The galactic price of organizational arrogance

Naturally, after the Challenger was alleged to have been torn asunder for want of something as simple as a piece of rubber, people wanted answers. The Rogers Commission, a panel of politicians, military officers, astronauts and scientists appointed by President Reagan to investigate the disaster, eventually produced a 225-page report detailing evidence not only that O-ring failure was an extremely high-risk scenario in freezing temperatures, but that NASA officials acted in opposition to the advice of engineers and launched the shuttle amid a cloud of known dangers basically out of impatience. (I think about this every time I’m seated on a grounded airplane listening to my fellow passengers groaning about “stupid” ice and weather delays, as if human deadlines trump physics and an increased probability of crashing is a petty inconvenience compared to the huge threat of, say, catching cancer from genetically modified yam.)

This was not a matter of hindsight being perfect as usual. It was not a head-scratcher. Morton Thiokol engineers explained what was likely to happen, and their expertise was disregarded for the sake of political expediency. I’m glad to report that this no longer happens and that the public has been encouraged by subsequent administrations to regard scientists as leading sources of expertise in their fields, second only to corporate CEOs, senators from Oklahoma, and psychics.

Renowned physicist (and prankster) Richard Feynman‘s opinions differed markedly from those of his dozen or so peers on the Rogers Commission in the degree to which they maligned NASA management’s decision-making, technical competence, and more or less everything else of relevance. The normally sober Feynman was so appalled by the arrant ignorance he discovered (for example, the labeling of an O-ring that had split 1/3 of the way through its diameter in tests with a “safety factor” of 3; the straight-from-someone’s-ass estimate of only a 10-in-a-million chance of catastrophic shuttle failure of any origin) that he dedicated much of one of his normally jaunty books to his Rogers Commission experience. The conclusion of this his Rogers Report findings — added as an appendix to the Report after some controversy – appears below, but read the document in its entirety; considering what was at stake and the presumed wisdom of those handling the stakes, the managerial incompetence at NASA – which was not an event but a bona fide culture – was shocking.

“[E]ngineering often cannot be done fast enough to keep up with the expectations of originally conservative certification criteria designed to guarantee a very safe vehicle …Official management claims to believe the probability of failure is a thousand times less [than engineers’ estimates]. 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 … 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…For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”

But human beings can, and the more politicized an organization with NASA’s aims and profile becomes, the less able it is to achieve its vision. In 2006, George Deutsch was busy as a bee in his role as Bush-appointed NASA propagandist, spreading an impressive range of lies about the scientific consensus on cosmology, global warming, and other matters. Deutsch was notoriously involved in curbing the efforts of longtime NASA climate scientist James Hansen and ordering portions of the governmental Web site so as to introduce muddying language suggesting about the Big Bang, climate change and so on. As it turned out, Deutsch lied about graduating from Texas A&M University and resigned from his post last February. Nick expresses amazement that someone like Deutsch could waltz into a position theoretically demanding an extensive background check without even having a college degree. At one time I might also have found this odd.

If there is one government organization in the world that desperately needs to maintain its public image, to create and nurture an honest and informing rapport with a public that is mildly titillated by close-up shots of Mons Olympus or photos of Saturn’s rings from within but sees few tangible benefits in spending billions of dollars on what appear to be toys that aren’t even useful in war, it is the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. It is imperative to translate the wonder in all of us — the kind of innate thrill tied to all of our hearts and transcending otherwise insuperable differences between creationists and life scientists, biomedical researchers and hard-line opponents of embryo tinkering, even Muslims and Jews – into understanding and hope, into a global confidence that betterments to a humble and increasingly fragile Earth ecology can be found through dedicated and focused endeavors and expenditures in places we have been fortunate to graze, if that.

It may have been coincidence, or perhaps it was a natural by-product of a more generalized shying away from the heavens on the part of America as a whole, but after 1986 I lost interest in astronomy. I took astrophysics as a college student, and was fascinated, but for whatever reasons — and they were probably benign enough — I haven’t been quite as captivated as before.

As I said, I don’t follow this spacey stuff with such untrammeled intrigue anymore. But at least once a year, it becomes hard to forget. And because of what and whom is remembered, it becomes equally hard not to idealize.

Christa was 37 when she died, not old for a teacher, but old enough to me at the time; my mother was born less than a year before Christa was. Suddenly I was 37 one day, and now that day is comfortably in the past. I may have done the unthinkable and caught up in years, but only now can I appreciate how much Christa McAuliffe did in human terms. There still exist those, with or without having known her, who partake of her unvarnished optimism. It’s a place to start.

  1. #1 by Joe Shelby on January 29, 2007 - 2:10 pm

    I think about this every time I’m seated on a grounded airplane listening to my fellow passengers groaning about “stupid” ice and weather delays, as if human deadlines trump physics and an increased probability of crashing is a petty inconvenience compared to the huge threat of, say, catching cancer from genetically modified yam.
    Just remind them of Air Florida Flight 90.

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