What Richard Feynman knew about Launching Spaceship that NASA didn’t

Richard Feynman was a nobel-prize winning physicist and celebrated professor

Richard Feynman, circa 1985. source: NY Review of Books

Thirty years ago, when Feynman was terminally ill with cancer, he was asked by NASA to investigate the Challenger disaster of 1986. He took the job reluctantly, knowing it would take up most of the time that he had left on earth. He took it because he felt a duty to find the root cause of the disaster and to speak plainly to the public about his findings. He published his findings in the article Personal Observations on the Reliability of the Shuttle.

When Feynman went to NASA, he found what he had expected to be the heart of the tragedy — a disconnect between two teams, the engineers and the product managers. Engineers lived in a world of technical facts; product managers lived in a world of political dogmas. Seems familiar to Silicon Valley, doesn’t it?

Feynman asked both groups to estimate of the risk of failure in the Space Shuttle mission. The engineers estimated 1 disaster in 100 missions. The product managers estimated 1 disaster in 100,000 missions. The difference was never reconciled and never openly discussed.

Feynman wrote his article to educate the public concerning the dysfunctional culture of NASA. He spotlighted the two non-communicating cultures, engineers and product managers. The political dogma of the product manager, declaring risks to be a thousand times smaller than the technical truth, was the cultural cause of the disaster. This political dogma rose from a long history of self-glorifying leaders defending their reputation. Their reputation that the Shuttle was reliable.

Feyman ends his article with the famous declaration: “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”

Feyman fought hard to have his final statement incorporated int he official commision report. However, the chairman of the commission, William Rogers, was a professional politician with long experience in the government. Rogers fought hard to remove Feynman’s statement from the report. In the end, they reached a compromise — Feynman’s statement was added to the report as an Appendix at the end, with a note saying that it was Feyman’s personal statement and not agreed to by the commission.

Feyman’s exposure of NASA’s incompetence made him a hero to the general public. Anyone fighting secrecy and corruption in any part of the government could look to Feynman as a leader.

Feynman spent his last days on earth trying to tell us this, so it is worth repeating:

If you’re ever a product manager, remember Richard Feynman’s advice: Listen to engineers. Confess to reality. Refrain from politics. Let go of dogmas. And if you’re ever launching a product for political reasons, know that nature cannot be fooled.

Credits: Thank you to Richard Feyman, Freeman Dyson and NY Review for enabling a great multitude of students, including me, to make their own discoveries.