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From Challenger to Extraterrestrials

Richard Cook returns to the Roanoke library on March 29.

by Gene Marrano

It’s been just over 25 years since the Challenger shuttle disaster on January 28, 1986. Just after Mission Control spoke the words “throttle up” the Challenger blew apart, 73 seconds into the flight, killing all seven astronauts on board, including Christa McAuliffe, an elementary school teacher from New Hampshire. School kids from around the country watched the liftoff at assemblies – only to witness the disaster.

It was a preventable disaster, caused by the contraction of O-rings on an ice cold morning, a morning when there should not have been a shuttle launch. Morton Thiokol engineers in Utah (they built the solid rocket boosters) expressed that sentiment to superiors but were overruled – the company was under extreme pressure from NASA to keep the launch on track. Six months before the accident, now-retired lead resource analyst Richard C. Cook warned his colleagues at NASA about a possible catastrophic failure.

That warning fell on deaf ears; after the shuttle disaster, Cook, who now lives in Roanoke, leaked his original memos to the New York Times. He also became a whistle blower, along with Morton Thiokol engineers, at Congressional hearings. Cook’s 2006 book, “Challenger Revealed: An Insider’s Account of How the Reagan Administration Caused the Greatest Tragedy of the Space Age,” details how the shuttle disaster could have been presented. Veteran astronaut John Young also testified about the extreme pressure to stay on track with launch dates, Cook noted.

Cook touched on Challenger and the entire history of the U.S. space program during two presentations at Roanoke City libraries last week. He will return to the main library downtown on Jefferson Street on Tuesday, March 29 (6-8 p.m.) with a program called “Challenger to extra terrestrials: answering the call of space.”

Cook had two children that attended Virginia Tech so he is not stranger to the area; his wife Karen is a preschool teacher in Roanoke now. After the Challenger incident and his testimony, Cook was not welcomed back at NASA and he finished his government career in the Treasury Department. “I was lucky to land [at Treasury],” said Cook before he gave his program on the history of space travel to a session at the Gainsboro library branch.

“Man has been dreaming of space for a long time,” said Cook as he began his slide show. He recalled the Apollo 1 fire in 1967, which killed three astronauts on the launch pad, and the 2003 Columbia disaster, in which a missing piece of insulating foam caused a wing to burn through. Ultimately that led to the shuttle coming apart, killing seven.

Another investigation after that disaster was “highly critical of NASA’s decision making and risk assessment process,” said Cook, “NASA knew about the problem with foam [for years].” Cook, who has “no doubt” that UFO’s exist, isn’t surprised that NASA will shut down the shuttle program after one more scheduled flight, as it readies a new reusable vehicle. “Any launch of the space shuttle … we hold our breath,” he said of the highly complex machine. “They’re tired of holding their breath.”  Like many others he touts unmanned flights as being more productive and much less risky in many cases.

NASA also knew about the missing foam during the entire Columbia flight, but elected not to tell the crew. After Columbia, a visual inspection procedure was put in place to look for missing foam and tiles after all launches. There have been 132 shuttle launches to date said Cook, and “two of them were catastrophic failures.”  As early as the second space shuttle flight a problem with charring of the o-rings was noted.

Cook has written two other books besides Challenger Revealed- one of them he says warned of the economic downtown at financial institutions that led to the recession. “I forecasted the crash as early as 2007,” he noted.

The crew of the Challenger had no real way to escape the shuttle explosion, even if it seems that the crew compartment did remain intact until it hit the Atlantic Ocean.  “[The] investigation concluded that NASA should have grounded the shuttle,” said Cook. It’s a story he has been telling for 25 years. See local library branches for Richard Cook’s book on the Challenger disaster, or

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