Feb 27, 2023 I Nick Redfern

One of the Strangest Mysteries in the History of NASA: Conspiracy or Complete Garbage?

Not long before midday on January 28, 1986, NASA suffered what was, without doubt, its worst catastrophe ever: the destruction of the Challenger Space Shuttle. Worse still, all of the crew lost their lives in the fiery explosion that took out the shuttle. They were:  pilot Michael J. Smith, payload-specialists Gregory Jarvis and Christa McAuliffe, mission-specialists Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik and Ronald McNair, and the commander of the flight, Dick Scobee. And, although the official verdict was that the Challenger disaster occurred as a result of wholly down to earth reasons, a wealth of conspiracy theories surfaced in the wake of the affair, all of which were carefully investigated by none other than the FBI. Before we get to the conspiracy theories, however, let’s first take a look at what we know for sure, based upon NASA’s careful study of all the evidence available.

The flight of Challenger – dubbed Mission 51-L – commenced at 11.38 a.m. EST. In no time whatsoever, it was all over. Just seventy-three seconds into the flight a deadly explosion of oxygen and hydrogen propellants blew up the shuttle’s external tank. The result, as NASA noted was that this, “…exposed the Orbiter to severe aerodynamic loads that caused complete structural breakup. All seven crew members perished. The two Solid Rocket Boosters flew out of the fireball and were destroyed by the Air Force range safety officer 110 seconds after launch.” But, how did such a thing happen? Inquiring minds – including the government, the media, and the general public – wanted answers. NASA responded with a detailed study of the evidence. NASA’s investigative team noted that: 

“At 6.6 seconds before launch, the Challenger’s liquid fueled main engines were ignited in sequence and run up to full thrust while the entire Shuttle structure was bolted to the launch pad. Thrust of the main engines bends the Shuttle assembly forward from the bolts anchoring it to the pad. When the Shuttle assembly springs back to the vertical, the solid rocket boosters’ restraining bolts are explosively released. During this prerelease ‘twang’ motion, structural loads are stored in the assembled structure. These loads are released during the first few seconds of flight in a structural vibration mode at a frequency of about 3 cycles per second. The maximum structural loads on the aft field joints of the Solid Rocket Boosters occur during the ‘twang,’ exceeding even those of the maximum dynamic pressure period experienced later in flight.” Just after liftoff, at .678 seconds into the flight, said NASA, “photographic data show a strong puff of gray smoke was spurting from the vicinity of the aft field joint on the right Solid Rocket Booster.”

(Nick Redfern) The FBI did an excellent investigation of the tragic and terrible incident.

NASA continued that the two pad 39B cameras that would have recorded the precise location of the puff were inoperative. Computer graphic analysis of film from other cameras indicated the initial smoke came from the aft field joint of the right Solid Rocket Booster. This area of the solid booster faces the External Tank. Eight more distinctive puffs of increasingly blacker smoke were recorded between .836 and 2.500 seconds, said NASA: “The smoke appeared to puff upwards from the joint. While each smoke puff was being left behind by the upward flight of the Shuttle, the next fresh puff could be seen near the level of the joint. The multiple smoke puffs in this sequence occurred at about four times per second, approximating the frequency of the structural load dynamics and resultant joint flexing. Computer graphics applied to NASA photos from a variety of cameras in this sequence again placed the smoke puffs' origin in the 270-to 310-degree sector of the original smoke spurt.” As the Shuttle increased its upward velocity, it flew past the emerging and expanding smoke puffs. The last smoke was seen above the field joint at 2.733 seconds. At 3.375 seconds the last smoke was visible below the Solid Rocket Boosters and became indiscernible as it mixed with rocket plumes and surrounding atmosphere.

