This week I watched the Netflix documentary, Challenger: The Final Flight regarding the 1986 Space Shuttle disaster. There are a few things that struck me much more forcefully than they had at the time, but perhaps that’s just simply that I am older and more willing to look at some of the details, or more likely, the details at the time came out slowly, and it was difficult to distill this down for a while.
It is now much more clear to me that this catastrophe was not just a matter of one whistleblower being ignored. A team of engineers at Morton Thiokol, the manufacturers of the solid rocket boosters, were aware of potential troubles with the rubber O-rings that maintained the seals in the sections of the SRB’s for over a year. In particular, they were concerned that seals wouldn’t be maintained if the shuttle assembly was on the launch pad during very cold weather just before launch. The potential result of a poor seal would be hot gas (essentially a large flame) burning through the SRB and potentially exploding all of the fuel in the main engine tank. Sadly, this is exactly what happened on January 28, 1986.
The management was under extreme pressure to launch regularly, so they weren’t happy or even much interested in considering matters that would delay launch. The matters brought up by the engineers should have automatically stopped flights and started them on a SRB re-design. But managers at Thiokol and Marshall Space Flight Center (where the management for the SRB’s lived ) signed off on a waiver of these rules that let the shuttle fly. Furthermore, when warned of the problem again on the day of the launch (because Florida was experiencing record cold weather), the management again claimed (and some still maintain their old views) that there wasn’t enough evidence to suggest that the O-rings might fail in cold weather, leading to a total loss of the vehicle and crew.
I teach future engineers, and I am particularly concerned about focusing on methods to the detriment of considering ethics. One thing to keep in mind is that though the engineers most directly involved with production and testing did bring forward their concerns, many of the management people who also had engineering backgrounds did not. Their primary concern was preserving the budget.
This can also teach a lesson in the COVID era. Bring your concerns forward. Burying these concerns or the concerns of other can kill.
And of course, if you want to read more about physics and astronomy in sci fi, get my (Steve Bloom’s) book, The Physics and Astronomy of Science Fiction, available from Amazon, other online booksellers and the publisher (McFarland). Enjoy, and I’ll be back soon.