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The Challenger Disaster:
Lessons for the Right

2,289 words

Anyone who remembers the 1980s can recall exactly what they were doing when the space shuttle Challenger exploded just 73 seconds after lifting off on January 28, 1986. People at the Florida launch site openly wept, pounded their fists on the hoods of their cars, and held each other. Schoolchildren looked at the televised images of the disaster with horror. The news media went into a frenzy, and President Reagan delivered a televised eulogy that evening that was probably his best speech ever.

There was also a series of naughty “Challenger Jokes” that circulated in the elementary school underground across America in the weeks following the tragedy. These jokes were cruel but terribly funny in a forbidden fruit sort of way — I definitely won’t repeat any of them here. These jokes were probably as much part of the grieving process as the memorial ceremonies, moments of silence, and tears.

The Challenger disaster was an emotional shock for the entire nation.

It later came to light that the rubber O-ring seals that kept hot gases from escaping the joints on the solid rocket boosters (SRBs) could fail in cold weather. This fact was well-documented and consistent over several launches. NASA decided to launch the Challenger even though it was covered in a shroud of ice that morning. Suffice to say, the O-rings failed immediately — burning away at the moment of lift-off. At 58.788 seconds into the flight, a plume of fire leaked from the gap opened by the failed O-ring. At 64.66 seconds, that plume of fire had burned into the main fuel tank, and before anyone realized the seriousness of the crisis the shuttle was lost.

The plume of fire coming from the side of the SRB destroyed the Challenger.

There is a great deal to discuss about the space program in general and the Challenger disaster in particular. First, there is a racial angle to the space program. Next, NASA had considerable institutional cultural flaws that contributed to the tragedy. There is also the challenge of technical experts being meaningfully able to contribute to managerial decisions in a large hierarchal organization.

In 1986, one of the messages that the Challenger crew had to sell was “why we were in space.” In the decades since the Challenger crew slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God, space has become a theater of war. It is only a matter of time before military operations in space will be timed to influence infantry operations on the ground. It is likewise only a matter of time before we have terrorism in orbit.

In other words, there’s no more “selling” space; you might not be interested in space — but space is interested in you.

Space & Race

The American space program really got going after the Soviet Union put Sputnik in orbit in 1957. In the following national panic, NASA was created.

NASA’s rocket designers and astronauts became national heroes, but racial politics were always a cloud over the program. Sub-Saharans in America hated the space program. They saw the money going to rockets and moon landers, and very badly wanted that bling. On the eve of the Apollo 11 launch, a junior varsity-level “civil rights” activist named Ralph Abernathy brought a mule-pulled wagon to the Kennedy Center to demonstrate that NASA dindu nuffin for the Africans. Abernathy didn’t realize it, but the protest demonstrated the different capabilities of the races in a stark way. The stunt was cultural appropriation, too. Africans didn’t develop the wheel and axle.

The criticism stung NASA, though. The 1964 Civil Rights Act is an illicit second Constitution, so the cry of the Congoid, however childish, had to be dealt with. NASA adjusted its astronaut recruiting program in the 1970s to include more blacks. The crew on the Challenger’s doomed flight was deliberately selected to be diverse.

Congress was also parsimonious in funding the space shuttle program partially to get more resources to dem programs. As a result, NASA needed to get paying customers to use the space shuttle, like the Department of Defense, to offset costs. The shuttle program was also expected to stay on a tight, profitable schedule. Meanwhile, manned spaceflight was a form of navigation less than a quarter-century old in 1986. Spaceflight was and is imperfectly understood.

Top: The makeup of the Challenger crew was deliberately made racially diverse. Bottom: The crew of the first shuttle launch after the Challenger disaster.

Organizations with a policy of “civil rights” will develop a culture where data is misread and trends are not noticed. The diversity push in NASA was certainly a factor in the enormous misreading of data in the lead up to the doomed launch.

Misreading Data

But the “civil rights” fog was only a small part of institutional cultural flaws in NASA that led to the tragedy. It is all well and good to understand that if your institution believes in “civil rights,” then data somewhere is being misread. But in the case of the Challenger disaster, there were more problems than just “civil rights” make-believe.

