Lessons from the Challenger Space Shuttle Disaster

Moral Strength and Frailty in the Face of ‘Groupthink’

Thirty-five years ago, on January 28, 1986, Americans mourned the death of seven astronauts on the space shuttle Challenger, after the spacecraft exploded barely a minute after take-off.

Spectators were horrified as white gas erupted from the Challenger’s external tank and the spaceship disappeared in gigantic plumes of smoke and flames. Images of the terrifying Y-shaped explosion dominated the news for days to come. People accustomed to regarding NASA as invincible masters of the space age could not come to terms with the catastrophe.

The tragedy was initially characterized as an “inexplicable accident” caused by an unknown mechanical malfunction. But in the months that followed, the ugly truth began to seep out.

Investigators began to uncover a culture of complacency and arrogance at NASA and its top contractor, Thiokol Inc., that disregarded advice from their own engineers regarding critical safety issues.

It turned out that the night before the launch, five or more engineers had vigorously argued against the Jan. 28 launch, citing deficiencies in a critical component called “O-rings” that if not fixed ahead of the launch could cause disaster.

One of the engineers, Robert Ebeling, described the scenario to an NPR correspondent. According to the article, “Despondent and in tears, he recounted how he and his colleagues reviewed hours of data review and arguments with the heads of Thiokol.”

The data, Ebeling said, showed that the rubber O-ring on the shuttle’s booster rockets would not seal properly in cold temperatures. In the subfreezing temperatures expected the following day, the risk of the O-rings not sufficiently expanding to prevent gas leakage was overwhelming.

There had already been indications of gas leakage—called “blowby” – on earlier shuttle flights. This issue, compounded with freezing temperatures the day of the launch, ramped up the engineers’ alarm.

Armed with the data that supported their concerns, engineers Roger Boisjoly, Ebeling and some of their colleagues argued fiercely for a delay, or postponement. At first, Thiokol managers agreed with them and formally recommended a launch delay. But NASA officials challenged that recommendation, according to the NPR report.

“I am appalled,” NASA’s George Hardy reportedly said when he heard the engineers had advocated postponing the launch due to weather conditions. “I am appalled by your recommendation.”

Another shuttle program manager, Lawrence Mulloy, who later claimed he brought all information about safety issues to senior management, reportedly expressed extreme annoyance at the notion of canceling the launch.

“For Heavens’ sake, when do you want me to launch — next April?” he demanded.

‘It’s Gonna Blow up’

In the end, decision-makers at NASA and Thiokol overruled the engineers and made the fateful decision to proceed on schedule.

Two Thiokol engineers, Robert Ebering and Roger Boisjoly, admitted in separate interviews with NPR that under pressure from NASA, they had been intimidated into silence. Swallowing their reservations, they ceased their opposition.

That night, Ebering said he shared his misgivings with his wife about Challenger lifting off in cold weather. “It’s gonna blow up,” he intoned helplessly.

Praying he was wrong, he joined Boisjoly and other colleagues in the morning, in a conference room at Thiokol’s headquarters outside Brigham City, Utah. When Challenger blasted off, tremulous sighs filled the room. “We felt we had dodged a bullet,” he said.

But their relief was premature. Seconds later they watched in horror and anguish as the spacecraft exploded on a giant television screen. They knew exactly what had happened.

Both men continued to be haunted by their inaction for the rest of their lives, testified family members.

“I should have done more,” lamented Eberling in a remarkable follow-up interview with the same NPR journalist thirty years later. By then in his late sixties and long retired, Ebeling said he lived with deep remorse.

During years of mentally replaying the sequence of events that preceded the disaster, he found himself musing over endless what-ifs… What if he had pleaded his case more effectively to his superiors? Or if he had possessed the courage to go over their heads to a higher authority who might take his words more seriously?

What if he had actually approached the astronauts themselves with his premonitions of disaster?

None of that might have changed the outcome and he almost certainly would have lost his job, but towards the end of Ebeling’s life (he died in 2016), being fired seemed preferable to the wrenching pain of having blood on his hands.

“G-d picked me for the job,” he said softly to the NPR reporter… “I’ve asked Him many times, ‘Why me? You picked a loser. I didn’t do enough. I could have done more.’ “

Presidential Commission Unravels the Disaster

As NASA showed no inclination to share information about the tragedy with a grieving public, then President Ronald Reagan empanelled a team of federal investigators, the so-called Rogers Commission, to identify the cause of the disaster.

The Commission scrutinized close-up, slow-motion videos of the explosion hundreds of times. They interviewed scores of officials from NASA headquarters, from Morton Thiokol Inc., the Utah-based contractor that manufactured the rocket launchers, and from Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. They spoke to engineers and technicians.

They delivered their report to President Reagan in June 1986, six months after the tragedy. The panel flagged the ill-fitting rubber “O-rings” that failed to seal the sections between the rocket boosters as the cause of the tragedy, exactly as the engineer team had feared.

