Geek Trivia: Fuel for disaster

What famous disaster led directly to the PEPCON explosion years after the fact?

What famous tragedy led directly to the PEPCON disaster, despite the fact that the two events occurred years apart?

The loss of the space shuttle Challenger on Jan. 28, 1986 was the catalyzing event that -- with the help of some government inaction -- led directly to the detonation of 4,000 tons of rocket fuel components at the PEPCON plant two years later.

The paired solid rocket boosters (SRBs) that help launch every space shuttle into orbit depend on ammonium perchlorate. For those too young to remember, the early days of the shuttle program saw a much more aggressive and frequent launch schedule than NASA presently embraces. When Challenger was lost, NASA suspended shuttle launches for more than two and a half years. Unfortunately, NASA did not suspend its standing contractual orders for ammonium perchlorate to make solid rocket fuel during that period.

PEPCON continued its full-scale production of ammonium perchlorate with no shuttle program to use it, no NASA instructions on where or how to store it, and no idea when the situation would change. Thus, PEPCON kept the oxidizer in 55-gallon drums outside its factory, eventually amassing eight million pounds of the stuff. Scrap perchlorate permeated the facility, to say nothing of the additional chemicals and fuel sources that powered the factory itself. When a stray spark started a fire on the grounds, the entire facility became a time bomb.

When the bulk of the fuel detonated, it created a visible shockwave that, thanks to the aforementioned evacuation efforts, several bystanders were near enough to observe (and film) but far enough to withstand. The blast broke windows and rattled open doors as far away as McCarran Airport seven miles distant. Closer at hand, the nearby Kidd Marshmallow factory was irreparably destroyed.

To say that PEPCON was unprepared for the disaster is an understatement. The company had only $1 million in liability insurance, while the blast caused an estimated $100 million in damages. It required years of litigation to settle the legal fallout, and when the dust settled, PEPCON was forced to reorganize as Western Electrochemical Company, now located in Utah. The PEPCON blast literally blew the company into the next state -- all because of a lost space shuttle two years earlier, and the unforeseen fallout of that horrific tragedy.

That's not just a long-delayed aftershock -- it's a painfully lingering dose of tragic Geek Trivia.

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