Lessons From the Challenger Tragedy

Normalization of deviance, the process of becoming inured to risky actions, is a useful concept that was developed to explain how the Challenger disaster happened.

Those who saw it never forgot: the Space Shuttle Challenger launched on January 28, 1986 only to break apart 73 seconds later, killing seven astronauts, including the first “teacher in space” – Christa McAuliffe.

We revisit the tragic event – and the 2003 Columbia disaster – through interviews with key participants, and explores the forces that lead groups within large organizations to make dreadfully wrong decisions.

View full episodes at PBS.org/RetroReport.

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At Retro Report, we update our journalism as news unfolds. Here are the previous published versions of this story.
For teachers
  • Producer: Bret Sigler
  • Editor: Bret Sigler

For Educators


This 18-minute video introduces students to the complex and often misunderstood causes of the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, one of the most important cultural events of the 1980s. It examines the rhetorical context for one of President Ronald Reagan’s most memorable speeches. This video is useful for lessons on the U.S. space program, the culture of the 1980s, and as a unit in a business class on organizational culture. The video could also accompany and contextualize lessons that rely on President Reagan’s address to the nation after the accident as a primary source.

Background reading

On January 28, 1986, just 73 seconds after takeoff, the space shuttle Challenger exploded in the Florida sky, killing all seven crew members.

The explosion stunned millions of viewers who had tuned in to see history being made. Christa McAuliffe, a high school science teacher from Concord, NH, was among the crew, and had promised to teach a class from the shuttle.

Initially, the explosion was attributed to the failure of O-rings on a rocket fuel booster. But a presidential commission investigating the disaster revealed that the O-rings were only part of the story. The commission also concluded that flaws in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s organizational structure and decision-making processes had played key roles in the catastrophe.

For years, NASA knew that the O-rings did not perform well in low temperatures, but those concerns were set aside in the haste to launch, under pressure from NASA’s ambitious plans to expand its shuttle program.

As temperatures dipped below freezing before takeoff, engineers from Morton-Thiokol, the firm that had designed the fuel boosters, warned NASA that the launch should not take place if the temperature dipped below 54 degrees. NASA overrode those warnings.

In response to the commission’s findings, NASA completely redesigned the space shuttle, initiated changes in quality control, and revamped its management culture. Today, the episode continues to teach lessons about engineering safety, ethics in management, and the dangers of succumbing group-think in large organizations, especially when lives are at stake.

Lesson Plan 1: The Space Race: The Challenger Tragedy

Students will learn about the development of the nation’s space program, including a seminal event during Ronald Reagan’s presidency: the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger and its lasting aftermath.

  • How the United States sought to expand its space program in the 1980s.
  • How the organizational culture at NASA fostered “normalization of deviance,” setting the stage for the Challenger accident.
  • How the problems of organizational culture that contributed to the Challenger explosion are reflected in other catastrophes, like the 2008 financial collapse.
Essential questions
  • Apart from its tragic ending, what was unique about the last mission of the Challenger?
  • Why did leaders at NASA feel pressure to go forward with the launch?
  • What technical failure led to the Challenger explosion?
  • What is meant by “normalization of deviance”? How is it related to the Challenger explosion?
  • Common Core State Standards
    • CCSS.ELA.LITERACY.RH.11-12.7:Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.
    • CCSS.ELA.LITERACY.RI.11-12.3:Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequences of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact or develop over the course of a text.
  • National Council for the Social Studies C3 Framework
    • D2.His.14.9-12.Analyze multiple and complex causes and effect of events in the past.
    • D2.His.1.9-12.Evaluate how historical events and developments were shaped by unique circumstances of time and place as well as broader historical contexts.
  • AP U.S. History
    • Topic 8.2: The Cold War from 1945 to 1980

      Skill 3.A: Identify and describe a claim and/or argument in a non-text-based source.

      Theme 5: Politics and Power (PCE)

  • AP Psychology
    • Unit 9: Social Psychology
    • Unit 1: Scientific Foundations