THE CHALLENGER DISASTER

"For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled." (Richard Feynman)

 

NAVIGATE:

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CONCEPTUAL LINKS:

Proper Presentation of Information

Inception

Core Problem

Warning Signs

 

THE STORY:

The Challenger Disaster

Disaster Averted

The Weak Link

The Boisjoly Claim

The Nudge

The Problem

The Core Problem

The Feynman Hypothesis

The Feynman Verification

The Aesop Connection

 

 

The Challenger Disaster

It Didn't Have to Happen

 

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This video is chilling because we're watching it now knowing what we know.  The explosion wasn't thought abnormal - why would one think anything abnormal happened. 

 

"We're looking very carefully at the situation ... obviously a major malfunction" is the first hint something has gone horribly wrong."

 

We know what happened now.  We know there was pressure to launch.  It was cold that day in January, 1986.  Engineers pleaded not to launch.  They had more than hunches.  They had data!

But NASA still launched.

Why?

 

 

A Disaster Averted

The Power of Informational Graphics

 

Proper Presentation of Information

 

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The Weak Link

Determines the Strength of a Chain

 

Proper Presentation of Information

 

 

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The Boisjoly Claim

 

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Roger Boisjoly, a key Morton-Thiokol engineer, took exception to Tufte's characterization of the launch decision.  If Tufte's data presentation was correct, the engineers were incompetent.  The document is here

 

THE BOISJOLY CLAIM

 

 

 

We'll return to this in a moment, but remember this:  "we didn't have the data".

 

 

 

A Nudge

Inception

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General Kutyna suspected the O-rings failed because of their lack of elasticity at cold temperatures, but he wanted the commission to find this themselves.  Befriending Richard Feynman, Kutyna said he was repairing his car and found some seals disintegrated in the cold weather.

He left it to Feynman to draw the logical conclusion.  Feynman says he already suspected it.

The Problem

 

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Feynman suspected this from the start.  How he knew he was right is an interesting "inception" story (see General Kutyna in this regard).  But something important was missing.  People knew the O-rings were a problem, yet NASA launched anyway.  Why?

Identifying the o-ring as the cause of this disaster merely prevents accidents caused by o-rings from happening again.  However, Morton-Thiokol is involved in many things.  If there's an issue with communication, there's still the chance of catastrophic failure.

 

 

The Core Problem

Digging Deeper

 

Core Problem

 

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But something was still missing.

Is this communication problem confined to Morton-Thiokol, or is it endemic in the culture of NASA?  Feynman went asking, and found the biggest problem!

To Feynman, the risk here was huge.  There are many criticality-1 components in the shuttle program.  Any one of them that fail present the possibility of a lost spacecraft.

 

 

The Feynman Hypothesis

A Communication Breakdown

 

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But was he done?  This tugged at him.  There was a communication problem at NASA.  Management did not want to hear bad news.

Why?

 

Appendix F

Personal observations on the reliability of the Shuttle

by R. P. Feynman

 

THE ROGERS COMMISSION REPORT

 

Let us make recommendations to ensure that NASA officials deal in a world of reality in understanding technological weaknesses and imperfections well enough to be actively trying to eliminate them. They must live in reality in comparing the costs and utility of the Shuttle to other methods of entering space. And they must be realistic in making contracts, in estimating costs, and the difficulty of the projects. Only realistic flight schedules should be proposed, schedules that have a reasonable chance of being met. If in this way the government would not support them, then so be it. NASA owes it to the citizens from whom it asks support to be frank, honest, and informative, so that these citizens can make the wisest decisions for the use of their limited resources.

For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.

 

 

The Feynman Verification

 

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Representation and Misrepresentation: Tufte and the Morton Thiokol Engineers on the Challenger came out in 2002.  It was here Morton-Thiokol engineer Roger Boisjoly claimed Tufte was wrong in his depiction of launch data, and added they didn't even have the data, though they had asked for it.  Didn't have it?  Who would deny engineers this crucial data - and why?  Feynman might be right:

 

 

 

 

The Aesop Connection

Cold Weather and Wolves

 

Aesop

 

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