Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Challenger Disaster Turns 30

A re-post of what I wrote back in 2007:
The Challenger

In Memoriam.

There are a thousand ways to remember tragedy.

I remember the Challenger in several, discrete episodes one of which I’ll go into after this by Danny Miller from the Huffington Post, who recalls that day like so:
Touching the Face of God: Remembering the Challenger

What baby boomer wasn't obsessed with the space program? As a kid growing up in the 1960s I followed every Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo launch with enthusiasm and wonder and created scrapbooks of the missions. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were cultural icons in my childhood the same way Elvis and the Beatles were.

A few months later, I heard that NASA was following my lead. When I learned that a high school social studies teacher by the name of Christa McAuliffe had been chosen from over 11,000 applicants to be the first civilian to go up in the space shuttle, my childhood obsession with the space program was renewed. I read everything I could find about Christa's training, listened to her inspiring interviews, studied the lesson plans she would bring with her on the historic trip, and felt like I came to know her family members and her students in Concord, New Hampshire.

In January 1986, as the launch approached, I couldn't get enough of the Challenger coverage. I was disappointed each time the cold Florida temperatures delayed the mission. On January 27, I watched McAuliffe's husband Steven and their two children on "The Today Show," talking about how excited they all were for Christa. The kids, nine-year-old Scott and six-year-old Caroline, seemed thrilled that their mom was making such a ground-breaking trip and Scott was excited that his entire third-grade grade class had traveled to Florida to watch the launch.

On the morning of January 28th, we all stood around the TV set in the SVE conference room to watch the liftoff. It was still unusually cold in Florida but we were relieved that mission control did not stop the launch. I suppose if it hadn't been for Christa McAuliffe I might have been following the story of Judith Resnick, the Challenger astronaut who was only the second American woman to travel in space (third if you count Apple Blossom) and the first Jewish astronaut. The Challenger crew also included commander Dick Scobee, Michael Smith, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, and Gregory Jarvis. When they showed the seven astronauts about to enter the shuttle, my eyes were glued to the high school teacher from New Hampshire. Her smile was contagious, she seemed so terribly happy.

My heart was racing as the Challenger majestically rose from its perch at 9:38 Chicago time. The cameras kept cutting away to McAuliffe's mother and sister who were there watching the liftoff and live shots from Christa's former classroom in Concord. It seemed like a perfect launch, the Challenger rising in a beautiful straight line at Cape Canaveral and beginning to arch over the Florida sky. At first I didn't think anything of the strange double formations that formed around the shuttle's trail which was being closely followed by the cameras. It took me and the millions of people watching the Challenger several minutes to realize that some kind of major catastrophe had just occurred. It had never even crossed my mind that anything could happen to the crew of the Space Shuttle. Hadn't NASA proven itself over and over again, even when potentially catastrophic situations emerged during some of its earlier missions? The only casualties of the space program to date had been the three Apollo 1 astronauts who were killed by a fire on a launchpad in 1967.

When it became clear that the Challenger had exploded 73 seconds after takeoff, I could only stare at the television in disbelief. It took my brain several minutes to catch up with what my eyes were seeing and my ears were hearing. At first there were some excruciating close-ups of the stunned and then grief-stricken faces of McAuliffe's mother and sister.

I can't remember a news event that affected me so viscerally before or since. I couldn't even imagine the grief that the families and friends of the astronauts experienced as they watched the live broadcast of their loved ones' completely unexpected and terribly violent deaths.
That’s not a bad take on how Challenger felt to a lot of us.

Why, on 9/11, the only emotionally analogous memory I could dredge up to frame the nightmare I was seeing was from that day -- January 28, 1986 -- when this passionate son of the Space Age saw the most complex machine ever built by man, sailing into the stratosphere with the most “American” crew it had ever borne, blown to atoms, live and in color.

But I also remember another, later chapter of that catastrophe.

A specifically and contemptibly political chapter.

See if this doesn’t sound appallingly familiar:

A Republican Administration which, for grubby political ends, decides to do something incredibly dangerous and reckless.

To get what they want, Administration heavies lean hard on the Department charged with assessing the risk of their endeavor. They make it clear that “The President Wants This!” and that the consequences of not find a way to "Yes" may be very unpleasant.

In response, the men at the top -- The yes-men. The politically-sensitized careerists and bureaucrats -- steadily whittle away at every rationale underpinning each of the risk assessments. Insisting that the engineers frame each scenario in the most “optimistic” possible terms.

