Why the Challenger Exploded

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.

22 Responses to Why the Challenger Exploded

  1. littlecow24 says:

    There is much more that you can dig into to find the cause of something that has happened. There is an easy road and hard road, and taking the hard road will make you a better writer and make your argument much more convincing.


  2. zzbrd2822 says:

    This demonstration taught me that you can trace the cause of an event back to another event that may seem irrelevant, but with proper explanation can become relevant to the cause.


  3. lokiofasgard24 says:

    I learned that causal arguments involve a lot of back tracking. Investigating the events that took place to evidently end in a certain event allows for a larger understanding and less questions asked.


  4. levixvice says:

    The causal arguments assisted me in overcoming the “why” by determining the purpose of how and what caused the main idea to occur.


  5. Causal arguments are arguments that attempt to prove or make a case to show that one thing led to another. I have learned today that the argument and the events that lead to whatever you are trying to prove can be really anything.


  6. Lunaduna says:

    Causal Arguments: argue that one thing is caused by another.
    – identifying the relationship between a cause and its effect,
    I know that if you are trying to write a causal argument, you need to make sure your audience understands how to connect the pieces together, and conclude an answer.

    The purpose of a causal argument is to answer questions:
    “Why did this occur?”
    “What is the cause?”
    What is the effect?”

    These questions challenger a writer to think more deeply and see how the different parts add together. (Creating the entire solution)


  7. spaghettitacosforthesoul says:

    With what was just demonstrated, a causal argument goes into extreme depth of something you wouldn’t have expected. The challenger’s reason why it exploded starts off with the malfunction of o rings but goes deeper into what would have made it better. Like having, it shipped as a whole piece, but it couldn’t because our railroads are small. And they’re the tracks are small, from a metric system used in the Romans empire. Which was the measurement of two horses’ butts.


  8. ilovedunkinoverstarbucks says:

    Casual arguments start out with this is the only reason why this happened and then finding out further things that attribute to the why and finding there are other reason for things happening.


  9. friendoftacos says:

    This lecture taught me how to focus on the causes of a particular problem. There can be many causes to a problem. A causal argument can provide answers to the question “why did something happen?” The lecture above provides causes to the previous question.


  10. toastedflatbread22 says:

    I have learned that writing a causal argument requires the writer to trace steps back that lead to the cause of an event. Even if a statement seems completely outlandish, it may still be a viable. I learned that it is important to think creatively because you can convince your reader of nearly anything you believe to be true.


  11. gingerbreadman27 says:

    Causal arguments answer the why question and look at the different ways you can take the argument as to why.


  12. comatosefox says:

    Causal arguments don’t have to be something that makes sense, from horses to the challenger explosion, you can connect the two in the weirdest way in order to get your point across.


  13. chickendinner says:

    This demonstrated how while events can generally be causally traced directly to the most linear and easily-identifiable causes, if you are more creative, you can identify more indirect causes which are ostensibly unrelated.


  14. sunshinegirl457 says:

    This was a very interesting topic because it shows there are a lot of hidden arguments to be made. They can be uncovered if you do more research and go far back enough to relate different ideas.


  15. frogs02 says:

    Casual arguments can link back to a cause of an event. Many casual arguments will answer the question “why did this happen?” Casual arguments can trace back to the situation.


  16. calamariii says:

    The causal argument seemed strange at first but after understanding the connections between the different points of the argument it made more sense. This argument is a good way to show us how to prove why things happened in our own work with a series of connections to explain the idea behind our initial argument.


  17. krackintheneck says:

    Causal arguments are answer the question by giving multiple sources and attacking the question at different ways/perspective. The answer may be simple as long as the arguments answer the question.


  18. Through this demonstration, I have learned that causal arguments answer the question “why?”. However, the question why can have many answers and you can answer it in many ways.


  19. strawberryfields4 says:

    This demonstration highlighted the different ways the simple question “why” can be answered/addressed. Additionally, the chain of events illustrated by the “width horses of two horses” example gave me a solid understanding of how you, as an author, can guide your reader through a chain of events (causes) to make your argument.


  20. zeek says:

    this example helped me better understand causal arguements. One could say that the reason the challenger exploded is because the o-rings were too hot/cold in one of the rocket stages, but going a few steps farther helps explain the reason why o-ring were needed in the first place; which prolongs your writing and supports it’s details.


  21. RowanAnnouncer says:

    This demonstration gave me a different perspective on the causes of events. It’s improbable to find one cause for the stand-alone event. There’s always a way to track an event’s cause going back in time to a seemingly unrelated separate event. This demonstration reminds me of the Butterfly Effect.


  22. shepardspy says:

    The demonstration showed that an event can be traced back to something that looks like it does not have any correlation. However, if you can provide an explanation for the seemingly unrelated thing, then it can serve as a good cause.


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