The report detailed how the defective seals allowed pressurized, blazing hot liquid-hydrogen propellant to escape from one tank, burst into flame and rupture the second tank containing liquid-oxygen. The mixture of the gases triggered a spectacular explosion, causing Challenger that was hurtling into space at 2000 miles an hour to instantly disintegrate.

Trapped in their insulated chamber which had ripped apart from the rest of the shuttle, the astronauts, some of whom were still alive, were hurled downward into the ocean with an enormously violent impact. A high-powered search over many days, covering hundreds of miles, eventually retrieved from the ocean floor parts of the shuttle wreckage and the astronauts’ remains still within the crew cabin.

Criminal Negligence?

The Rogers Commission held all three NASA-related power centers—NASA Headquarters, Morton Thiokol Inc. and Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama—fundamentally responsible for the failure to fix the faulty booster rockets prior to the flight.

The panel found that Thiokol Inc. had designed a faulty rocket joint with flawed O-rings, had taken no appropriate action to fix it and had ignored pleas by engineers in the late 1970’s that the joint be redesigned.

The report sharply rebuked managers at Marshall who ‘’all but covered up’’ a nine-year history of problems with O-rings according to a Chicago Tribune article. Marshall manager Lawrence Mulloy, had asserted that he had told ‘’everyone’’ about the concerns but the Commission found that the opposite was true.

The report, which was released to the public, chronicled a long-running record of refusals to recognize the seriousness of known problems with the booster rockets. On top of this, systemic failures to pass vital safety information from engineers to the key decision-makers at the top, almost guaranteed tragedy.

In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, dozens of top-tier NASA, Thiokol and Marshall officers resigned or went into early retirement. As the Rogers Commission had stopped short of calling for a criminal investigation into the tragedy, nobody was prosecuted for the deaths of the astronauts.

A civil lawsuit filed by the family of one of the survivors was dismissed by a judge who asserted the astronaut “had died in the line of duty” and that assigning blame to the space flight agencies was “not supported” by the evidence.

A scathing Harvard Crimson editorial mirrored public sentiment when it slammed what it deemed excessive leniency in the face of apparent criminal neglect in the Challenger fiasco.

“So how is Morton-Thiokol paying for its miscues? With a whopping fee? With the termination of its NASA contract? With national disgrace?” demanded the editorial.

“None of the above. Officials at the Marshall Space Center recently announced that the maximum “fee reduction” which Morton-Thiokol would receive as a penalty is $10 million. It’s not nearly severe enough to even be called a slap on the wrist. Worse, NASA officials are considering bestowing a $75 million “incentive award” on the very same company.”

“That’s absurd,” the editorial went on. “Morton-Thiokol bears a large portion of the blame for the Challenger disaster. At the very least, it should pay dearly for its miscalculations.

“Perhaps a nine-digit fine would convince Morton-Thiokol and other contractors to temper their worship of divine profit with some common sense,” the editorial concluded.

NASA Needed A Win

By Jan. 28, 1986, the Challenger mission had already been delayed for half a year. The publicity goals in avoiding another delay overrode all other considerations.

The space shuttle was seen as the vehicle to enabling NASA to actualize its goal of turning spaceflight into something parallel to air travel. The agency boasted of plans to open up the space program for human exploration by ordinary Americans, not just a cadre of elite scientists and astronauts.

The plan was to refurbish shuttle spacecraft between missions to keep the overall cost down, while increasing the frequency of missions. But five years after the inaugural launch, the program averaged just five missions a year. NASA was forced to acknowledge that its promises had exceeded its ability to deliver.

At this point in time, space travel had lost much of its allure to Americans. Televised coverage of new flights had diminished with the corresponding waning of public interest. NASA attempted to reignite excitement with various marketing techniques, such as making their astronaut corps multi-ethnic and including women.

In the latest endeavor to capture the imaginations of average Americans, they had included a teacher, Christa McAuliffe, who would broadcast a school lesson live from orbit, on her fourth day in space.

According to this plan, a Tuesday, Jan. 28 launch meant a Friday broadcast but a Wednesday launch corresponded to a Saturday broadcast, with no school audience in attendance.

NASA was deeply invested in the publicity of the teacher’s broadcast; it was an integral part of the mission’s public relations goals that could not be waived.

Another factor driving NASA to insist on Challenger launching on schedule may have concerned President Ronald Reagan’s upcoming State of the Union Address. Some say the president was expected to tout Challenger’s mission, and perhaps mention “McAuliffe, the Teacher in Space.”

Delaying the launch meant NASA would possibly miss out on a big public relations coup—unthinkable to the pragmatic minds running the agency.

As emerged from the investigation, thoughts of delaying the launch were never seriously entertained by top management. NASA enjoyed a sense of infallibility based on a string of past triumphs. That bred a complacency that encouraged higher ups to view warnings about the potentially malfunctioning O-rings as an acceptable safety risk.

After all, hadn’t NASA demonstrated time and again its mastery over technology?

