The space shuttle Challenger exploded and broke up over the Atlantic Ocean 35 years ago today, a national tragedy that played out on live TV 73 seconds after launch. The images and video of the disaster are just as shocking and stark in 2021 as when it first occurred.
Everyone now knows the explosion was a result of O-rings failing to adequately seal the solid-fuel rocket on that unusually cold day. But one of the rarely told stories of the disastrous launch that I have always found fascinating is how the O-rings that failed and caused the explosion came to be made by a fundamentalist Mormon cult.
Normally you’d need to hit up Heaven’s Gate to combine space and cults, but those worlds briefly collide in the book Prophet’s Prey: My Seven-Year Investigation into Warren Jeffs and the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints by Sam Brower. It’s an excellent book, one I highly recommend, as it dives deeply into the harrowing experience of living in a commune of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
The book also details the rise of the FLDS as an extremist polygamous cult that in 1929 broke away from the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, also known as the Mormon church by people outside the faith. What makes the FLDS different from the LDS is a belief that it is vital for men to take multiple wives to ensure the highest form of salvation. This belief can be traced back to Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, but is roundly rejected by the modern LDS.
Brower was a private investigator who was actually key to bringing down the so-called FLDS prophet, Warren Jeffs. Convicted of two felony counts of sexual assault, Jeffs is currently serving a life sentence plus 20 years. According to the book Jeffs is guilty of many more crimes against children, his adult followers and the federal government. Being in prison apparently hasn’t loosened Warren’s grip on the FLDS, CNN reported in 2016:
A decade after the arrest of polygamous prophet Warren Jeffs, insiders say his church has literally become a place of feast or famine, of haves and have-nots.
According to these breakaway members, the FLDS of 2016 has a pecking order: There are the elite church leaders and chosen followers, and everyone else.
“There was so much class distinction and shunning of people,” said a former cook for the family of Bishop Lyle Jeffs, the prophet’s brother and right-hand man. She spoke of seeing shopping carts full of meat and turkeys earmarked for the bishop’s family while others made do with rice and beans.
The new social structure came about, as so many things do in the FLDS, when prophet Warren Jeffs had a revelation. This one came on December 12, 2011, about four months after he started serving the life sentence in Texas.
Abuse of the social welfare system is rampant within FLDS communities, according to Brower, especially in grants and business-loan programs. Brower has even called the FLDS more of a criminal syndicate than a religion, as the many businesses it runs to fund its compounds are staffed by adherents who are paid nothing — essentially used as slave labor.
One of those businesses was started by the previous prophet (and Warren Jeffs’ father), Rulon Jeffs, in 1968 as the Utah Tool & Die; that company became HydraPak a decade later, with Rulon Jeffs on the board. HydraPak was the sole contractor NASA used in the manufacture of the space shuttle O-rings.
On the morning of January 28, 1986, NASA decided to go ahead with the launch of the Challenger despite unseasonably cold temperatures. Large amounts of ice were seen collecting on the shuttle and its booster rockets. But several earlier launch attempts had to be scrubbed, and despite not having experience launching in such cold weather conditions, the frustration of the launch team overrode caution. They decided to launch.
Space.com has a good rundown of what happened next:
Morton Thiokol, the builder of the solid-rocket boosters, advised NASA that they believed the O-ring seals in the solid-rocket boosters would perform adequately in the cold.
To make each solid-rocket booster, the Morton Thiokol factory built four hull segments filled with powdered aluminum (fuel) and ammonium perchlorate (oxidizer).
At the launch site, the fuel segments were assembled vertically. Field joints containing rubber O-ring seals were installed between each fuel segment.
The O-rings were never tested in extreme cold. On the morning of the launch, the cold rubber became stiff, failing to fully seal the joint.
As the shuttle ascended, one of the seals on a booster rocket opened enough to allow a plume of exhaust to leak out. Hot gases bathed the hull of the cold external tank full of liquid oxygen and hydrogen until the tank ruptured.
At 73 seconds after liftoff, at an altitude of 9 miles (14.5 kilo- meters), the shuttle was torn apart by aerodynamic forces.
The two solid-rocket boosters continued flying until the NASA range safety officer destroyed them by remote control.
The crew compartment ascended to an altitude of 12.3 miles (19.8 km) before free-falling into the Atlantic Ocean.
Francis R. Scobee, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Michael J. Smith, Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnik and Christa McAuliffe — who would have been the first civilian teacher in space — all lost their lives that day.
After a federal investigation blamed the O-rings for the explosion, Rulon Jeffs’ name was removed from the board. Another of Rulon’s sons, Wallace Jeffs (Rulon is rumored to have had over 65 children and was marrying teenager girls deep into his ’80s and ’90s) took over, and the company was renamed Western Precision, and then again to NewEra Manufacturing. The company still exists today as NewEra Manufacturing, working in the aerospace business and based out of Cedar City, Utah. It’s unclear if the company maintains any ties to the FLDS church.
In all honesty, NASA was clearly at fault here. The launch should never have gone ahead in such conditions. It’s also not necessarily fair to blame the manufacturer of the O-rings for not testing them in extremely cold conditions.
It’s highly possible that those O-rings were built using the religious equivalent of slave labor. It’s just an interesting and intensely sad corner of history, one where two groups of people on the absolute opposite ends of the American spectrum — fundamentalist cult adherents and literal rocket scientists attempting to launch a teacher into space — intersected to bring us one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century.