The Challenger Shuttle Disaster, Thirty Years Later

The Crew of the Challenger

W.J. Astore

When the Challenger blew up thirty years ago this January, I was a young Air Force lieutenant working an exercise in Cheyenne Mountain Command Center near Colorado Springs, Colorado.  I remember the call coming in to the colonel behind me.  I heard him say something like, “Is this real world?”  In other words, is this really happening, or is it part of the exercise?  The answer at the other end was grim, our exercise was promptly cancelled, and we turned on the TV and watched the explosion.

Our initial speculation that day was that an engine had malfunctioned (the explosion appeared to have occurred when the shuttle’s engines were reaching maximum thrust).  But it turned out the shuttle had a known technical flaw that had not been adequately addressed.  Something similar would happen to the Columbia in 2003: a known technical flaw, inadequately addressed, ended up crippling the shuttle.

When I taught a course on “technology and society” at the collegiate level, I had my students address the non-technical causes of the Challenger and Columbia disasters.  Here is the question I put to them in the course syllabus:

NASA lost two space shuttles: the Challenger in 1986 and the Columbia in 2003.  Tragically, both these accidents were preventable.  Both had clear technical causes.  In 1986, faulty O-rings on the solid rocket boosters allowed gas to escape, leading to an explosion of the center fuel tank.  In 2003, insulation foam that detached from the shuttle upon liftoff damaged the heat insulation tiles that protect the shuttle from the intense heat of reentry, leading to internal explosions as the Columbia reentered the atmosphere.

Both accidents also highlighted wider issues involving risk management, institutional culture, and control of highly complex machinery.  Before each accident, NASA engineers had warned managers of preexisting dangers.  In the case of the Challenger, it was the risk of launching in low temperatures, as shown by previous data of gas leakage at O-ring seals when the air temperature was below sixty degrees Fahrenheit.  In the case of the Columbia, visual data suggested the shuttle had sustained damage soon after liftoff, a fact that could have been confirmed by cameras and/or a space walk.  In both cases, managers overruled or disregarded the engineers’ concerns, leading to catastrophe.

Question: What do you think were the key non-technical factors that interacted with the technical flaws?  What lessons can we learn from these accidents about controlling complex technical systems?

I wanted my students to focus on issues such as group think, on management concerns about cost and schedule and how those might cloud judgment, on the difficulty of managing risk, on the possibilities of miscommunication among well-intentioned people operating under stress.

I ended the lesson with a quote from Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize winning scientist who had served on the Challenger board of inquiry after the accident.  Feynman’s honest assessment of the critical flaws in NASA’s scheme of management was shunted to an appendix of the official report.  It’s available in his book, “What Do You Care What Other People Think?”

This is what Feynman had to say:

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

It was a devastating conclusion – a much needed one then, and arguably even more needed today.

Iraq and Afghanistan Are Not Rubik’s Cubes

A Rubik's Cube
A Rubik’s Cube

W.J. Astore

A few years ago I was talking to an experienced U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, a battalion commander in Iraq.  He compared the Iraqi situation to a Rubik’s Cube – a puzzling array of shifting loyalties, interconnected tribes, and religious sects.  At the time, I thought it was a telling metaphor.

But the metaphor was misleading.  A Rubik’s Cube can be solved.  Iraq couldn’t.  Not by the U.S.  Why?  Because Iraq was and is an Iraqi problem, not an American puzzle.  The more we twisted and turned the Iraqi cube, the more we avoided the reality that the heavily militarized U.S. presence in Iraq was a large part of the problem.

Similarly, Afghanistan is an Afghan problem.  Our long-term, heavily militarized, presence there is ultimately not in the best interests of the vast majority of Afghan people.  Nor for that matter is it ultimately in the best interests of America.

This conclusion may seem deceptively simple, even simple-minded.  But it isn’t.  It requires us to be humble.  It requires us to recognize that other countries and people are not problems for us to solve.  And American officials are loath to do that.  They are loath to admit any limits either to their power or insight.

This ham-fisted puzzle-solving mentality was endemic to the American presence in Vietnam.  In a probing book review of Carl Oglesby’s Ravens in the Storm, Dan White cites Oglesby’s experiences talking with the Vietnamese journalist Cao Giao.  One passage in particular caught my attention:

“You Americans [Cao Giao said] like to say the Vietnam problem is complex.  But this is only an excuse to not face the truth.  The truth is that the Vietnam problem is not complex at all.  It is only impossible.  Do you see?  If it was complex, you could try to solve it.  But it is simple because it is impossible.  Because it is simple it cannot be solved.”

Iraq and Afghanistan (or Yemen or Somalia or Syria) are not complex puzzles.  They’re not Rubik’s Cubes to be flipped and turned and massaged until we get all the colors to line up for us.  They’re impossible.  They’re impossible for us, that is.  We can’t “solve” them, no matter how many billions of dollars we spend, no matter how many troop brigades we send, no matter how many weapons we sell to them.

The simple truth (that U.S. officialdom seeks to deny) is that we consume our own myths of global reach, global power, and global goodness.  In the process we reduce other peoples and nations to puzzles.  We play with them until we “solve” them to our satisfaction.  Or we grow bored and tired and throw them away like yesterday’s toys.

Other nations and peoples are not toys.  Nor are they complex puzzles.  Nor should it be puzzling when the peoples we’ve flipped and spun like so many Rubik’s Cubes seek redress – and revenge.