The Challenger Tragedy: The Human Cost of Hiding the Truth

Challenger Crew
STS-51-L crew: (front row) Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee, Ronald McNair; (back row) Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnik (Creator: NASA/Johnson Space Center)

Challenger: The Final Flight

Just 73 seconds after Challenger’s liftoff, a leak in the right solid rocket booster led to the shuttle breaking up over the Atlantic Ocean perilously hurdling all seven astronauts in a 2 minute 45-second free-fall at speeds over 200 mph. One of those seven astronauts was Concord, New Hampshire teacher, Christa McAuliffe. McAuliffe had been selected from more than 11,000 applicants to be the first participant in the NASA Teacher in Space Project.

But there was something more tragic than the innocent loss of seven lives that brisk morning on January 28, 1986. The accident was preventable. It was known and on record, that cold temperatures increased the risk of O-ring failure in the solid rocket boosters. The initial recommendation from the engineers of the boosters was to scrub the launch. After watching the recent four-part Netflix docuseries on Challenger’s final flight I could not but think of how it eerily resembled the way the US President has been handling the Corona Pandemic.

Mounting Pressure: Thiokol/NASA Conference Call

On January 27th at 8:45 PM, the evening before Challenger’s last flight, there was an intense and controversial conference call between Morton Thiokol (contractor for the solid rocket boosters) and NASA officials. Thiokol engineers in Utah made a unanimous case not to launch Challenger due to abnormal below-freezing temperatures that night. During the call, Thiokol’s Vice President of engineering further advised not to launch unless temperatures were above 53 degrees Fahrenheit. Larry Mulloy, NASA’s Project Manager at the Marshall Space Flight Center, then countered, “Good God Thiokol, when do you want me to launch, next April!

Prior to holding a final vote and further adding mounting pressure to launch in light of strong resignation, Thiokol’s VP of engineering was told to “take off his engineering hat and put on his manager hat.” Since Thiokol had no conclusive evidence of absolute sealing failure and feeling the pressure from NASA, the VP gave in. NASA was happy. The launch would proceed. Challenger’s fate was sealed.

The Rogers Commission: NASA Image vs. Integrity

President Ronald Reagan was to give his State of the Union Address also scheduled for later that day on the 28th of January. For the first time in US history, a Presidential State of the Union Address was postponed for one week. There was even a rumor that the Challenger launch scheduled for that morning was insisted upon so that Reagan could address it later in his speech.

Due to the national and international significance of the tragedy, Reagan created a Presidential Commission to investigate the Challenger disaster. He appointed William Rogers, a former Secretary of State under Nixon and Attorney General under Eisenhower, to lead the commission. It was reported that President Reagan told Rogers prior to the investigation, “Whatever you do, don’t embarrass NASA. They are national heroes. We are going to need them. They are going to have to launch again.” If the goal of the Rogers Commission was to protect NASA and not discover the reasons for the tragedy, how would that interfere with the Commission’s integrity?

Richard Cook & Phillip Buffey: Whistleblowers & Investigative Reporting

A NASA business analyst by the name of Richard Cook was present at the Commission’s open sessions. Cook would later describe NASA as being a close-knit family. Problems stay within; whistleblowers are few… They would never go outside the family.” When he heard NASA officials falsely reporting to the Commission of never having seen any evidence of erosion on the secondary O-ring seal, Richard Cook’s conscience no longer allowed him to stay quiet. So he contacted the New York Times NASA writer, Phillip Buffey.

Just like the leak in Challenger’s solid rocket booster seal set off a series of cataclysmic events, so too did Buffey’s Sunday, February 9th New York Times article titled, “NASA HAD WARNING OF A DISASTER RISK POSED BY BOOSTER”. Mentioning Cook by name the insider stated both Thiokol and NASA knew extremely cold temperatures could result in ring seal failure. Moreover, both parties knew that a sealing failure would be catastrophic. The article would be the first example of several whistleblowers who would come forward. With the assistance of the New York Times and a few Commission members, NASA’s attempt to cover-up the truth of the Challenger disaster would unravel.

Sally Ride: Employer Loyalty vs. Coworker Loyalty

Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, was the only active NASA astronaut on the Rogers Commission. The other well-known long-retired astronaut was Neil Armstrong, the first human to walk on the moon. Ride had previously flown on two Space Shuttle Challenger missions. The seven astronauts who perished on Challenger were her coworkers. She would not let their deaths be in vain.