In other words, Pure Fucking Cheney-Think: that incessant thugging-down of every cautionary voice as somehow disloyal or harebrained, and the relentless amping-up of any data, not matter how wispy and wishful, that helps to spin a happy tale of glory and triumph.

In short order, the engineers who actually know what the risks are, are pushed aside, ignored or beaten into equivocation. Which, if you don’t have a conscience and have the authority to screw someone out of their career, is really not hard to do. You pick, and pick, and pick until the experts admit they cannot say with 100% certainty that your insane idea will end in ruin.

Of course they can’t.

Unknowns multiplied by unknowns multiplied by still other unknowns make for a predictive model which can be shot to sunshine if you are an ideologue hell-bent on seeing only what you want to see. If you are the kind of freak who absurdly insists that science must either be a flawless seer of what-is-to-come...or it's just "opinion" in which case isn't one opinion just as valid as another?

It was on this contemptible corruption of science that Big Tobacco was built, and that Global Climate Change is still dismissed as "unproven" by agenda-pounding wingtards.

And because no one can predict the outcome of unknowable events with perfect certainty, once the wormy shits from the Big House on Pennsylvania Avenue can bully the analysts into admiting any element of doubt exists, they then have all the room to maneuver they need.

And so, against the consensus advice of their experts but with the consent of their appointed lackeys -- their own pet "Heckofajob" Brownies and Bremers -- the Reagan Administration threw Challenger into the sky and killed it.

I supposed the single, merciful fact that philosophically separates the Shuttle Disaster from the Iraqi Disaster is that once the Challenger exploded -- once the debris fell into the ocean -- no one could continue to cling to the belief that the Challenger Mission could still somehow be salvaged – that “Victory” could still somehow be achieved -- by pouring more money and lives down that rat hole.

But other than that, the parallels roll right down the same, predictable, disgraceful track.

After the failure came the parade of experts. All in impressive uniforms, bulwarked by impressive credentials. All spewing highly technical doubletalk specifically designed to make the non-experts feel stupid and silly.

In other words, spouting bullshit calibrated to make anyone who was not suited up in a NASA-issue lab coat and blessed by the Administration that dared to venture a harsh question or skeptical opinion feel like an idiot.

Feel like they were somehow besmirching the brave sacrifices of our noble astronauts.

Is this sounding at all familiar?

And they may well have gotten away with it if it weren’t for this guy.

Richard Feynman: A physics genius with that rare, mentor’s gift for communicating the often exotic intricacies of the scientific world with admirable plainness and clarity.

It was Feynman who, during the hearing -- live and on-camera -- used the simple props of a C-clamp, a glass of ice water and a chunk of O-ring material to demonstrate irrefutably that the stuff they used as gaskets on the shuttle would fatally lose its elasticity when the temperature fell below freezing.


Who wrote this in his appendix to the “Roger's Commission Report on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident”.

(emphasis added)
"It appears that there are enormous differences of opinion as to the probability of a failure with loss of vehicle and of human life. The estimates range from roughly 1 in 100 to 1 in 100,000. The higher figures come from the working engineers, and the very low figures from management....

“Finally, if we are to replace standard numerical probability usage with engineering judgment, why do we find such an enormous disparity between the management estimate and the judgment of the engineers? It would appear that, for whatever purpose, be it for internal or external consumption, the management of NASA exaggerates the reliability of its product, to the point of fantasy.”
“There was no way, without full understanding, that one could have confidence that conditions the next time might not produce erosion three times more severe than the time before. Nevertheless, officials fooled themselves into thinking they had such understanding and confidence, in spite of the peculiar variations from case to case.”

“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

“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.”
Substitute "White House" for "NASA" and "Iraq" for "Challenger", and if Richard Feynman were alive today and making the same kind of clear, rational observations he would be flogged as a traitor on Fox, or as a terrorist-sympathized in the Wall Street Journal, or as a disloyal American who refuses to support the troops by Tony Snow.

Every Fucking Day.

There are a thousand ways to remember tragedy, and I can’t think of any way sadder than to realize that that subspecies of Rodenta Republicana Americanus whose political hubris and contempt for science authored the Challenger tragedy have, over the years, proven themselves time and again to be uniquely incapable of learning a single god damned thing from their own failures.

That, as Iraq and Katrina have now made abundantly clear, unless they are stopped cold, this particular mutant breed of political animal will rampage on, unchanged and unrepentent.

