Accidental Lessons: Reflections on the Challenger Tragedy

I wrote this piece for Triangle Business right after the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded. It was published on 10 February 1986. I republished it in HTML form (adding links) at in 1996. For this version I’ve added a few more links and appended some additional reflections below the end.

I can remember, when I first saw the movie Star Wars, how unbelievable it seemed that Han Solo and Luke Skywalker could fly their spacecrafts so easily. They’d flick switches and glance knowingly at cryptic lights and gauges, and zoom their ways through hostile traffic at speeds that would surely kill them if they ran into anything; and they’d do all this with a near-absolute disregard for the hazards involved.

That same night, after I left the movie theatre, I experienced one of the most revealing moments of my life. I got into my beat-up ’69 Chevy, flicked some switches, glanced knowingly at some lights and gauges, and began to zoom my way through hostile traffic at speeds that would surely kill me if I ran into anything; and I did all this with a near-absolute disregard for the hazards involved. Suddenly, I felt like Han Solo at the helm of the Millenium Falcon . And in my exhilaration, I realized how ordinary it was to travel in a manner and style beyond the dreams of all but humanity’s most recent generations. I didn’t regret the likelihood that I would never fly in space like Han and Luke; rather I felt profoundly grateful that I was privileged to enjoy, as a routine, experiences for which many of my ancestors would gladly have paid limbs, or even lives.

Since then I have always been astonished at how quickly and completely we come to take our miraculous inventions for granted, and also at how easily we use those inventions to enlarge ourselves, our capabilities, and our experience in the world. “I just flew in from the Coast,” we say, as if we were all born with wings.

I think this “enlarging” capacity, even more than our brains and our powers of speech, is what makes us so special as creatures. As individuals, and as an entire species, we add constantly to our repertoire of capabilities. As the educator John Holt said, our capacity to learn is amplified by our ability to develop skills. Those skills give us the power to make things, and then to operate those things as if they were parts of ourselves. Through our inventions and skills, we acquire superhuman powers that transcend the weaknesses of our naked, fleshy selves.

One might say that everything we do is an enlargement on our naked beginnings. That’s why we are the only animals that not only wear clothes, but who also care about how they look. After all, if we were interested only in warmth, comfort and protection, we wouldn’t have invented push-up bras and neckties. Or other non-essentials, like jewelry and cosmetics. It seems we wear those things to express something that extends beyond the limits of our bodies: the notions of our minds, about who we are and what we do.

But clothes are just the beginning, the first and most visible layer in a series that grows to encompass all our tools and machines. When we ride a bicycle, for example, the bike becomes part of us. When we use a hammer to drive a nail, we ply that tool as if it were an extra length of arm. Joined by our skills to tools and machines, our combined powers all but shame the naked bodies that employ them.

I remember another movie: a short animated feature in which metallic creatures from Mars, looking through telescopes, observed that the Earth was populated by a race of automobiles. Martian scientists described how cars were hatched in factories, fed at filling stations, and entertained at drive-in movies.

And maybe they were right. Because, in a way, we become the automobiles we drive. Who can deny how differently we behave as cars than as people? It’s a black 280Z that cuts us off at the light, not Mary Smith, the real estate agent. In traffic, we give vent to hostilities and aggressions we wouldn’t dare to release in face-to-face encounters.

Of course, we have now metamorphosed into entities far more advanced than automobiles. As pilots we have become airplanes. As passengers we have become creatures that fly great distances in flocks.

If those Martian scientists were to keep an eye on our planet, they would note that we have now begun to evolve beyond airplanes, into spaceships. In their terms we might note the Challenger Tragedy as the metallic equivalent of a single failure in the amphibians’ first assault on land. Evolution, after all, is a matter of trial and error.

But as we contemplate the price of our assault on the shores of space, we need to ask ourselves some hard questions. For example: is the Challengerdisaster just a regretable accident in the natural course of human progress, or evidence of boundaries we are only beginning to sense?

On January 28th, Challenger addressed that question to our whole species. We all felt the same throb of pain when we learned how, in one orange moment, seven of our noble fellows were blown to mist at the edge of the heavens they were launched to explore.

Most of us made it our business that day to visit the TV, to watch the Challenger bloom into fire, and to share the same helpless feeling as we saw the smoking fragments of countless dreams rain down in white tendrils, like the devil’s own confetti, to the ancestral sea below. The final image — a monstrous white Y in the sky — is permanently embossed in the memories of all who witnessed the event.

It was so unexpected because the Shuttle had become exactly what NASA had planned: an ordinary form of transportation, a service elevator between Earth and space. NASA’s plan to routinize space travel succeeded so convincingly that major networks weren’t even there to cover the Challenger liftoff. Instead they “pooled” for rights to images supplied by Ted Turner’s Cable News Network. Chuck Yeager, the highest priest in the Brotherhood of The Right Stuff, voiced the unofficial NASA line on the matter. “I see no difference between this accident and any accident involving a commercial or military aircraft,” he said.

Would that it were so.

