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Space Shuttle Disaster

Classroom Activity

Activity Summary
Students research the progression of U.S. manned space exploration and learn the causes of the Challenger and Columbia shuttle accidents.

Learning Objectives
Students will be able to:

  • describe how the U.S. space program missions have changed over time.

  • explain what allowed the Challenger and Columbia space shuttle accidents to occur.

  • cite specific causes for each accident.

Suggested Time
Three class periods


Multimedia Resources

Additional Materials

The space program has a long history of advancing science and technology since NASA's inception in 1958. Probes have been sent to the outer reaches of the solar system; men have landed on the moon. Since it started in 1981, the space shuttle program alone has launched more than 100 missions. In its early years, the shuttle program's focus was on launching both military and communications satellites; the program's middle years were devoted to completing scientific missions and the launch and repair of space satellites. In recent years, shuttle astronauts have concentrated on assembling and maintaining the International Space Station.

But the program has not been without its problems. Faced with pressures to develop a reusable space transportation system, NASA in the 1980s took on military and commercial payloads in order to survive. The need to accommodate different kinds of payloads resulted in conflicting design requirements that would jeopardize the shuttle's safety—the 1986 Challenger disaster struck a huge blow to the program. When shuttle flights resumed in 1988, the program returned to its original mission of science exploration. But the shuttle's safety issues were not over—NASA's decision to ignore engineers' concerns about foam shedding from external fuel tanks cost the agency its second shuttle and crew when Columbia disintegrated over Texas in 2003.

The report issued by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board set into motion NASA's next transformation—a vision put forth in 2004 by President George W. Bush to replace the shuttle with new spacecraft that can take astronauts to the moon, Mars, and beyond.

Known as Constellation, the program will be based on existing, proven technologies and will be designed to dramatically improve safety by launching crew and cargo separately and incorporating a crew escape system.

  1. Ask students to recall any space missions they know about. Which missions are most memorable? Why?

  2. Organize students into teams and distribute the U.S. Space Exploration Time Line student handout. Instruct students that they will be researching the major manned space initiatives that started after the founding of NASA in 1958. Students will be finding out about what the goals and landmark accomplishments were for each initiative; they'll also investigate what, if any, accidents and fatalities occurred during each program's duration.

  3. Have students conduct their research and write their findings on the handout. For them to gain a more in-depth understanding of why the accidents occurred in the space shuttle program, have them watch NOVA's Space Shuttle Disaster.

  4. After students have finished filling in their charts, lead a discussion about how the space program's missions evolved (see Assessment for a completed U.S. Space Exploration Time Line).

    • How did manned space missions evolve prior to the shuttle? The Mercury missions focused on getting a manned spacecraft to orbit Earth. Subsequent Gemini missions worked on extending flight times and perfecting space maneuvers. The well-known Apollo mission undertook the bold challenge of landing a man on the moon. The final program prior to the space shuttle missions—the short-lived Skylab program—tested the limits of human space endurance.

    • What was the original intent for the shuttle? To transport astronauts to a space station.

    • What were some advantages and disadvantages of President Nixon's decision to scale back U.S. space ambitions? One advantage was that the financial resources alloted to the program could be used elsewhere; one of the biggest disadvantages was that the pioneering progress being made in U.S. space exploration was suddenly brought to a halt.

    • How did the space shuttle's mission change over time? Though the shuttle began as a platform for scientific studies, the need for subsidizing additional shuttle launches opened it up to commercial and military interests. But after the Challenger disaster in 1986, those parties withdrew their missions and the shuttle was rededicated to science pursuits.

    • Why did the shuttle's original mission priorities change? President Richard Nixon decided to cancel the Apollo program and the space station in favor of developing the space shuttle program, a low-Earth orbit initiative.

    • What are the reasons for sending humans into space? Are the reasons worth the risks? Why or why not? Space exploration can help answer larger questions about our universe as well as provide practical technological advances for society; risks need to be weighed with potential benefits in order to determine whether a mission is worth undertaking.

  5. As an extension, have students research the next-generation spacecraft program, Constellation, and report on its safety features.


The following chart lists many of the goals, accomplishments, and results of NASA's manned space missions. Students may list additional facts. Accept all reasonable answers.

