Twenty-five years ago today, the Challenger exploded. I was a couple of months on the job at MIT’s Draper Laboratories working on missile navigation systems. Many of the guys there had played central roles in designing NASA and military missiles.
My seasoned colleagues were familiar with the challenges of solid rocket boosters. As word spread down the hallway that Challenger had exploded, knowledgeable engineers pretty much understood what happened. The Navy people would’t do rocket launches in the cold weather. Then again they didn’t have politicians and the press breathing down their neck about embarrassing launch delays. I’ve lost touch with these engineers, to my detriment and regret.
The shuttle program, the entire manned space program, has been disastrous from both economic and scientific perspectives for the last generation. Diane Vaughan’s The Challenger Launch Decision tells this story well. The deaths that day could have been prevented. Along with the Institute of Medicine’s HIV and the Blood Supply: An Analysis of Crisis Decisionmaking, Vaughan’s book provides one of the best organizational autopsies of a policy disaster. Given the number of disasters we keep generating, more such work is sadly needed.