The black color and dense composition of the smoke puffs suggested to NASA that the grease, joint insulation and rubber O-rings in the joint seal were being burned and eroded by the hot propellant gases. Launch sequence films from previous missions were examined in detail to determine if there were any prior indications of smoke of the color and composition that appeared during the first few seconds of the 51-L mission, NASA noted in its official report on the disaster. None were found, however. Other vapors in this area were determined to be melting frost from the bottom of the External Tank or steam from the rocket exhaust in the pad’s sound suppression water trays.The Space Shuttle’s main engines were throttled up to 104 percent of their rated thrust level, the Challenger executed a programmed roll maneuver, and the engines were throttled back to 94 percent. At approximately thirty-seven seconds, NASA explained, Challenger encountered the first of several high-altitude wind shear conditions, which lasted until about the sixty-four seconds mark. The wind shear created forces on the vehicle with relatively large fluctuations. These were immediately sensed and countered by the guidance, navigation and control system. It was all to no avail, however.

At forty-five seconds into the flight, NASA noted, three bright flashes appeared downstream of the Challenger’s right wing. Each flash lasted less than one-thirtieth of a second. Similar flashes hadbeen seen on other flights. Another appearance of a separate bright spot was diagnosed by film analysis to be a reflection of main engine exhaust on the Orbital Maneuvering System pods located at the upper rear section of the Orbiter. The conclusion was that the flashes were unrelated to the later appearance of the flame plume from the right Solid Rocket Booster. Both the Shuttle main engines and the solid rockets operated at reduced thrust, approaching and passing through the area of maximum dynamic pressure of 720 pounds per square foot, NASA determined, adding: “Main engines had been throttled up to 104 percent thrust and the Solid Rocket Boosters were increasing their thrust when the first flickering flame appeared on the right Solid Rocket Booster in the area of the aft field joint. This first very small flame was detected on image enhanced film at 58.788 seconds into the flight. It appeared to originate at about 305 degrees around the booster circumference at or near the aft field joint.”

(Nick Redfern) Sinister plot or an awful accident?

It was at the seventy-two second mark, NASA demonstrated, that what the space agency described as a “series of events occurred extremely rapidly that terminated the flight.” The agency continued: “At about 72.20 seconds the lower strut linking the Solid Rocket Booster and the External Tank was severed or pulled away from the weakened hydrogen tank permitting the right Solid Rocket Booster to rotate around the upper attachment strut. This rotation is indicated by divergent yaw and pitch rates between the left and right Solid Rocket Boosters.” Things had now reached the point of no return: overwhelming death and disaster were all but inevitable: “At 73.124 seconds, a circumferential white vapor pattern was observed blooming from the side of the External Tank bottom dome. This was the beginning of the structural failure of the hydrogen tank that culminated in the entire aft dome dropping away. This released massive amounts of liquid hydrogen from the tank and created a sudden forward thrust of about 2.~3 million pounds, pushing the hydrogen tank upward into the intertank structure. At about the same time, the rotating right Solid Rocket Booster impacted the intertank structure and the lower part of the liquid oxygen tank. These structures failed at 73.137 seconds as evidenced by the white vapors appearing in the intertank region.”

Within milliseconds, NASA’s records show, there was massive, almost explosive, burning of the hydrogen streaming from the failed tank bottom and the liquid oxygen breach in the area of the intertank. At this point in its trajectory, while traveling at a Mach number of 1.92 at an altitude of 46,000 feet, the Challenger was totally enveloped in the explosive burn. The Challenger’s reaction control system ruptured and a hypergolic burn of its propellants occurred as it exited the oxygen-hydrogen flames. The reddish brown colors of the hypergolic fuel burn are visible on the edge of the main fireball. The Orbiter, under severe aerodynamic loads, broke into several large sections which emerged from the fireball. Separate sections that can be identified on film include the main engine/tail section with the engines still burning, one wing of the Orbiter, and the forward fuselage trailing a mass of umbilical lines pulled loose from the payload bay. NASA’s conclusion on the affair reads as follows:

“The consensus of the Commission and participating investigative agencies is that the loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger was caused by a failure in the joint between the two lower segments of the right Solid Rocket Motor. The specific failure was the destruction of the seals that are intended to prevent hot gases from leaking through the joint during the propellant burn of the rocket motor. The evidence assembled by the Commission indicates that no other element of the Space Shuttle system contributed to this failure. In arriving at this conclusion, the Commission reviewed in detail all available data, reports and records; directed and supervised numerous tests, analyses, and experiments by NASA, civilian contractors and various government agencies; and then developed specific failure scenarios and the range of most probable causative factors.”  With regard to the crew, the NASA said: “The findings are inconclusive. The impact of the crew compartment with the ocean surface was so violent that evidence of damage occurring in the seconds which followed the disintegration was masked. Our final conclusions are: the cause of death of the Challenger astronauts cannot be positively determined; the forces to which the crew were exposed during Orbiter breakup were probably not sufficient to cause death or serious injury; and the crew possibly, but not certainly, lost consciousness in the seconds following Orbiter breakup due to in-flight loss of crew module pressure.”

