Mr. Maxson claims that the condition of launch pad 39B prior to STS-51L (first Shuttle usage of this launch facility) contained serious hydrogen leaks that were neither detected by nor reported to NASA. Mr. Maxson claims that intentional launch delays and subsequent ET refuelings “ensured that the left solid rocket was adequately cold-soaked for disaster” (ibid, page 26).
The only rationale for this apparently intentional sabotage was blamed on “(President) Reagan’s plans for militarizing space” (ibid, page 81). Claims of “organized crime at KSC” (ibid, page 19) were also made (without any attempt at providing proof) in an attempt to assign sinister motives and a willing intent to cause the destruction of Challenger and the deaths of the seven crewmembers.
NASA’s launch facilities have a large number of sensors at various locations. For a hydrogen leak of this magnitude to have gone undetected or left other obvious visual signatures belies the historical evidence of past hydrogen leaks of significantly less magnitude being detected and holding launch.
Much speculation was also attached to video artifacts claimed to be RCS usage during ascent. Without any evidence to back up these claims, statements like “undisclosed to the public, NASA began to make limited use of the (RCS) jets at altitudes below 70,000 feet” (ibid, page 8)and “NASA Select and the (STS) 41-C telemetry recorded unmistakable evidence of first-stage RCS activity” (ibid, page 13).
There is no telemetry evidence available within Mr. Maxson’s book, nor any of which I am aware at all, that would back up these fantastic claims. Ascent guidance does not rely on RCS for attitude control. The claim that “the Air Force had begun a policy of using the RCS jets to maintain center of gravity for certain payloads” (ibid, page 38) shows a lack of basic understanding of the flight dynamics of the Space Shuttle, especially in the ascent regime.
Several times within the book, Mr. Maxson makes claims to a more northeast trajectory for Challenger. Telemetry evidence does not support this as fact.
A claim that “an uplink to select Casablanca, made at the last minute, would explain Challenger’s northeast trajectory” (ibid, page 109) implies that Transoceanic Abort Landing (TAL) site selection has any bearing on ascent guidance. In fact, TAL site selection has no bearing whatsoever!
The groundtrack produced by the ascent guidance is a direct function of the targeted orbital inclination, unless yaw-steering is enabled, as would be the case for very high-inclination (i.e., 57° or higher) missions. STS-51L was a “due East” or 28.5° inclination mission.
During another discussion, Mr. Maxson claims that the selection of Casablanca was made at the behest of CIA Director Bill Casey so that “an extremely cold left booster would force the shuttle south from its advertised due east trajectory, causing public alarm” (ibid, page 32). In reality, Dakar, Senegal, was the TAL site selected for the launch of STS-51L on the morning of January 28, 1986. Casablanca was declared “NO GO” due to forecast rain and low ceilings violating Flight Rules.
Mr. Maxson further claims that the crew was in the middle of performing an ascent abort during the last few seconds of the ascent. There is no evidence for this claim, either.
A claim that Scobee (CDR) and Smith (PLT) “had been receiving special training for an abort” (ibid, page 52) is presented in an attempt to convince the reader that this training was somehow unusual. Standard crew training flow concentrates on ascent procedures, including abort scenarios, intensely prior to launch.
Speculative examination of very fuzzy images from camera E204 (ibid, page 53, figures 88 and 89) claims that a “fast-sep” abort was in progress. Given that there was no telemetry evidence to support this, the crew was not aware of the events leading up to the Accident, and their training would not have had them perform this sort of drastic action without clear indication of a problem, it is safe to say that the conclusions reached concerning an ascent abort are incorrect.
During the conflagration that resulted and the aerodynamic breakup of Challenger, Mr. Maxson makes the claim that the Inertial Upper Stage (IUS) booster, attached to the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) and contained in Challenger’s payload bay, was somehow responsible for further destruction.
A claim that “the guidance thrusters on this payload missile had ignited” (ibid, page 57) leads to the statement that “the IUS hurtled forward into the crew cabin” (ibid, page 57). By claiming the IUS RCS thrusters had “burst into flame” (ibid, page 57), Mr. Maxson overlooks the key point that the IUS thruster is actually a solid rocket motor. The IUS RCS thrusters are quite small and incapable of providing the thrust to which he attributes them.
For some reason, an attempt is made to convince the reader that the SRBs crossed within the conflagration fireball. No telemetric evidence is available to support this.
An excellent review of “Betrayal”, “STS-51L: The Challenger Accident — Conspiracy Theories, Challenger, and Solid Rocket Boosters” (currently offline) (written by Jon Berndt), addresses this point extremely well, and I don’t feel the need to re-invent the wheel. Please refer to Jon’s review for more information. (UPDATE: I have hosted Jon’s PDF now as part of this review.)