“Fallen heroes” is not a term applied to plane crash victims. In fact, the technologies of space travel are still extremely young, and the risks involved are a lot higher than we like to think. “Since NASA made it look so easy, people thought it would never happen. Those of us close to the program thought it could happen a whole lot sooner. We’re glad it was postponed this long,” said Jack Lousma, a former astronaut and pilot of the Space Shuttle Columbia.

The fact that the Shuttle program was so vulnerable, and we failed to recognize the fact, says unwelcome things about our faith in technology, and now is when we should listen to them. Because the time when flying through space becomes as easy as flying down the road, or even through the air, is still a long way off. In the meantime, it might be best to leave the exploring to guys like Lousma, who are blessed with the stuff it takes to push the risks out of the way for the rest of us.

We’re talking about the kind of risks that were built into the Shuttle from its start.

Consider for a moment that the Shuttle program is, after all, the bastard offspring of a dozen competing designs, and constrained throughout its history by a budgetary process that subordinates human and scientific aspirations to a variety of military and commercial interests. And consider how, as with most publicly-funded technologies, most of the Shuttle’s components were all produced by the lowest bidder. And consider the fact that many of the Shuttle’s technologies are, even by NASA’s admission, obsolete. If we had to start at Square One today, we’d probably design a very different program.

A new program, for example, would probably take better account of the Perrow Law of Unavoidable Accidents. A corrolary of Murphy’s Law — “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong” — the Perrow Law is modestly named after himself by Charles Perrow, Professor of Sociology and Organizational Analysis at Yale University. According to Perrot, the Shuttle program has succeeded mostly in spite of itself. Its whole design is so detailed, so complex, so riddled with interdependent opportunities for failure, that we’re lucky one of the things didn’t blow up sooner. Or worse, suffer a more agonizing death in space.

“The number of interconnections in these systems is so enormous,” he says, “that no designer can think of everything ahead of time. It may be that this was one major valve failing on one of the tanks, but I rather suspect that that’s not the case. NASA tests and is very concerned about those valves. They have back-ups for every major system. The problem is more likely to have been a number of small things that came together in a mysterious way — a way that we may never learn about.”

He continues, “The chances for an accident will be only marginally reduced if we find the cause of this, and harden something or increase the welds, and eliminate this one thing as a source of an accident. But right next to it will be a dozen other unique sources of accidents that we haven’t touched. But by touching the components next to it, we may increase the possibility of other accidents.”

Tom Wolfe, who wrote The Right Stuff, and coined the phrase, suggests that NASA may have snowed itself into believing that space travel is past the pioneering stage, and that, as a concept, the Shuttle’s “coach & freight service — a people’s zero-G express” was premature. Of the martyred teacher, Christa McAuliffe, he says, “Her flight was to be the crossover, at last, from a quarter of a century in which space had been a frontier open only to pioneers who lived and were willing to die by the code of ‘the right stuff’ — the Alan Shepards, John Glenns and Neil Armstrongs — to an era when space would belong to the entire citizenry, to Everyman. The last role in the world NASA had in mind for Crista McAuliffe and the rest of the Challenger crew was that of pioneer or hero.”

This was because NASA had labored long and hard to break the political grip of what Wolfe calls “Astropower,” the “original breed of fighter-pilot and test-pilot astronaut — the breed who had been willing, over and over again, to sit on top of enormous tubular bombs, some 36 stories high, gorged with several of the most explosive materials this side of nuclear fission, and let some NASA GS-18 engineer light the fuse.”

The fact was, Wolfe suggests, that McAuliffe and her companions “hurtled for 73 seconds out on the edge of a still-raw technology” before they perished. Which is why he asks “If space flight still involves odds unacceptable to Everyman, then should it be put back in the hands of those whose profession consists of hanging their hides, quite willingly, out over the yawning red maw?”

If the answer is yes, then what will need to happen before Everyman is really ready to fly the zero-G express?

In a word, simplification. Right now there is no way for a single pilot’s senses to stretch over the entire Shuttle system, and operate it skillfully. A couple of years ago, the Director of Flight Operations for NASA said “this magnificent architecture makes it that much harder to learn to use the system.” According to Professor Perrow, “because the Shuttle system was designed in so many parts by a phalanx of designers, when it’s all put together to run, there is nobody, no one, who can know all about that system.”

Perrow says “It requires simplification for a single person, a pilot, to know everything that’s happening in such a hostile environment as space.” One of the great simplifications in aviation history was the substitution of the jet engine for the piston engine. That’s what we need to make space travel agreeably safe.”

It is ironic that on the day the Challenger blew up, Thomas O. Paine, a space industry consultant and a former NASA administrator, was about to mail the first draft of a commission report to the president on the future of the U.S. space effort. That report advanced two recommendations: 1) a unmanned cargo-launching program to deliver cargo to space at a fraction of current Shuttle costs; and 2) an improved Shuttle or a new-generation system like the “hypersonic transportation vehicle” the Air Force has wanted ever since NASA beat the X-15 rocket airplane into space. The hypersonic transport would simply be an airplane that can fly in space. By contrast, the Shuttle is a spacecraft that can glide to earth. Already, hypersonic transport technology has been around for years. Reports say the first “space plane” could be ready to fly in the 1990s. The thing would cruise along at anywhere from Mach 5 to Mach 25, which would mean, theoretically, that no two points on the earth would be more than three hours apart.

