Dr. Feynman's Challenge

Design Learning Challenge Co-Authors
Garreth Heidt
English Teacher, Perkiomen Valley High School

Doris Wells-Papanek
Director, Design Learning Network

Dr. Richard Feynman's Extraordinary Challenge
Insightful snippet from The Observer, May 14, 2011:

One of his [Richard Feynman’s] last public roles was as a member of the Rogers Commission, which investigated the disastrous destruction of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986. A scientific purist, Feynman went out of his way to lambast NASA for its failure to put safety above its desire to show off the prowess of its space shuttle fleet. "For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled," he said.

Quantum Man: Richard Feynman's Life in Science by Lawrence M Krauss – review (The Observer) By: McKie, Robin.

Feynman's Lectures: Challenger Crash O-Ring

Snippets from The Discovery Channel, The Challenger Disaster

Based upon Feynman's book What Do You Care What Other People Think?, the film chronicles Feynman's efforts to uncover the cause of the Challenger explosion by deftly navigating the many vested interests represented on the commission, and his ability to quickly learn everything about the vast complexity of the space shuttle. Feynman was chosen by William Robert Graham, one of his former students and NASA's acting administrator, to lend his skills to the commission. Reluctant to participate, Feynman followed his scientific instincts during the investigation unafraid of raising questions in the face of pressure from several commission members.

The Challenger Disaster Clip: Combing Through the Wreckage

With unwavering persistence he employed exceptional integrity and scientific logic to determine that two of the shuttle's O-rings failed during launch. In a famous televised hearing, Feynman demonstrated that the O-ring was not as pliable as previously thought by submerging a piece of the O-ring in a glass of ice water. At the investigation's conclusion Feynman produced an essential report, "Appendix F - Personal Observations on the Reliability of the Shuttle," that was presented to President Reagan independent of the commission's official report.

Snippets from articles published on www.Feynman.com

Feynman was always the inquisitive type; he had to have the facts.  To find out what happened to the shuttle, he went straight to the people who put the shuttle together.  

He learned many things from these people that would help him to discover the cause of the explosion; and also information that helped him realize what a risky business flying a shuttle really is.  NASA officials said that the chance of failure of the shuttle was about 1 in 100,000; Feynman found that this number was actually closer to 1 in 100.  He also learned that rubber used to seal the solid rocket booster joints using O-rings, failed to expand when the temperature was at or below 32 degrees F (0 degrees C).  The temperature at the time of the Challenger liftoff was 32 degrees F.

Feynman now believed that he had the solution, but to test it, he dropped a piece of the O-ring material, squeezed with a C-clamp to simulate the actual conditions of the shuttle, into a glass of ice water.  Ice, of course, is 32 degrees F.  At this point one needs to understand exactly what role the O-rings play in the solid rocket booster (SRB) joints.  When the material in the SRB starts to heat up, it expands and pushes against the sides of the SRB.  If there is an opening in a joint in the SRB, the gas tries to escape through that opening (think of it like water in a tea kettle escaping through the spout.)  This leak in the Challenger's SRB was easily visible as a small flicker in a launch photo.  This flicker turned into a flame and began heating the fuel tank, which then ruptured. When this happened, the fuel tank released liquid hydrogen into the atmosphere where it exploded.

As Feynman explained, because the O-rings cannot expand in 32 degree weather, the gas finds gaps in the joints, which led to the explosion of the booster and then the shuttle itself.

Source: Feynman Online

Additional Reference Material

Timeline of Events


Additional Video References

The Challenger Disaster First Look

Failure Is The Crack

Feynman’s Role on the Commission

An Explanation Can Be Found

Pressure from the Department of Defense

"When We Left Earth" - Excerpt from Discovery Channel Series

Feynman: The Pleasure of Finding Out

Feynman:  No Ordinary Genius