Sociologist Diane Vaughan studied the disaster in depth. She first ruled out the idea circulating at the time that the Reagan administration had pushed for the launch in spite of the dangers. She disagreed that NASA’s sensitivity to media criticism over earlier launch delays was an issue. She likewise ruled out the idea that NASA was making decisions based on the idea that expending lives was an acceptable cost of staying on schedule. She calls this concept an “amoral calculation.”

She argues that what led to the disaster is the “normalization of deviance.” Essentially, normalization of deviance is a flaw in an organization that occurs with the collusion of all — nobody realizes there is a problem. In the case of the space shuttle program, normalization of deviance started immediately.

The space shuttle’s components were developed from existing technology but the components had never been used together until after the first shuttle flight. Additionally, they were made by different companies, so all sorts of frictions and miscommunications were baked into the program from the beginning. While NASA tested the technology in-depth prior to the first launch, nobody really knew how things would work until after missions were flown. These damages (i.e. deviances), like scorched O-rings, became normalized since they were usually there and the shuttle always worked. Nobody really knew what right or wrong looked like.

The Challenger’s crew compartment remained intact after the rest of the vehicle disintegrated. It was not discovered until six weeks after the explosion. Three of the astronauts’ emergency oxygen packs were activated and it is possible the crew survived the blast and only perished when the compartment crashed into the Atlantic Ocean.

Vaughn argues that the working group culture that included the engineers that manufactured the SRBs and the management that made the decision to launch or not painted themselves in a corner. They had to launch. All their past decisions influenced their present reality. NASA had normalized deviance and their experience of past successes worked against them.

On a final note, to get NASA focused on the O-ring issue, three people on the Presidential Inquiry Board after the disaster needed to use unusual methods to bring out the truth. Dr. Sally Ride [1], the first American woman in space, was given a chart that showed O-ring problems correlating with cold weather from some source — probably an engineer or lower-ranking action officer. She then gave the paper to USAF Major General Donald Kutyna. General Kutyna had developed a warm friendship with fellow board member and Nobel laureate Richard Feynman. After an evening together, Kutyna and Feynman hatched a plan to demonstrate that rubber O-rings would fail when cold. In other words, to get the truth out, two celebrities and a high ranking military officer had to get creative.

Hierarchy

Those more familiar with the O-ring issue were more certain that they’d fail than those in management. In other words, the sense of danger faded the higher one went up the chain. In the final meeting, held late at night, the question was raised if the cold weather was a problem. Most of the engineers at Thiokol, the company that manufactured the SRBs, wanted to delay the launch. But as the conference between Thiokol and NASA went on, Larry Mulloy, a manager at NASA, made a frustrated and sarcastic remark about “waiting until April.” Participants later said that Mulloy’s comments changed the meeting’s dynamic. Engineers now had to prove that the O-rings would fail. They couldn’t do that. The launch was a “Go.”

What happened on the eve of the Challenger launch should be further explained from a basic leadership perspective. If one is an engineer, a good place to work is on some sort of US government project somewhere so the dynamic at NASA can be repeated in a thousand other places and ways.

These projects are all organized in the same way. There are government officials — usually military officers or civil servants like Larry Mulloy at the top. They are both the client and the senior manager of the project. They are always highly experienced and usually veterans. Mulloy had been in the US Army. A little military service goes a long way. Guys that wore stripes in early adulthood have usually developed the skills to bend people to their will, and a sarcastic comment delivered at the right time can often do such a thing. An engineer, no matter how smart, must thus persuade a guy that represents the power of the US government. This can be quite daunting.

However, this doesn’t absolve a technical expert such as those on the engineering team at Thiokol from responsibility. The types of people that become engineers don’t always have the best human relationship skills. Crying wolf and constant arguing never get anyone anywhere. Insulting the boss also doesn’t work. Plus, continued insistence on problems with the product one has built — in this case, the SRB’s O-rings — is an implied admission that one has done a bad job.

Probably the only way that the O-ring issue could have been resolved without a spectacular failure in the eyes of the nation and world would have required an engineer with considerable technical know-how and personal charm to convince one of the senior NASA officials of the scale of the problem. That problem would need to be clearly defined and a solution had to be within grasp. The problem would need to be prioritized out of all the other problems in a complex system operating at the edge of human engineering. The manager would need to be so comfortable with his position that he could go before his management or a funding body like a Congressional committee and make the case for an expensive overhaul with the associated delays.

A good idea to sniff out normalization of deviance before an accident is to have some sort of meeting off-site, without the usual formality, to frankly discuss concerns. We haven’t seen the end of space accidents, but it is possible to have fewer of them with such a method.

