 says:

    the rocket exploded because there was combustible gas that was heated. The O-zone rings failed. The design required warm temperatures. Nasa ignored warning signs.

  36. oatmealvibes says:

    The demonstration taught me that casual arguments can be complex and it’s not always right in your face. Sometimes taking a look back far enough, you can find information that makes sense as to why something was caused. Theres usually never just one answer but a variety of things that could be the possibility.

  37. rowanluver29 says:

    – almost everything happens because of previous causes
    – the domino effect can go on for years (roman chariots to rocket ships.)
    – there can be many different contributing factors to why something may happen the way it does.

  38. giants19 says:

    The Challenger exploded because the width of a horses ass was used as the measuring scale for chariots, which became to the measuring scale for all train tracks. The Challenger had to be transported separately and then put together at the site rather than transported all at once because of this. This is credited by many people as being the reason that the Challenger exploded.

  39. philsfan1133 says:

    This demonstration taught me there is never just one way of something actually happening by the use of different causes. Having a different approach when it comes to my argument and what caused it is something I will have to think about.

  40. gracchusbabeuf says:

    Truly, the traditions of all dead generations weigh like a nightmare upon the brains of the living. Following the chain of cause and effect back far enough, while not always a useful exercise in determining responsibility for a disaster, effectively demonstrates that history is a process contingent on decisions made and informed by the past. Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they choose.

  41. pinkmonkey32 says:

    The challenger exploded because of the failure of O rings but in the lesson you find that there are reasons that the O rings failed comes from the way they are manufactured which was cause by the width of the railroads which was caused by other things ect. So making the casual argument that the O rings cause the challenger to explode is too general and when writing your casual argument you should get more descriptive and find the why to the why.

  42. The challenger exploded as a result of NASA outsourcing the construction of their rockets to a company in Utah. As a result, the challengers’ rockets had to be sent in pieces rather than constructed as a whole because of the need to send the pieces via train and train tracks are a certain width. In order to achieve the manufacturing of the rockets, o-rings had to be used to complete the construction which led to the failure of the rocket due to their malfunction due to cold weather and NASA’s continued poor decision making as they ignored the warnings of launching on a cold morning.

  43. saycheese03 says:

    The demonstration shows how complex a simple causal argument can be. Things can happen without reason but there will always be a cause for why an event happened. It is very hard to pinpoint a cause because we have had so much time evolving and technology advancements that we can bring causes back to many years before an event happened because of standards that were set. With enough evidence you can argue any cause for why an event happened just like how the length of two horses ass’s caused the challenger to explode

  44. fulcrum66 says:

    The demonstration of trying to find the reason for the challenger disaster led to a casual argument. Relating the problem to chariot and train width, adds more reason to consider this being the main cause of the problem. It all really depends on your view and what you can understand in this situation.

  45. queenrandom04 says:

    The goal of this exercise was to show that all causes have things that caused them to occur also?

  46. tristanb50 says:

    The Challenger exploded because of a lapse in judgement where NASA strived to please the public over the safety of their mission crew. While they didn’t know the Challenger would explode, they knew there were risks of flying in the unusually cold temperatures, but chose it to counter any disappointment from further delays.

  47. The cause for the challenger exploding was that combustion gas out of the rocket, which was caused by the o rings failing, which was caused by the cold weather happening, which was caused by…..

    Therefore, there is never really a reason for why things happening. Things just happen.

  48. sinatraman17 says:

    The cause of the Challenger Explosion as an example of how one can explore the many layers of causation beyond the well-known and assumed ones: brilliant. The baffling connection that Challenger has with the width of a Horse’s ass is an example of how we should not merely explore surface-causation, but rather “the causation, of the causation, of the causation”, and so-on.

  49. Water says:

    The explanation for why the challenger exploded was created has different causes for why it exploded, an interesting cause would’ve not expected would be due to the width of Horse’s ass. One event can have different causes as long as they can make sense and follow each other.

  50. sortableelms says:

    This demonstration has made me figure out that there is not just a single “why” question that can answer a problem. The explosion of the Challenger had many “why” questions. NASA, some of the most brilliant minds, were so lost in needing funding that they ignored the obviously dangerous and downright foolish idea to launch under the circumstances. The ability to connect the Challenger’s explosion to Roman chariots is crazy and demonstrates the causation, of the causation.

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