It was 27 years ago today…

It was 27 years ago today that the Challenger exploded. In some ways, it marked the beginning of the end of America’s human space exploration era in which it launched its own citizens into space.

President Reagan gave a memorable speech that night, invoking images of patriotism and openness…

But an investigation would reveal the contributing cause of the accident was “flaws in the decision-making process.” For many people, that was a bureaucratic way of saying “incompetence” and/or “political pressure.”

Physicist Richard Feynman dissented from the presidential commission’s conclusions:


If a reasonable launch schedule is to be maintained, engineering often cannot be done fast enough to keep up with the expectations of originally conservative certification criteria designed to guarantee a very safe vehicle. In these situations, subtly, and often with apparently logical arguments, the criteria are altered so that flights may still be certified in time. They therefore fly in a relatively unsafe condition, with a chance of failure of the order of a percent (it is difficult to be more accurate).

Official management, on the other hand, claims to believe the probability of failure is a thousand times less. One reason for this may be an attempt to assure the government of NASA perfection and success in order to ensure the supply of funds. The other may be that they sincerely believed it to be true, demonstrating an almost incredible lack of communication between themselves and their working engineers.

In any event this has had very unfortunate consequences, the most serious of which is to encourage ordinary citizens to fly in such a dangerous machine, as if it had attained the safety of an ordinary airliner. The astronauts, like test pilots, should know their risks, and we honor them for their courage. Who can doubt that McAuliffe was equally a person of great courage, who was closer to an awareness of the true risk than NASA management would have us believe?

Let us make recommendations to ensure that NASA officials deal in a world of reality in understanding technological weaknesses and imperfections well enough to be actively trying to eliminate them. They must live in reality in comparing the costs and utility of the Shuttle to other methods of entering space. And they must be realistic in making contracts, in estimating costs, and the difficulty of the projects. Only realistic flight schedules should be proposed, schedules that have a reasonable chance of being met. If in this way the government would not support them, then so be it. NASA owes it to the citizens from whom it asks support to be frank, honest, and informative, so that these citizens can make the wisest decisions for the use of their limited resources.

For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.

  • BJ

    I was in JR High. At lunch we heard the news. Science was my next class we watched coverage all during class.

  • CHS

    I can’t believe that this is the first and only place I’ve seen mention of this anniversary. Have we passed long enough to where it no longer bears mention? Maybe due to the end of the shuttle program in general?

  • Josh

    I saw it mentioned during CBS Sunday Morning yesterday as well.

  • Kurt L.

    We were just studying this event last week in Graduate School ( USC ). We studied it as a bad example of public sector management.

  • Inella

    I remember the day very well and could never watch a live space shuttle launch after it. The next year, Roger Boisjoly gave a presentation at Mankato State University about workplace ethics – the pressure to put up the shuttle despite the concern that it was far too cold for the o-rings to seal properly.

    I also remember listening to MPR on a Saturday morning in 2003 and hearing the Columbia disaster and thinking that it was the replay of the Challenger accident.

  • kennedy

    Kurt,

    Studying management practices from 27 years ago may be informative. There are more recent examples of negative consequences resulting when a schedule drives a complex technical project. Might I suggest two?

    In 2009, NASA attempted to launch a satellite (Orbiting Carbon Observatory) in orbit. Due to a technical failure, it crashed back to earth.

    In 2008, Space Exploration Technologies launched a rocket containing satellites bound for earth orbit. Due to a technical failure, it crashed back to earth.

    One of these is managed by a private company and the other a public venture. There is no monopoly on management mistakes. Neither is there a method that will guarantee success.