Dealing with Failure

It is easy to lead when you are winning. What do you do when nothing is working? What do you do when your project has blown up in front of the eyes of your country and put millions of people in mourning? I’ve always wondered what to do in such a case. The Challenger disaster offers up an example.

As far as I can tell, NASA’s biggest problem was their slowness in getting information out. It allowed for accusations of a cover-up to develop. Furthermore, they didn’t have a good plan for a catastrophic failure. There was no protocol to follow. They winged it.

Some things did go right. The announcer on-site the day of the tragedy was frank about the situation. He kept his cool and didn’t curse, only stating that there was “obviously a major malfunction.” The director of operations at the Kennedy Space Center also spoke with a sense of professionalism and gravitas to the press. Vice President George H.W. Bush also chose his words wisely in the aftermath of the disaster.

I’d even add that Larry Mulloy, who became something of a fall guy for the disaster, behaved quite well when testifying at the presidential inquiry. He clearly stated how he saw the data and why he made the call he did. It is only in retrospect that it became clear he was wrong. He didn’t cry, behave poorly, use profanity, be sarcastic, be rude, or blame others. He kept his head up and laid out the facts as he saw them.

None, however, topped President Reagan’s speech. The Great Communicator praised the dead, comforted the living, and didn’t recount the horror in detail since everyone had seen the replay a hundred times. Reagan showed that the event had meaning. It was a masterful bit of rhetoric and anyone in a leadership role in any capacity should put themselves in Reagan’s shoes on that day before they must address their followers after a terrible event.

In the end, “The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave.”

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Notes

[1] It is a great tragedy for our people that Dr. Sally Ride (1951 – 2012) died without having children. It is imperative that we encourage smart and heroic women to become mothers.

 

20 Comments

  1. SRP
    Posted September 24, 2020 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    Had not heard about the Abernathy mule train. What a joke.

    I do recall an editorialist in my now almost-defunct Baltimore Sun lament, after he had seen an astronaut group photo, “but there is not a black face among them…”. I wonder why.

    No man on Mars, please. A total huge waste and a barefaced political stunt. Earth is the only home we will ever have. We must fight, fight, fight to save earth for our race and culture, because there is nowhere else to go. The rest of the solar system is a vast wasteland, believe it. PLENTY of exploration to do via robotic explorers, low-earth orbit labs, and fleets of space telescopes.

    Learned recently that the specific compound of the ill-fated o-rings was Viton (DuPont’s version of fluoropolymer elastomer). The tech-dumb press only ever reported them as being “rubber”, but that never satisfied the engineers among us.

    O-rings are one of the unsung hero components of Western technology. I’m sure blacks will have invented them soon.

    • Michael Warne
      Posted September 24, 2020 at 7:48 pm | Permalink

      An area of interest for me is studying the limitations of the Space Program, and all the delusions and misconceptions (political, scientific, and historical)…we went to the moon as a Cold War stunt, and though it was an amazing technical achievement, it was also a very lucky stunt (everything made possible by Von Braun)…we won’t go back. Nobody has the money , will, or technology to do it. We won’t go to Mars. Not next year, not next century. We won’t spend space arks to Alpha Centauri. The technology exists only in imagination. Space is for machines, not men. Just as men will never live at the bottom of the Marianas Trench, men will never get very far in space. I think Eisenhower said it best when a moon landing program was proposed in 1958…”can’t you just shoot a camera up there?” He asked.

      • Bobby
        Posted September 26, 2020 at 5:03 am | Permalink

        As Wernher von Braun said, ” I have learned to use the word “impossible” with the greatest caution.” By the way, the same President Eisenhower who said this, later changed his attitude towards space exploration and on the use of the German scientists and technicians when the Soviet “sputnik” caused a huge panic all across the U.S. combined with the failure of the Navy’s Vanguard rocket trying to send up an American satellite that instead, embarrassingly blew up on the sands of Cape Canaveral to a nation wide television audience. Before all of this, the visionary and entrepreneur, Walt Disney, had been airing regular T.V. broadcasts featuring Von Braun and his assistant Dr. Ernst Stuhlinger, later on the assistant director of the Marshall Space center, explaining to the American public, with intricate diagrams and drawings, how it would be possible to get to and colonize the moon and even Mars and other planets one day and this was in the mid 1950’s!! None of this happened, due to a failure of political will, not the technology making these things possible.