But it will have to fight the inertia behind the Shuttle program, which is substantial, and slowed only momentarily by the Challenger explosion.

I fear we can only pray that future missions will continue to dodge Murphy’s Law.

Over time, however, our sciences will need to face Perrow’s Corollary more soberly. We need to recognize that there are limits to the complexities we can build into our technologies before accidents are likely to occur. Thanks to Fail Safe, Dr. Strangelove and other dramatic treatments of the issue, we are already familiar with (and regretably taking for granted) the risks of nuclear catastrophe to which we are exposed by our terribly complicated “defensive shields.”

And this hasn’t stopped us from committing to even more dangerous and complicated “defensive” projects, the most frightening of which is the euphemistically titled Strategic Defense Initiative, better known by its nickname: “Star Wars.” Professor Perrow says, “Star Wars is the most frightening system I can think of.” In fact, Star Wars is by far the most complex technology ever contemplated by man. And possibly the most expensive.

There are cost projections for Star Wars that make NASA’s whole budget look like pocket change. Portentiously, the first Shuttle experiment with Star Wars technology failed when Shuttle scientists pointed a little mirror the wrong way. We can only hope that the little mirrors on Soviet Warheads are aligned more cooperatively.

Complexity is more than a passing issue. It is science’s most powerful and debilitating intoxicant. We teach it in our schools, confuse it with sophistication and sanction it with faith. In this High Tech Age, we have predictably become drunk on the stuff. And, as with alcohol and cocaine, we’ll probably discover its hazards through a series of painful accidents.

Meanwhile, there is another concern that ironically might have been illuminated by a teacher, or better yet a journalist, in space. Its advocates include a recently-created organization of space veterans whose non-political goal is to share their singular view of our planet. That view sees a fragile ball of blue, green and brown, undivided by the lines that mark the maps and disputes on the surface below. It is an objective view, and we need it badly.

The implications of that view are made more sober by recent discoveries suggesting limits to the viability of human life in the environments of space. Outside the protective shield of our atmosphere, travelers are bombarded constantly by cosmic radiation that produces cancer and other ailments.

Weightlessness also has its long-term costs. While there may be ways to reduce or eliminate the risks involved with space travel, we are still, at best, in the zygote stage of our development as space creatures. It might be millenia before we are finally ready to leave Earth’s womb and dodge asteroids in the manner of Han Solo.

Until then, it would be nice if we didn’t have to discover our limits the hard way.

16 September 2017

It’s interesting to read this again, more than thirty years after I wrote it.

All the astronauts mentioned are gone, but Tom Wolfe and Charles Perrow are still with us, and Perrow’s oeuvre has grown since then. Normal Accidents: Living With High-Risk Technologies came out two years before the Challenger disaster and remains his best-known work; though I believe Organizing America: Wealth, Power, and the Origins of Corporate Capitalism is more relevant to a business world still dominated by industrial giants, despite being changed utterly by digital everything and the Internet.

Perrow turned out to be wrong about the cause of the disaster: an O-ring failure, famously figured out by Richard Feynman, who blamed NASA’s prioritization of public relations over science. Yet Perrow was right about the risks of complexity, and his case was made conclusively by the later Columbia disaster and the eventual termination of the Shuttle program.

Now I suspect the complexities that matter most are the ones that suffuse the world and keep us from seeing from any one vantage in time or space how deeply and surely humans have altered life on Earth, plus the vast, complex and interdependent environment they share with every other species, for example by wantonly raiding and consuming the rare and irreplaceable substances they call “resources,” as if those things were for humans alone.

I am also amazed at how little space travel now matters to most people. Or how much less people care to drive cars on terra firma. At least in Americal, a generation of kids raised by phones seems to see driving a car not as a way to enlarge one’s self and freedom with a rolling carapace, or as a rite of passage into adulthood; but rather as a good-to-have until something better comes along from Tesla, Apple or Google.

Journalism and its virtues are also in decline. If the International Space Station were to blow up tomorrow, it would be big news and a terrible tragedy; but it would not shock the world and stir hearts everywhere like the Challenger tragedy did. And it would be old hat within days.

There aren’t many front pages left for stories to fall off of. What used to be news is now a vast delta of “content” flowing outward toward ennui and nothingness through social media and online outlets meant to hold eyeballs still only long enough to earn a like, a tweet or a look at some ad that might be “relevant” or based on “interest” based on data gathered by invasive trackers and crunched by robots.

Yet the exploratory and educational missions of the Shuttle program are no less necessary and important than they ever were. Believing in human hunger for knowing more is the main thing that keeps me going. Because we all need it. And I’m not just talking about the humans.

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