Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Safety is critical ...

It was a cold January morning in Florida, 28th January 1986, and there was going to be another routine flight of the Space Shuttle.

NASA had gone to great lengths over the years of the Shuttle program to assure the public that the Shuttle program was synonymous with safety – it was just like riding the bus.

Two minutes into the flight, Challenger exploded, leading to the deaths of all onboard.

At the time much was talked about that “space flight has some risks in it”, and this was an unfortunate act of nature.  It was only years later, after an investigation, that it turned out to be nothing of the sort.

Engineers at Morton Thiokol, who produced the rocket boosters on the craft, had been concerned about the launch conditions.  It had been freezing overnight – unusual conditions for Florida.  Evidence on previous flights showed that the O-rings, an important component that contains the integrity of the boosters, had shown severe wear on previous launches where cold had been a factor.  And this was considerably colder than any previous launch.

Engineers met with their managers, who spoke with their customer NASA about these concerns.  NASA was not happy to have to cancel an important flight.  Previous flights had been losing interest from the public, and this one was a PR stunt in launching a teacher into space.  To cancel it would be a PR gaffe.

NASA as customer, agreed to cancel the launch, and go with Morton Thiokols recommendation.  However it made overtures about how disappointed in Morton Thiokol they were, and how this would affect future business.

So the  Morton Thiokol management climbed down, in the face of customer pressure – and reversed their recommendation.  With tragic consequences.

It's easy to take an anti-management line on this.  But really NASA as their customer should not have put them in this place.

This is a scenario played out large that many engineers and often their managers have been put into.  Delays can be costly and bad PR, but catastrophic failures can destroy lives, careers, companies.

Scientist Richard Feynman, who was part of the subsequent investigation put it neatly - "For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled."


  1. Was wondering about putting the picture of the explosion in there. Decided against it - the overuse of such pictures can be a bad thing. Much better to go with the human impact instead.

    I was a boy at the time, and it rocked my foundation - I believed the Shuttle almost fool-proof. Suddenly the technology which in the 80s was seen as "absolutely trustworthy" felt fallible.

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