    • Corey
      Posted September 25, 2020 at 6:03 am | Permalink

      I think our destiny as a people is among the stars. We’re a race of horizon chasers and space is the next horizon. We can and should expand out into the solar system and hopefully beyond. If for no other reason than it’s extinction insurance, but also to satisfy that need in ourselves.

      Michael,
      The first landing you could call lucky but when you then repeat the feat 5 more times, that isn’t luck. It’s prowess. Unfortunately you’re probably right about not going back. Since the end of the Apollo program, the US government has poured trillions into to pretending blacks are equal to whites. This money that could have sent us to mars and beyond is now being used as the tinder to burn our cities.

      • Michael Warne
        Posted September 25, 2020 at 9:27 am | Permalink

        In some ways you’re right. There was an extreme amount of skill involved but luck played a big part. Besides skill there was no solar flare activity during the missions…a lucky accident. The astronauts were all top shelf pilots, product of a certain culture reflected in their flat top crew cuts Ban Lon shirts and Rolex watches. By the 1980s overeducated women were on the space shuttles with unkempt pony tails making a statement that traditional gender roles were disgraceful. The Space shuttle was a disastrous unnecessary program with a 40% failure rate that killed the image of astronauts as fearless space jocks

      • SRP
        Posted September 26, 2020 at 9:49 am | Permalink

        The West could technically send colonists to Mars – but we shouldn’t.

        For the reasons I gave above, plus the fact that, if “colonists” were selected today, they would have to be racially “diverse” and would thus propagate white extinction throughout the stars…

        And further, even if we could colonize with our people, those future generations would have no allegiance or connection with Earth or the West, having been raised in plastic pods on a desert planet. “Earth” and “the West” would be aliens to them.

  2. John
    Posted September 24, 2020 at 8:45 pm | Permalink

    “Paul Kersey: When implicit whiteness becomes explicit.” 58:21 video.
    As an exploration of space enthusiast I wrote to NASA in the 1960s & received a Lunar Module kit to assemble. It has been painful watching a great people abandon their destiny of reaching for the stars. Abandoning our future & denying our posterity.

  3. Pat Mahomes
    Posted September 24, 2020 at 10:40 pm | Permalink

    Screw Sally Ride. She married (then divorced) a fellow astronaut and went lesbo. She’s a loser and a warning. Not a sympathetic creature

  4. Bert Wells
    Posted September 25, 2020 at 2:05 am | Permalink

    Amazing that it was only less than 14 years from the last Moon landing in December 1972 to the Chalenger catatastrophe.A sort of galloping decadence disguised by Reagans morning in America again rhetoric which was covering the start of the US great de- industrialisation.The miracle economy that could win world wars ,build atomic bombs and put men on the moon would soon be one with Ninevah and Tyre.As an Englishman I can sympathise ,we experienced this before you .Going from hero to zero is always a traumatic experience especially when you are led there by people who wrap themselves in the flag such as Reagan and Thatcher.

    • Bobby
      Posted September 26, 2020 at 5:13 am | Permalink

      Extremely well said Bert, in my opinion. Reagan and Thatcher, were largely political Potemkins, covering up for the disastrous plans the Western Worlds elites were beginning to instigate. I use the world instigate, purposely and I think, appropriately.

  5. Dale Gribble
    Posted September 25, 2020 at 4:46 am | Permalink

    If the doomed Challenger crew had only Top Gun The Right Stuff types piloting the craft we would not be remembering it the same way, no Netflix docs for one.

    So I wonder why we think we can send women to do such dangerous work

  6. Mike Ricci
    Posted September 25, 2020 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

    “No man on Mars, please. A total huge waste and a barefaced political stunt. Earth is the only home we will ever have. We must fight, fight, fight to save earth for our race and culture, because there is nowhere else to go. The rest of the solar system is a vast wasteland, believe it. PLENTY of exploration to do via robotic explorers, low-earth orbit labs, and fleets of space telescopes.” —

    Agreed. Space exploration is worthwhile but space travel is a joke. Many dissidents and White Nationalists seem to have a strong interest in Whites colonizing space — which strikes me as a kind of escapism. Earth is where we belong whether we like it or not.

