That We May Have Wings

Thirty years ago today, I stepped up to get a hamburger and saw this on TV:ap8601281739

Two weeks before this, I had mentioned to my mother that I read a NASA report in our school depository library saying that solid rockets were not suitable for manned spaceflight because they could not be aborted and had too high a failure rate.

Six months later, we learned that the accident had been caused by leaky seals between solid rocket booster segments. The SRBs had been choosen for political reasons, to keep work flowing to the manufacturer and ensure the support of its state representatives. The danger of flying these boosters in cold weather was known, and urgent please from the engineers had been suppressed–for political reasons.

A tragedy, to be sure. The more tragic because it could easily have been prevented.

A tragedy made far, far worse by what happened eight years later, when the Space Shuttle Columbia was lost after suffering damage to its thermal protection system ceramic tiles at liftoff:


Nobel Lareat, Richard Feynman described the root cause of the Challenger disaster thusly (the same exact cause was at the heart of the Columbia loss)”

“They are warnings that something is wrong. The equipment is not operating as expected, and therefore there is a danger that it can operate with even wider deviations in this unexpected and not thoroughly understood way. The fact that this danger did not lead to a catastrophe before is no guarantee that it will not the next time, unless it is completely understood. When playing Russian roulette the fact that the first shot got off safely is little comfort for the next. … In spite of these variations from case to case, officials behaved as if they understood it, giving apparently logical arguments to each other often depending on the “success” of previous flights.”

Feynman was right. Absolutely right. Chillingly right. And his conclusions speak to us all, everyday, and everything we do. The stakes are not always life and death, but the lesson is alwars the same. “Common sense” evolves on the African Savanna. It is no substitute for empirical evidence, scientific rigor, and tested understanding. When we deviate from these proven tool, we tread on broken ice.

As American, as humans, we owe it to the 14 men and women lost to these two disasters to take this lesson to heart. Not merely to patch a few procedures as NASA, but to embrace as a culture this reality: Science is how you know things. Anything else is guesswork.