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Technology

and Politics
Week 9: Who Were Responsible for 
the Challenger’s Explosion?

College of Humanities, Hanyang University


Spring Semester, 2018
Challenger Accident (1986)

 Outline
 NASA Space Shuttle Challenger
• 9 shuttle missions since 1983
 STS-51-L: 25th flight of the U.S. Space Shuttle program
• Tracking Data Relay Satellite-2 (TDRS-2)
• Halley’s Comet Experiment Deployable (HCED)
• Teacher in Space Project
• Others …
 Exploded 73 seconds after the launch on Jan. 28, 1986
• Killed 6 astronauts and 1 teacher
• Average cost per launch  $ 450 million ~ 1 billion
Challenger Accident (1986)

 Conventional Account
 Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger
Accident (chaired by William P. Rogers)
• Neil Armstrong (former astronaut), Richard Feynman
(Nobel laureate physicist), …
 Causes of the accident
• O-Ring seal in the solid rocket booster (SRB) failed.
 The cold weather reduced the elasticity of O-ring.
• Roger Boisjoly, an engineer at Morton Thiokol,
suggested that the launch should be postponed at
temperatures below ~53°F (12°C)  The ambient air
temperature at the launch was 36°F (2.2°C)
Challenger Accident (1986)

 Conventional Account (cont’d)


 Feynman
• “ … For a successful technology, reality must take
precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot
be fooled. … ”
Challenger Accident (1986)

 Conventional Account (cont’d)


 Feynman
• “ … For a successful technology, reality must take
precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot
be fooled. … ”
 Distribution of blame
• Evildoers: Managers both at Morton Thiokol and
at NASA Marshall Space Flight Center
• Victims: 6 astronauts but especially Christa McAuliffe,
a participant in the “Teacher in Space” project
• Heroes: Richard Feynman and Robert Boisjoly
Challenger Accident (1986)

 Conventional Account (cont’d)


 Why did things go wrong?
• Scientific and technical incompetence or
carelessness
• Distortion caused by the pursuit of interests
• Political, economic, or administrative pressures
Challenger Accident (1986)

 Is Conventional Wisdom Correct?


Challenger Accident (1986)

 Is Conventional Wisdom Correct?


 NASA Marshall Space Flight Center and Morton-Thiokol
did not overlook the possibility of O-ring seal failure and
the risk of subsequent gas leaks into the SRB, and had
repeated scientific reviews and tests.
 Experimenter’s Regress
• Experiments are working when they give the right
answers, but one knows the right answers only after
becoming confident in those experiments.
 Tests are needed to identify the problem ⬌
Difficult to judge the validity of those tests before
we get the results from them ⬌ Difficult to
evaluate the results without valid tests
Challenger Accident (1986)

 Is Conventional Wisdom Correct? (cont’d)


 Diverse cultures of science and engineering
• Safety (Marshall) versus Practicality (Morton-Thiokol)
 Interpretative flexibility in scientific judgments
 Acceptable Risk
• Despite different views on the design and testing of
the SRB joints, NASA and Thiokol engineers managed
to reach a consensus on an acceptable level of risk.
• O-ring blow-by in 1985
 Judged to be still within their basis of experience,
within the safety margin established by tests, and
self-limiting
Challenger Accident (1986)

 Is Conventional Wisdom Correct? (cont’d)


 Pre-launch teleconference
• 3 hours involving 34 managers and engineers from
NASA and Morton Thiokol
 Thiokol engineers argued for the postponement
of the launch, but could not provide enough
scientific data and evidence to support the
decision.
 After lengthy discussion, the participants
concluded that there was no clear scientific basis
for overturning the launch and agreed to proceed
as planned. (There was no objection.)
Challenger Accident (1986)

 Is Conventional Wisdom Correct? (cont’d)


 Pre-launch teleconference (cont’d)
• Larry Wear (from NASA Marshall Space Flight Center )
... There is nothing in the criteria that says that this
thing is limited to launching only on warm days. And
that would be a serious change if you made it ...
• Bill Riehl (also from Marshall)
… the implications of trying to live with 53 were
incredible. And coming in the night before a launch
and recommending something like that, on such a
weak basis was just – I couldn’t understand. …
Challenger Accident (1986)

 Is Conventional Wisdom Correct? (cont’d)


 Rogers Commission
 Mr Brinton (Thiokol engineer): Making a change on a working
system is a very serious step.
 Ms Trapnell (Attorney): When you say working system, do you
mean a system that works or do you mean a system that is
required to function to meet the schedule?
 Mr Brinton: What I was trying to say is the colloquialism, ‘If it
ain’t broke, don’t fix it’.
 Ms Trapnell: Did you consider that system to be not broken?
 Mr Brinton: It was certainly working well. Our analyses
indicated that it was a self limiting system. It was performing
very satisfactorily …
Challenger Accident (1986)

 Is Conventional Wisdom Correct? (cont’d)


 Rogers Commission (cont’d)
 Ms Trapnell: Well, then, I guess I don’t understand. You say on
the one hand, that it was a self limiting situation … But on the
other hand you say that the engineers were aware of the
potential catastrophic result of burn-through.
 Mr Brinton: Well, let me put it this way. There are a number of
things on any rocket motor, including the Space Shuttle, that can
be catastrophic—a hole through the side, a lack of insulation.
There are a number of things. One of those things is a leak
through the O-rings. We had evaluated the damage that we had
seen to the O-rings, and had ascertained to ours and I believe
NASA’s satisfaction that the damage we have seen was from a
phenomenon that was self limiting and would not lead to a
catastrophic failure.
Challenger Accident (1986)

 Is Conventional Wisdom Correct? (cont’d)


 Rogers Commission (cont’d)
 Ms Trapnell: … Does it surprise you to hear that one of Thiokol’s
own engineers [Boisjoly] believed that this O-ring situation
could lead to a catastrophic failure and loss of life?
 Mr Brinton: I am perfectly aware of the front tire going out on
my car going down the road can lead to that. I’m willing to take
that risk. I didn’t think that the risk here was any stronger than
that one.
Challenger Accident (1986)

 Is Conventional Wisdom Correct? (cont’d)


 Normalization of Deviance (Diane Vaughan)
• Social process through which—with a series of
formal acceptance decisions—an organization
gradually builds a rationale for interpreting
deviations from the usual course of events as
‘normal.’