Jan 27, 1986: Engineers try to stop launch of NASA shuttle Challenger, fail.

jan27Challenger_explosionOn January 27th engineers working for a NASA subcontractor tried to get the launch of the Challenger Space Shuttle postponed for safety reasons. They were over-ruled. The following day, 7 astronauts died when the vehicle exploded 73 seconds after launch.

Context:

NASA was under pressure to do more launches. They were sending a teacher up into space too. The bolted-together-bits-of-Shuttle-to-ensure-pork-barrel-across-the-US was not going to cope with the low temperatures. One engineer, Roger Boisjoly,  knew it. He did everything he could, but when you are up against a hierarchy that doesn’t respect expertise, and has its own “face” to consider, don’t expect to win. The climate connection? Think on it, it will come to you… or clock Mark Bowen’s (2008) Censoring Science, page 61 –

‘But with the Bush administration ignoring the nearly unanimous warnings of climatologists not only in this country but worldwide [Hansen] pointed out, “The situation is analogous to that faced by an engineer who spots a flaw in the Space Shuttle, but finds his complaint ignored by management. He has the right, and responsibility, to make his concern known to the highest authority. IN our case the spacecraft carries billions of humans and other life forms, and the highest authority, the only authority with the power to throttle the engine, is the public.”’

If we were serious about getting out of this mess, we’d teach this as a case study to primary school students.

This is from wikipedia (downloaded 31st December 2014)

Following the announcement that the Challenger mission was confirmed for January 28, 1986, Boisjoly and his colleagues tried to stop the flight. Temperatures were due to be down to −1 °C (30 °F) overnight. Boisjoly felt that this would severely compromise the safety of the O-ring, and potentially lose the flight.

The matter was discussed with Morton Thiokol managers, who agreed that the issue was serious enough to recommend delaying the flight. They arranged a telephone conference with NASA management and gave their findings. However, after a while, the Morton Thiokol managers asked for a few minutes off the phone to discuss their final position again. Despite the efforts of Boisjoly and others in this off-line briefing, the Morton Thiokol managers decided to advise NASA that their data was inconclusive. NASA asked if there were objections. Hearing none, the decision to fly the ill-fated STS-51L Challenger mission was made.

Boisjoly’s concerns proved correct. In the first moments after ignition, the O-rings failed completely and were burned away, resulting in the black puff of smoke visible on films of the launch. This left only a layer of insulating putty to seal the joint. At 59 seconds after launch, buffeted by high-altitude winds, the putty gave way. Hot gases streamed out of the joint in a visible torch-like plume that burned into the external hydrogen tank. At about 73 seconds, the adjacent SRB strut gave way and the vehicle quickly disintegrated.

Boisjoly was relieved when the flight lifted off, as his investigations had predicted that the SRB would explode during the initial take-off. However, seventy-three seconds later, he witnessed the shuttle disaster on television.

See also:

Richard Feynman showing his famous glass-of-water experiment.

And this from wikipedia

Feynman devoted the latter half of his book What Do You Care What Other People Think? to his experience on the Rogers Commission, straying from his usual convention of brief, light-hearted anecdotes to deliver an extended and sober narrative. Feynman’s account reveals a disconnect between NASA‘s engineers and executives that was far more striking than he expected. His interviews of NASA’s high-ranking managers revealed startling misunderstandings of elementary concepts. For instance, NASA managers claimed that there was a 1 in 100,000 chance of a catastrophic failure aboard the shuttle, but Feynman discovered that NASA’s own engineers estimated the chance of a catastrophe at closer to 1 in 200. He concluded that the space shuttle reliability estimate by NASA management was fantastically unrealistic, and he was particularly angered that NASA used these figures to recruit Christa McAuliffe into the Teacher-in-Space program. He warned in his appendix to the commission’s report (which was included only after he threatened not to sign the report), “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”

Other things that happened on this day:

2014 Pete Seeger dies. Seeger had asserted his First amendment rights rather than his Fifth when faced with the House Un-American Committee. And he did some early environmental campaigning (1966)

As ever, see the disclaimers, help the project and comments policy.

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