Although NASA’s official conclusion was that the destruction of Challenger and the deaths of the crew were the collective result of a terrible accident, in no time at all conspiracy theories surfaced, all of which suggested the event was not the accident that many concluded it to be. They were conspiracy theories that reached the very heart of the FBI. Interestingly, the FBI did not ignore or write-off the claims. Instead, they launched concerted investigations to get to the truth. We know this, as the FBI’s lengthy file on the Challenger conspiracy has now been declassified, thanks to the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act. Less than twenty-four hours after the Challenger explosion took place, the office of William H. Webster, then the director of the FBI, received a memorandum from the agency’s office in Boston, Massachusetts. It was a memo that described something disturbing and controversial. Barely forty-eight hours before the shuttle was destroyed, a reporter at the city’s Channel 7 news took a phone call from an anonymous man who claimed that, according to the FBI’s files, “he was part of a group of three people who were going to sabotage the Shuttle, causing it blow up and kill all aboard.” Boston-based FBI agents wasted no time, at all, in hitting the offices of Channel 7. The staff was extensively interviewed, as the Bureau sought to gather all the available facts. Unfortunately, they were scant, but revolved around the caller’s claims that “horrible things” were about to befall NASA and the Challenger crew, and that no less than “five people are going to be killed.” Who by, was the big mystery facing the FBI. 

It turned out, however, that the Bureau assumed it would be a big mystery, given that the caller was anonymous and seemingly long gone. That was not quite the case. For one of the agents, this was all too familiar, as a particularly notable, and now-declassified, FBI report shows. In part, the document reports that: “During briefing of SAC [Special Agent in Charge], ASAC [Assistant Special Agent in Charge], and appropriate supervisory personnel relative to aforementioned and employment of agent personnel, it was recalled that in September of 1985, a walk in complainant, of questionable mentality, had intimated that he had been responsible for the delay of previous Shuttles, plane crashes and other catastrophic events.” Agents that worked on the case well remembered the odd man, who clearly displayed far more than a few psychological issues. As a result, it didn’t take them long to find and arrest the man. He was quickly subjected to what was described as a “five-day mental evaluation.” It was clear to the FBI that the man was not faking his deranged mindset. As a result, he was released without charge, providing he underwent therapy, and took whatever drugs the responding doctors determined he needed to take to try and ensure at least a degree of stability.

It must be said, though, that even some of the FBI agents on the case expressed their suspicions that there might have been more to the matter than met the eye. Yes, admittedly, the man had made a number of prior predictions about a terrible disaster concerning the Challenger space shuttle. But, this one was unlike any of the previous ones: not only did the man correctly predict the destruction of the shuttle; he also predicted it just two days before the disaster actually happened.  The FBI was far from done with space shuttle-based conspiracy theories, however. At the same, precise time that agents of the Boston office of the FBI were pursuing leads on the destruction of Challenger, something of a very similar nature was going down in California. The story is told in a summary document, one which was prepared by FBI agents in April 1986, after the investigation was finally closed. The document in question is titled Space Shuttle Challenger, Information Concerning Launch Explosion, Kennedy Space Center, Florida, January 28, 1986, dated April 18, and reads as follows:

“On January 31, 1986, the FBI Resident Agency in Santa Ana, California was advised by [identity deleted] that he believes the Challenger exploded due to its being struck by laser beams fired from either Cuba or an aircraft. [Source] stated that a review of film footage of the explosion revealed brown puffs of smoke coming from the Space Shuttle just prior to the explosion. He stated leaks from the fuel tanks would produce white smoke, not brown smoke. [Source] said that the brown smoke would be produced each time the craft took a ‘hit’ by the laser beam, and the explosion occurred when the laser beam penetrated the skin of the craft.” The FBI took careful steps to speak with leading figures in the field of laser-based weaponry – both in the U.S. military and the private sector. Interestingly, just about everyone told the FBI that the scenario was theoretically possible – and disturbingly so – but was considered unlikely. Precisely why the scenario was dismissed -when there was a near unanimous consensus that just such a thing could really be achieved - is curious. Unfortunately, certain portions of the documents that have been declassified on this matter are significantly redacted, thus making it practically impossible to secure the full story.