U.S. Space Exploration Time Line



Landmark Accomplishments

Results (including any accidents and/or fatalities)

Mercury Missions

orbit a manned spacecraft around Earth, investigate how humans could function in space, and recover people and spacecraft safely

on May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard became the first American in space with a suborbital flight that lasted 15 minutes, 28 seconds

launched 25 flights, including six manned missions; no accidents or fatalities

Gemini Missions

subject astronauts to long-duration flights, develop effective methods of docking with other orbiting vehicles, perfect methods of reentry and landing, and gain additional information about the physiological effects of long-duration flights

successfully completed maneuvers, such as docking spacecraft in orbit, that would prove essential to later Apollo missions

launched 12 flights, 10 of them manned; no accidents or fatalities

Apollo Missions

land Americans on the moon, return them safely to Earth, and achieve U.S. preeminence in space

on July 20, 1969, Neil A. Armstrong became the first human to set foot on the moon

launched 15 missions, 12 of them manned; fire started in command module during a 1967 launch simulation for Apollo 1—three astronauts were killed; explosion in service module during lunar flight crippled Apollo 13, though no fatalities resulted


investigate whether humans could survive in space for long periods

astronauts performed complex repair tasks inside and out of space station; final crew stayed in space 84 days

completed four missions, three of them manned; no accidents or fatalities

Space Shuttle Missions

originally intended as a transport vehicle but eventually became a low-Earth orbiter

launched 3 million pounds of cargo; transported more than 600 passengers and pilots; traveled more than 366 million miles

completed more than 120 missions by 2008, all manned; Challenger exploded in 1986, killing seven crew members; Columbia disintegrated during reentry in 2003, killing seven crew members

International Space Station

establish a science lab and research facility and create a permanent habitable residence that will maintain and support a human crew

in 1998, first two modules of the ISS were joined together in orbit; first crew arrived in 2000; as of June 2008, ISS contained 12,626 cubic feet of habitable space

completed 17 expeditions by 2008 (18th will launch October 12, 2008); notable for international cooperation and diverse crews; no accidents or fatalities

Use the following rubric to assess students' work.



Needs Improvement

Students are active participants in class discussions. They are able to describe how the U.S. space exploration program has evolved and changed in purpose over time, and they can clearly state why the shuttle disasters occurred.

Students participate in class discussions. They are able to describe how the U.S. space exploration program has evolved and changed in purpose over time, and they can give a broad explanation for why the shuttle disasters occurred.

Students do not participate in class discussions, and may have difficulty describing how the U.S. space exploration program has evolved and changed in purpose over time, or why the shuttle disasters occurred.

Links & Books


American Manned Spacecraft Accidents
Provides a list of books, reports and hearings, and Internet resources for five American manned spacecraft accidents: the Apollo I fire, the crash of X-15, the near loss of Apollo XIII, the destruction of Challenger, and the disintegration of Columbia.

A Brief History of Space Accidents
Lists some of the problems that have occurred on Soviet and U.S. space missions since 1961.

Gives information about development of Constellation's two vehicles, Ares and Orion.

Past Missions
Includes detailed information on all of NASA's past manned and unmanned space missions.

President Bush Announces New Vision for Space Exploration Program
Contains the transcript of President Bush's speech outlining new directions for space exploration.

Shuttle Timeline
Presents a look at the shuttle's history and details each mission.


Disasters and Accidents in Manned Spaceflight
by David J. Shayler.
Springer, 2000.
Presents case histories that chronicle the major incidents that have occurred in training, launch to space, survival in space, and return from space over the past 40 years.

Space Systems Failures: Disasters and Rescues of Satellites, Rockets and Space Probes
by David M. Harland and Ralph D. Lorenz.
Praxis, 2005.
Offers an in-depth exploration of the failures of rockets, satellites, and deep-space missions.


The "U.S. Space Exploration Time Line" activity aligns with the following National Science Education Standards.

Grades 5-8
History and Nature of Science

  • Science as a human endeavor
  • Nature of science
  • History of science

Grades 9-12
History and Nature of Science

  • Science as a human endeavor
  • Nature of scientific knowledge
  • Historical perspectives

Classroom Activity Author

Developed by Jeff Lockwood and WGBH Educational Outreach staff.

Teacher's Guide
Space Shuttle Disaster

VideoSpace Shuttle Disaster QuickTime or Windows Media video (1 hr)

Koch Foundation

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