In a shocking reversal, Challenger showed that technology can easily turn against its creator.

Although it grounded all space flights for just two years while supposedly instituting sweeping changes in its command structure, communications and safety systems, NASA never recovered its former glory and authority.

*****

Billionaire Entrepreneurs Seek Niche in Space Travel

Challenger forever changed the public’s relationship with spaceflight and tax-funded NASA.

More than three decades after the loss of the billion-dollar shuttle, the human hunger for ever more territory to conquer is driving billionaire entrepreneurs to create their own niche in “affordable” spaceflight, shifting dependence away from government efforts.

Regardless of how farfetched and even warped these visions are, those backing them are determined to convince Americans that they should jump aboard this new “wave of the future.”

NASA, not to be overshadowed by competitors, is developing a new generation of spacecraft and rockets with the declared goal of sending humans to other planets, and sending scores of newer and better satellites into space for earth observation and climate studies.

Are Americans interested in this space mania?

A new poll suggests that the notion of sending people to the Moon or on to Mars is out of step with the views of most Americans. A survey by the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research suggests only about one-in-four Americans believe sending humans to the Moon or Mars is “very” or “extremely” important, reports Public Affairs and Media Research.

By contrast, 59 percent of respondents found scientific research on Earth, the Solar System, and the universe to be very or extremely important for NASA.

While Americans may like the idea of a space program and might be intrigued by robotic probes landing on Mars, most are not interesting in sacrificing to pay for it. What returns can they expect from their investment, as a country, in deep space exploration?

During the last 15 years, NASA has been engaged in building the “capabilities” for a deep-space exploration program with the Orion spacecraft and two large rockets, the Ares V and then the Space Launch System.

This has cost a staggering $50 billion, much of it borne by the taxpayer. And for what? How many people need or want these futuristic vehicles? None of them are ready for human spaceflight nor will they be in the immediate future. Ultimately, how many people will ever bring themselves to use them to fly into deep space?

If we can learn anything from the ill-fated Challenger flight it is that spaceflight, no matter how cutting edge and state-of-the-art, is only as safe as the degree to which one can trust authorities at NASA or whatever private company is running the show.

*****

Groupthink: New Name for an Old Malady

The Challenger tragedy is one of the most studied disasters in history.

When University of Yale research psychologist Irving Janis coined the term “groupthink” in 1972, he identified key symptoms of a social dynamic that discourages independent thinking or individual responsibility in reaching a decision, using the Challenger disaster as a paradigm.

Janis singled out key features of groupthink: illusions of invulnerability; collective rationalization; direct pressure on dissenters; projecting an impression of total unanimity; and instilling fear of being ostracized.

Challenger fit this pattern, he asserted. NASA managers perpetuated the fiction that everyone was fully in accord on the launch recommendation, although this was wholly false.

Both entities promoted the illusion of infallibility. Thiokol rejected the notion there could be something fundamentally wrong with the design of their rocket booster. NASA did not want to hear of another launch postponement, afraid it would signal weakness and ineptitude to Congress, who provided only year-to-year funding.

Neither organization tolerated dissenting voices and tried to intimidate subordinates into silence.

Despite warnings not to go outside the company with his critique, Thiokol engineer Roger Boisjoly laudably rejected groupthink; he sought out the Rogers Commission and shared his insights into the disaster. This included a memorandum dated six months before Challenger’s launch in which he had warned of catastrophe if the rocket boosters and O-rings were not fixed.

The independent-minded Boisjoly was subsequently ostracized by his superiors and co-workers, and left Thiokol, never to work again in aerodynamics. Although he spent the rest of his life encouraging ethics in science, he never got over his sorrow for a disaster that could have been avoided, and for which he blamed himself in his memoirs.

True, he was a whistleblower and it took courage to be one, but he blew the whistle too late, he said. After the unthinkable already happened.

Groupthink is as old as human history; it’s a sophisticated term for an ancient ailment, a feature of all totalitarian societies that is all too prevalent even in western democracies. The dynamic can be said to dominate wherever dissenting ideas are punished, silenced or suppressed—a phenomenon increasingly prevalent in our own society.

Challenger taught America not only about faulty O-rings and the devastating consequences of choosing glory over conscience. It highlighted the danger of groupthink that induced moral frailty even in honest, ethical-minded individuals.

It constrained good people from vocally protesting a move they knew would take the lives of seven innocent people who trusted they were being taken care of.

Admittedly, anyone breaking ranks with the majority opinion at NASA or Thorikol and trying to deliver a message at that hour which opposed higher authorities, would have been dismissed as a nut.

Today, far more than seven lives are at stake as millions are felled by a virus that experts believe can be wiped out by safe, cheap and available medicines, but are blocked from delivering this life-saving message.

Not surprisingly, these dissenters, too, are mocked and maligned by those in authority as liars, quacks and nutcases.

As a wise person observed, Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. The more things change, the more they stay the same.