Implications and Ramifications of Engineering Design of Field Joint for Space Shuttle: STS 51-L - A Case Study - Instructor's Guide

  • Akila Sankar
  • Chetan S Sankar
  • P. K. Raju
  • Vamsee Dasaka


Joe Kilminster, the Vice-President of Space Booster Programs at Morton Thiokol, Inc. (MTI), flipped the teleconference switch in the MTI conference room on January 27th, 1986. MTI had successfully created the Solid Rocket Booster, the first solid fuel propellant system, for the NASA Space Shuttle and it had worked without fail in all 24 Shuttle launches. Although MTI and NASA had encountered problems with the Solid Rocket Booster field joint during 1972 to 1980, design modifications of larger O-rings and thicker shims had been instituted to help fix the problem. There had been questions created by a MTI task force and Marshall Space Center management about the reliability of the O-rings. However, during the teleconference on January 27th, Mr. Kilminster was surprised to learn the seriousness of the situation when MTI engineers wanted to reverse the decision of the NASA Flight Readiness Review and persuade MTI and NASA management that Flight 51-L should not be launched the next day. MTI engineers were convinced that the possible effect of freezing temperatures on the SRB field joint could cause major problems within the Space Shuttle systems. As the teleconference proceeded and the engineers and managers debated the issues, it became clear to Mr. Kilminster that a difficult decision must be made. MTI would have to decide whether or not to recommend that NASA launch the STS 51-L, the Challenger.