- When the Space Shuttle Challenger1 exploded shortly after its launch on January 28, 1986, six professional astronauts and one school-teacher were tragically killed. The nation was devastated, and NASA was shaken out of its complacency, brought on by years of successful – or at least nonlethal – space missions.
- A commission was formed, led by Secretary of State William P. Rogers and composed of politicians, astronauts, military men, and one scientist, to investigate the cause of the accident and to recommend steps to prevent such a disaster from ever happening again.
- The fact that Richard Feynman was that one scientist may have made the difference between answering the question of why the Challenger failed and eternal mystery. Feynman was gutsier than most men, not afraid to jet all over the country to talk to the men on the ground, the engineers who had recognized the fact that propaganda was taking the lead over care and safety in the shuttle program.
- His report, which was perceived by the Commission as embarrassing to NASA, was almost suppressed by the Commission, but Feynman fought to have it included; it was relegated to an appendix.
- When the Commission held a live press conference to answer questions, Feynman did his now-famous tabletop experiment with one of the shuttle’s gaskets, or O-rings, and a cup of ice water. It dramatically proved that those key gaskets had failed because the warning of the engineers that it was too cold outside to go ahead with the launch went unheeded by managers eager to impress their bosses with the punctuality of their mission schedule.
- Here is that historic report.
- I found this report rather opaque - probably because it assumes a lot of background knowledge. The final Conclusion is, however, admirably clear on the need "For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled", rather than to stick to deadlines.
- The report doesn't just discuss the O-rings, or even clearly say that they were "the problem", but discusses the whole range of parts and attitudes to testing and safety.
- He makes a good analogy - having survived a (non-)bullet in Russian roulette shouldn't make you more confident of surviving the next "click".
- It was interesting to hear that the software was the best tested, and had the greatest degree of redundancy (four parallel computers cross-checking one another, with a fifth "emergency landing controller"). But, because so much effort and expense had gone into testing it, the hardware and software were by then 15 years out of date (in 1986) - the programs were loaded from tape!
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- Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2020
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