Continue to frantically scramble for more and more power regardless of the long-term toxicity of the means.

Continue to loudly dismiss experts and analysts and thoughtful critics in favor of their imbecile dogma and the dictates of their corporate masters and their science-hating Christopath fellow travelers.

Continue to misuse the power they grab by taking ever-crazier long-shot gambles with other people’s money and other people’s children.

Continue to fail, serially and catastrophically.

And continue to try to blame the bloody results of their own murderous incompetence on their critics and betters.

That is the lesson for our time. That in the Age of Dubya, the Modern Republican Party as it is currently constituted is beyond salvation and beyond redemption.

That since their ideology renders them incapable of self-correction, they will continue destroying all that they touch until they are electorally torched back into the ideological sewers that spawned them.

And not a moment before.


bowtiejack said...


Abu Scooter said...

You forgot to mention exactly what political end the Reagan boys were trying to fulfill on 28 January 1986. That was the date on which Reagan gave the '86 State of the Union address. Having Challenger safely in orbit would have provided him one heckuva talking point for his speech that night.

Apart from that, this is freakin' awesome piece of writing.

trgahan said...

“..proven themselves time and again to be uniquely incapable of learning a single god damned thing from their own failures.”

Bullshit...they learn a lot from their failures. They just don’t interpret failure the same a normal human being would.

Per your own example, they weren’t prepared for Feynman so they set into motion things that would make them prepared for the next Challenger-level public fail. As you point out, today Feynman would get the “We create our own reality” FoxNews/HateRadio treatment that would limit other “neutral” news sources to discussing “Is Feynman being honest? Some say no. We’ll have Mr. X from the Heritage Institute and Mrs. Y from Project for a New American Century to discussion.”

Other examples: Cuban Revolution led to a focus on rat fucking Latin American self-governance for over half a century. Big Tobacco Law Suits lead to state, then national-level, “Tort Reform” to insulate business for legal responsibilities. Enron/Arthur Anderson Scandal led Bush to cut the DOJ’s White Collar Crime department down to two lawyers with a $100 budget.

They learn just fine from their point of view.

Kathleen O'Neill said...

I remember that day very well. I also remember the subsequent investigation, the results of which did not (sadly) surprise me. And you so beautifully tie it all together with a history of Rethuglican perfidy. But hey, "Both Sides" and "There. Is. No. Difference."

Habitat Vic said...

I remember the post-Challenger engineering/statistical arguments very well (my major- Engineering Mechanics - produces many engineers who focus on structuaral failure mechanisms). My geek friends strongly felt the 1:100 catastrophic failure prediction was likely correct, especially given the complexity of the shuttle and the potential failure points. There were 135 shuttle missions in total, which would predict 1 or 2 catastrophic failures. Sure enough, mission #25 Challenger, and mission #113 Columbia. Engineering, statistics, historical data - boring, not sexy, but all the fervent optimism didn't change underlying facts.

Republicans have struggled with control/corruption by the wealthy elite starting shortly after Lincoln. Hell, Teddy Roosevelt was a political-expediency VP who "lucked in" to being President. And his actions in office - breaking up Standard Oil, creating the National Park System - got him run out of the Republican Party. The Lochner-era Supreme Court, out of control banksters (including many, many times with mini-recessions/scares before the Great Depression), overseas intervention in support of corporations.

I fervently hope for a Democratic President in 2016. But the evil of the moneyed elite that has taken over the Republican Party will not go away. They may be set back, maybe even for decades (see FDR), they may have to transform, maybe even change or start a new party, but they will survive. Slavery may have been America's original sin, but its underpinning was a powerful aristocratic elite. perhaps they run hedge funds now rather than plantations, but they have not gone away and are, sadly, stronger than ever.

stickler said...

Unfortunately, Feynman is dead. Fortunately, so is Tony Snow.

Neo Tuxedo said...

I was in a tenth grade French class when the principal of Long Beach (MS) High School gave us the news on the school PA. I was four weeks away from my 16th birthday, and (though I didn't realize it) the Last War in Albion had already affected my life in the form of Swamp Thing #46 (the Crisis crossover), roughly four months out from the start of its first and greatest battle.

Relevance, counselor?

Just as the real target of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings was not Japan but the USSR, the real target of Watchmen was not superheroes but the Reagan Administration. ("Seymour, we do not dignify absurdities with coverage. This is still America, God damnit! Who wants a cowboy actor in the White House?")