Due to Richard Cook’s New York Times‘ article, printed just the day before, the following Monday hearing was held behind closed doors and out of public view. Rogers wanted to give NASA a chance to speak privately. But before Lawrence Mulloy from NASA could even begin, Ride interrupted him. She had received calls from Washington reporters who had heard a rumor that one of the contractors may have recommended not even launching. Ride wanted to know so she asked Mulloy, “Is that really true?” Mulloy dodged the question. Ride had information and did not relent. Ride asked Mulloy if he had any documentation from the contractor saying they were worried about the cold temperatures. Mulloy responded, “I don’t recall any.” Ride knew that wasn’t true.

Allan McDonald & Sally Ride: The Truth Must Be Heard

Upon hearing Mulloy’s response to Ride’s follow-up question about documentation, a man sitting in the back of the hearing room thought to himself, “Well that is a flat-ass-out lie!” Allen McDonald, a Morton Thiokol representative, was present at the January 27th conference call in Florida. He heard Mulloy take umbrage to Thiokols’ engineers’ recommendation to postpone the launch. Like Ride, McDonald knew Mulloy was lying. So he proceeded to raise his hand and stand up. With a quivering voice McDonald said, “Mr. Chairman, we (Morton Thiokol) recommended not to launch!

Shortly after the hearing Ride walked by another committee member, Air Force General Donald Kutyna, and without saying a word handed him a piece of paper. On the sheet were two columns. One showed temperatures. The other showed corresponding O-ring resiliency. The chart showed that as temperatures dropped, so did the O-rings’ ability to properly seal. With this evidence, Roger’s ability to protect NASA for much longer was also dropping. To protect her from the possibility of employer retaliation, it wouldn’t be until after Ride’s death in 2012 that Kutyna would publicly announce that she had handed him proof that NASA was doing everything in their power not to take responsibility for the deaths of their own employees, her colleagues.

Donald Kutyna & Richard Feynman: Friendship, Dinner, a Car, & an Idea

In addition to Ride’s overt comments in the hearing and covert action in the hallway, two key members on the Commission would come together with the hope of preventing another catastrophic shuttle accident. Air Force General Donald Kutyna was one of them. The other was renowned physicist Richard Feynman, winner of the 1965 Nobel Peace Prize in Physics.  Both Kutyna and Feynman hit it off from the get-go. That friendship would have a significant impact on the investigation. Feynman, with Kutyna’s support, would deliver what would be remembered as the most memorable performance to be televised from the hearings.

With Ride’s chart in hand, Kutyna had a dilemma. How could he introduce to the Commission the document Ride had slipped to him earlier that day without getting her in trouble with her employer NASA? That same evening on the 10th of February Feynman went over to Kutyna’s house for dinner. Kutyna’s had a sports car in his garage. Kutyna suddenly had a revelation. Kutyna said to Feynman, “Professor, I have O-rings in this engine and they leak when it is cold.”  Feynman didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to. He had a plan.

Feynman’s Oscar-worthy Performance: How A Simple Demonstration Influenced Public Opinion

In a futile last effort to honor Reagan’s request to protect NASA, Rogers purposely avoided the topic of temperature. So instead, Rogers began the live broadcasted session on February 11th by asking NASA to talk about the joints on Challenger’s booster rockets. Once again, NASA’s Project Manager, Larry Mulloy, was called to give the presentation. Feynman couldn’t hear it anymore. Sally Ride’s evidence showing NASA’s known correlation between low temperatures and sealing failure was about to go on full display.

Feynman couldn’t wait to end the charade and make his mic hot. When the moment was right, Feynman went live. He started with a clamped frozen O-ring taken from Kutyna’s garage. Feynman showed how the rubber ring’s resiliency is compromised as it gets colder. And as the rubber seal warms it takes time to go back to its original form. Feynman concluded the brief yet effective demonstration by saying, “I believe that has some significance for our problem.” NASA members and Rogers could only sit and fume. For the next 48 hours, the media would replay the Noble Laureate’s experiment. Public opinion had been swayed.

Roger’s Discovery: Human Safety Has A Price

There was a shift in Rogers after seeing Feynman’s experiment and hearing Mulloy’s response to Thiokol’s recommendation not to launch below 53 degrees Fahrenheit. Rogers could no longer protect NASA. Mulloy: “I found this conclusion (launching only above 53 degrees Fahrenheit) without bases and I challenged this logic.” To which Rogers responded, “They (Thiokol) construed what you said to mean that you wanted them to change their minds, so they were under a lot of pressure to give you (NASA) the answer you wanted.”