    • Lord Shang
      Posted September 28, 2020 at 1:40 am | Permalink

      Yes. As Garrett Hardin put it long ago, “For the far foreseeable future, Earth will be our birthplace and boneyard.” I can clearly recall the general state of things 50 years ago. Really, not that much has changed – except demographically. More people and buildings; lots of new electronic gizmos; and the internet (a mixed blessing). The jet airlines I travel on (pre-pandemic) seem little different from those I took with my parents in the 1970s (indeed, they are often the same designs if not the very same planes!). Cars are better, but same basic idea. Some improvements in insulated clothing, better flashlights. At this rate, man will not leave the solar system for millennia.

      Whites need to be pioneers, but modern pioneering whites must look to re-colonize hospitable portions of our own territories, and re-claim them for ourselves alone. Fantasies about space are simply entertainment, and will be for centuries to come.

  7. John
    Posted September 26, 2020 at 5:35 am | Permalink

    I don’t know y everybody missed the obvious, that earth will die as our Sun dies, therefore, we have to leave Earth sooner or later. Besides, the 1960s Moon landing project produced over 6,000 inventions that we use today. Exploration, R & D, knowledge, resources, pushing the envelope is what we European Peoples do (our Solar System alone contains vast amounts of resources). Afterall, we built the modern world. W/out us it would b a different planet.
    See “White Men Responsible For Almost All The Greatest Human Accomplishments” at Council of European Canadians, 16 July 2020.

    • Mike Ricci
      Posted September 26, 2020 at 9:55 pm | Permalink

      The sun isn’t going to burn out for billions of years, and all of humanity will be long gone by then, which is the natural order of things.

      • B.L.
        Posted September 27, 2020 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

        I don’t know if you’re a christian who believes in fate or just a defeatist but an intelligent species who doesn’t put all of its skills to work for its survival doesn’t deserve to live. Earth will become uninhabitable in less than a billion years when the sun starts getting bigger and hotter and it is also part of the western spirit to defy a supposed natural order of things and accomplish what petty minds deem impossible.

  8. Posted September 27, 2020 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    I was eight years old and in the third grade in January 1986.

    Space was in the news twice that month. Two weeks before Challenger, Voyager 2 was at Uranus.

    The day of the Challenger launch, I happened to be home from school that day for an afternoon doctor’s appointment. But I made sure to watch the launch, which I would have anyway if I was at school that day, because the teachers were all excited that a teacher (Christa McAuliffe) was part of the crew.

    Back in those days, my mother was partial to St. Louis’s CBS affiliate for local news, so she did the dial lock thing and watched Dan Rather for national news. And so it was, I was watching Dan Rather cover the launch. Then what happened was looped over and over many times. It took me a long time to accept that what happened, happened.

  9. John
    Posted September 28, 2020 at 3:46 am | Permalink

    To Mike Ricci,
    “The sun isn’t going to burn out for billions of years, and all of humanity will be long gone by then, which is the natural order of things.”
    Meteorites, comets, basically, space objects slam into our planet from time to time causing destruction & at times extinction. We European Peoples have developed means of tracking said objects & r constantly improving our abilities. We do this because the FIRST LAW OF NATURE is self-preservation. The “natural order of things” is to survive & ensure the survival of our posterity. I c that we European Peoples from Europe to Australia (as a collective) have lost this “natural order of things” or else we would not b opening our borders & becoming minorities in our own homelands. However, I am part of the tribe that will survive & ensure the survival of our posterity to continue our story into the stars. Survival is the “natural order of things”, it is a choice everyone of us makes everyday. I know which tribe I belong to. Some call it – freedom of association.

  10. Mike W
    Posted September 28, 2020 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    Irony no longer exists in America. According to popular culture and misinterpreted history, the greatest villains of all time were German National Socialists—-specifically the SS. Yet Werner Von Braun was a member of both organizations, and it is doubtful that without Von Braun, Armstrong would have walked on the moon.

    • Bobby
      Posted September 29, 2020 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

      As the iconic astronaut who appeared all through the 1960’s on ads, television, magazines, Gordon “Gordo”Cooper, aerospace engineer, test pilot, U.S. air force pilot and the youngest of the seven original astronauts in project Mercury said of von Braun and his “rocket team”, “We could not have done it with out them.” Other astronauts and American engineers concurred. Why is this not widely known to the American public? Let those who don’t know figure it out, if they care in the slightest.

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