Moving on from Massachusetts and California, the story then takes us to Dallas, Texas. It was early March when the Bureau’s office in Dallas began investigating the claims of a man who worked in the movie industry. He believed that footage he recorded and carefully analyzed showed “something” flying through the sky and hitting one of the two boosters responsible for getting the shuttle into the skies, and “subsequently causing the explosion.” FBI agents were sufficiently concerned to secure the footage - which they did, after a lengthy interview with the man, whose name is deleted from the available files. The matter was ultimately dismissed; although it should be noted that the files reflect the man was perceived as nothing less than a good, concerned citizen, and not someone displaying mental issues, or working to a suspicious agenda. The most bizarre story of all was still to come, however.

Demonstrating that the FBI’s study of the Challenger explosion was very much a nationwide one, the story now takes us to Washington, D.C. It’s a strange saga, made even stranger by the fact that, even today, nearly thirty pages of material on the affair remain classified – specifically for reasons having a bearing on the safety of the nation. It revolved around the claims of a woman who maintained two things: (a) that the destruction of the space shuttle was the work of Japanese terrorists, and (b) that her information on the matter was channeled into her mind by highly advanced extraterrestrials. From practically the very beginning, the FBI’s files detail the controversy surrounding the woman in question. The Bureau recorded, in its documents on the case that the woman “claims to be in contact with certain psychic forces that provide her with higher information on selected subjects. She refers to these forces as ‘Source’ and when providing information from Source she often speaks in the collective ‘we.’ [She] claimed that she had come to Washington, D.C. to provide information concerning the Challenger Space Shuttle explosion on 1/28/86.”

(Nick Redfern) Note that the key figure in this story always called her informant by the name of "Source." There's no doubt, then, that she was what is known as a Contactee (someone who communues with non-human entities: aliens), making the whole thing even more controversial.

Her claims were extremely wild: she maintained that the terrorist group in question was partly comprised of two workers at the Kennedy Space Center and one of the astronauts. As the FBI agents working on the case listened carefully - and, perhaps, a bit dubiously too - they were told that the group in question had a deep hatred of the United States and, by destroying the shuttle, wished to destabilize the U.S. space program and American moral. Whether the woman’s story was true or not, it is a fact that the U.S. public was indeed shocked to the core, and the space shuttle program was put on hold for no less than thirty-two months. When the agents asked the woman how the sabotage was achieved, they got a detailed answer: “The explosion was effected by a device placed inside the external fuel tank of the Shuttle. An individual whose description seems to match that of an engineer or technician placed this charge. The charge was triggered by a second saboteur using a hand-held transmitter while standing in the crowds watching the Shuttle lift-off. The individual matches the description of a guard or security person. The astronaut saboteur chose to die in the explosion as a sort of ritual death or ‘cleansing.’” 

As with all of the previous cases that the FBI had looked into, this one led nowhere – at least, that is the assumption, since no arrests were made. The controversial affair came to a complete halt just weeks after it commenced. The destruction of the Challenger space shuttle, on January 28, 1986 remains to this day one of the worst moments in NASA’s history. Whether it was a moment provoked by nothing stranger than a terrible accident, or something filled to the brim with conspiracy theories and sinister, ruthless characters, very much depends on who you ask.

Nick Redfern

Nick Redfern works full time as a writer, lecturer, and journalist. He writes about a wide range of unsolved mysteries, including Bigfoot, UFOs, the Loch Ness Monster, alien encounters, and government conspiracies. Nick has written 41 books, writes for Mysterious Universe and has appeared on numerous television shows on the The History Channel, National Geographic Channel and SyFy Channel.

Join MU Plus+ and get exclusive shows and extensions & much more! Subscribe Today!