The families of Challenger’s ill-fated flight could not apprehend the lack of consideration of human life. Dr. William Lucas, Mulloy’s boss, and Director of the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center believed NASA needed to launch shuttles on schedule. NASA and Lucas knew in 1985 and even well before that, there was a design flaw with the seals. When asked by Rogers, Lucas responded, “I have been aware of the problem with the seals. My assessment was, it was a reasonable risk to take.” Rogers then followed up by asking about flight safety to which Lucas coldly replied, “I did not think it was a problem sufficient to ground the fleet.” Rogers with some emotion retorted, “The waiver says actual loss: loss of mission, vehicle, and crew. I don’t know how you can say that didn’t involve flight safety.

The Human Risk Factor: Profit vs. Human Life

Why was NASA in such a rush? Why wasn’t Challenger’s launch postponed to more conducive conditions? NASA tried to maintain a very high launch rate per year in order to honor commercial and military satellite contracts. Up until Challenger’s explosion, NASA had carried out 25 missions under the Space Shuttle Progam by using four orbiters (Challenger, Columbia, Discovery, and Atlantis). Whether real or imagined, Mulloy’s hands were tied to the constraints of the system that required more launches than they could successfully make.

The culture at NASA at the time was that they could do anything.  NASA portrayed the image of a well-run agency, on time, and on budget. NASA was saying the orbiters were like commercial airplanes, so safe that they could put teachers in it. They were the good guys who could do no wrong. In actuality, there was a high level of risk with every launch. Overconfidence overcame care. Ego over empathy. In the end, it was a fatally flawed decision process.

Three Truth-Seeking Takeaways: The Crucial Role of Whistleblowers, Investigative Reporting, & Experts

Like the Challenger astronauts, we too are floating in space on a ship. Similarly, Earth requires maintenance and care for its passengers. Earth, like Challenger, has a current “deadly gas leak” called Coronavirus. For about a year it has been combusting and killing human passengers all over the world. Just as Morton Thiokol and NASA  knew about the high risk of a deadly launch risk, the President of the United States back in February 2020 also knew about the deadly contagiousness of the airborne virus. NASA put business, profit, and company gain/reputation before human life resulting in a national and global tragedy. Donald Trump also withheld the truth. Donald Trump, even after being infected and hospitalized, still downplayed the deadly risk for the sake of business, profit, and personal gain/reputation. The similarities are eerily similar.

There is a key difference though between the Challenger tragedy and the current Corona tragedy still underway. The truthful conclusion from the Rogers Commission, in light of its unwritten wish to protect NASA, was only possible because of a combination of whistleblowers, investigative journalism, and the role of experts. Donald Trump wages daily wars against exactly these three essential elements to uncovering the truth. With each passing day, globalization and our interconnectedness grow. Therefore, corporations and governments are being increasingly confronted with ethical decisions. Most ethical dilemmas pit growth and profit against human life and environmental sustainability. The Challenger tragedy and the Columbia tragedy that would also take place over Florida in 2003 are stark reminders of these dilemmas. History has countless stories. One is being written right now. With current global environmental and humanitarian concerns, there are three significant questions to ask and answer.

Three Salient Questions: Profit or Posterity?

At what cost are companies/governments willing to put our spaceship Earth at risk to disintegrate for the sake of business, profit, and individual reputation?

What price are companies/governments willing to pay to put its passengers (all humans) at risk of death for the sake of business, profit, and individual reputation?

At what cost are companies/governments willing to shame whistleblowers, denounce investigative reporting (not only media), and delegitimize the role of experts for the sake of business, profit, and individual reputation?

President Reagan: On Humility, Humanity, Taking Responsibility, & Instilling Hope

I end this article with content from a speech by President Ronald Reagan months after the Challenger disaster. The current president has not once even come close to publically addressing the pandemic in such a fashion. It is long overdue. Reagan’s speech is as salient and needed now as it was then. With a few words, it could easily be altered to honor the over 220,000 American deaths and counting (over, 1,100,000 worldwide) as if “the Gipper” were speaking to us today.

In America, we learn from our setbacks as well as our successes. And although the lessons of failure are hard, they are often the most important on the road to progress. We’ve learned in the past few months that we are frail and fallible. But we have also learned that we have the courage to face our faults and the strength to correct our errors. This has been a difficult passage for America, but we will go on just as the crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger would have wanted us to. We’ll simply do what has to be done to make our space program safe and reliable and a renewed source of pride for our nation. We’ve suffered a tragedy and a setback but we’ll forge ahead wiser this time, and undaunted, as undaunted as the spirit of the Challenger and her seven heroes.

About the Author

Jean-Pierre Kallanian is a Human Systems Expert, Conflict Resolution Specialist, Change Facilitator, Youth Coach, Author, and Speaker. He accompanies individuals, teams, and organizations wanting to fully integrate their human potential. As the creator of the EPIC Model, Jean-Pierre brings out the expertise in groups by encouraging authenticity, intention, and collective wisdom.

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