CnS class – Challenger Case Discussion

A picture of the smoke trails after the Space Shuttle Challenger accident on January 28, 1986. – Picture courtesy of the NASA Johnson Space Center (NASA-JSC).

Here’s a little something I wrote on Computers and Society class that I like a lot.

Group B001 – Challenger Case Discussion

The Challenger Tragedy in 1986 has been a great example of how important everyone in decision making should keep their cold heads and holding on the data.

Before talking about the matter, I would like to introduce a paragraph about the technicality, as we are not actually rocket scientists.

— The consensus of the Commission and participating investigative agencies is that the loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger was caused by a failure in the joint between the two lower segments of the right Solid Rocket Motor. The specific failure was the destruction of the seals that are intended to prevent hot gases from leaking through the joint during the propellant burn of the rocket motor. The evidence assembled by the Commission indicates that no other element of the Space Shuttle system contributed to this failure. —
(Taken from Presidential Commission Report on Space Shuttle Challenger Accident, first paragraph of Chapter 4.)

When there are security concern, the engineer should have taken steps to avoid the accident from happening. The failure of the O-ring in cold weather had been recorded, hence the accident should have been predicted if the weather reached this condition. So they should have redesigned the seal with more resilient material which stands every possible temperature condition that is able to occur in US. My point is, the engineers should have simulated every possible condition and taken every precautions accordingly.

I’ve said too many “should have”s.

According to this article featured by NPR, a few engineers in Morton Thiokol, the company that designed the Solid Rocket Boosters had reported their concern about the performance of the O-Ring (the seal) in cold temperatures. The article stated that the engineer had put enormous effort to postpone the launch. They had had conversation about their concern to NASA officials.

The first schedule for launch had been decided–and later postponed many times due to mechanical and weather problems. This might put stress on the heads of managerial officials, as they faced so many delays. Before the actual launch, a few engineers had warned them about this but they didn’t take this seriously.

In my opinion, the engineers who had spoken up regarding the grave situation already took responsibility of the case. The fact that the rest didn’t troubles me, as they actually had the opportunity to avoid such catastrophic accident but decided to keep in silence.

The decision didn’t go as some engineers had planned.

As a few engineers had spoken to one or more of the managerial officials yet the launch was still to be going, it is logical to search for other officials with more power to whom they could speak up. The others who denied the proposal to postpone might have been under the pressure caused by previous delays. Pressure made people reckless.

After the tragedy, a commission is made to investigate everything regarding this. The commission are consist of engineers outside the project, and they had stakeholders–including the engineers inside questioned. The official report is out there on the web for everyone to reach. But this is too late.

Releasing data to the press before the launch might pressure the managers into postponing the launch is a great idea. But there are, maybe, some downsides. Postponing the launch again after a number of previous delays might create an image of NASA being indecisive hence not professional. The resource consumption was also accumulating. Compared to the value of human lives lost in the accident, this is trifling.

This tragedy has become a lesson, especially NASA. The engineers should become more meticulous about considering every possible conditions their works might face. The decision makers should always take account of the engineers’ view and never let any valuable finding left unnoticed.


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