by Brooks Riley

Icicles_on_the_Launch_Tower_-_GPN-2000-001348I had an uneasy feeling on the day of the Challenger launch in January 1986. My memory tells me that I didn’t even watch it live, although I had, growing up, watched early shots into space: Alan Shepherd, John Glenn, and later, the first manned flight to the moon. I was excited by the idea of a civilian, Christa McAuliffe, flying up there with the pros of the space program. But the weather bothered me, even if I didn’t yet know about the serious technical problems with O-rings at much milder temperatures.

It was bitterly cold in Florida on the night before the launch, with record-breaking temperatures well below freezing. Although the weather was clear, there was ice everywhere, probably the result of high humidity in the air. My worry stemmed from first-hand knowledge of the destructive power of ice.

Anyone who’s ever grown up in a drafty old house knows that when winter comes, the water should be turned off and the pipes drained in those parts of the house that are unheated. If not, sub-freezing temperatures will freeze the water, the ice expanding and ultimately bursting the thickest of metal pipes. The damage comes later, after the thaw, when water starts pouring from the hole in the pipe. I know this from experience.

Wikipedia describes it this way: The effect of expansion during freezing can be dramatic, and ice expansion is a basic cause of freeze-thaw weathering of rock in nature and damage to building foundations and roadways from frost heaving. It is also a common cause of the flooding of houses when water pipes burst due to the pressure of expanding water when it freezes.

How much condensation had seeped into the rockets’ seams and frozen there, the ice expanding and putting pressure on the joints? Does it matter that the O-rings were blamed, they too having been damaged by the cold temperatures? Might there have been other damage inside the rockets as well? We’ll never know.

The fact that the O-rings held as long as they did during take-off surprised even the engineers who had tried to stop the launch. If the mysterious puff of grey smoke before lift-off (before or after ignition?) truly heralded the failure of the O-rings, how could the Challenger have managed to go 73 long seconds before it began to break apart? Could the destruction of the Challenger have been caused by ice damage?

STS-51-L_grey_smoke_on_SRBThe following quote about the disaster, from Edward Tufte, is haunting: “The launch temperature of Challenger was so far beyond . . . the coldest launch with the worst damage ever seen to date, that even a casual observer could have determined that the risk of disaster was severe.”

I was that casual observer, probably one of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands.

Murphy’s Law comes to mind, ironically from a man whose career centered on safety measures in flight, including the Apollo space program. “If something can go wrong, it will.”

After the disaster occurred, my first thought was: “How could they have approved the launch under those conditions?”

Whatever the reasons for the catastrophe, one thing is certain: The relatively mundane, age-old science of ice and cold was, if not completely ignored, definitely overridden. With all the know-how in place on that fateful day, simple truths had been forgotten. The result was tragic, the more so because it could have been prevented.


Knowledge is constantly being amended, now at breathtaking speeds. Much of what we used to know, if not disproven, is simply forgotten in our rush to the next new discovery–pushed aside, ignored, or sent off to a siding where disuse ultimately ends in oblivion.

Some years ago, afflicted by sudden bouts of hypertension, I turned to Adelle Davis, my first resort in any attempt to heal myself (a doctor being last). Consulting my dog-eared copy of her 1965 book Let’s Get Well, I found the following information, as always well documented with footnotes referring to old studies: Potassium could achieve a temporary drop in blood pressure.

At a nearby pharmacy I bought fizzy tablets of potassium and dissolved one in a glass of water. Within an hour my blood pressure had returned to normal. On two other occasions over the next two weeks I took more potassium, always with the same result. In the end, my blood pressure remained normal. I never even used all the tablets.

Had I gone to a doctor, he would probably have recommended statins, and advised me to stay on them—unnecessarily exposing me to possible side-effect scenarios.

At the time, out of curiosity, I searched the internet for any mention of the connection between potassium and blood pressure. I found none. Several years later, however, the connection began to appear in publications, packaged as a new discovery. What time had buried and forgotten was reborn as new knowledge. But it had always been there, lurking in the pages of a 50-year-old book.

The dangers of old knowledge being invalidated by the onslaught of new knowledge is very real in our accelerated age. New knowledge doesn’t necessarily revise old knowledge anymore, it merely replaces it, obscures it, or overrides it. As it turns out, newer is not always better. Going back to basics is one way to remember what we’ve forgotten.