Challenger explosion, twenty-five years ago

Twenty-five years ago today, the Challenger exploded.

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.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect,, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

4 thoughts on “Challenger explosion, twenty-five years ago”

  1. > Diane Vaughan’s The Challenger Launch Decision tells

    > this story well. The deaths that day could have been prevented.

    I agree that _The Challenger Launch Decision_ is an excellent book with many deep lessons in management, technology management, politics, and politically-motivated management/decision making. It should be a primary text in every engineering and MBA curriculum in the land.

    I agree that there is a serious argument on the question of whether or not the US manned space program is a worthwhile, positive cost/benefit, or even useful endeavor. I suspect I disagree with your view, but I do agree that this is a question that needs to be seriously discussed.

    And I am in no personal hurry to die, even as I work primarily at heavy industrial sites that would have been death machines in Andrew Carnegie's day.

    That said, I have to strongly disagree that the measure of accomplishment of our society should be "zero deaths". That's where we have been heading since about 1980, and IMHO there have been serious unanticipated side effects from such a policy shift. And in terms of the history of change, particularly technical change, it is unlikely that much of what we depend on today could have been developed if the measure of success was "zero deaths amongst the early adapters". Just to take one obvious example, 10s if not 100s of thousands of people died during the early years of airplane and aviation development. And it is unlikely that aviation would have progressed as fast as it did if those people had not been willing to take the level of risks that they did (as well as the ones who survived; Orville Wright vs. Lt. Selfridge). And it is always possible that some serendipitous laboratory discovery would have revealed the fatigue properties of thin-shelled pressure vessels in time to prevent the 3 Comet crashes that revealed that problem to airplane designers at the cost of 600 lives, but on the other hand the history of bridge building and steam boiler design indicates that the progress might well not have come without the driving force of the disaster. So I think we need to be careful of what we wish for here.


  2. Vaughan's book is a classic example of organizational analysis. However, there is another equally insightful analysis that doesn't get the attention it deserves. Edward Tufte, an expert in the visual display of quantitative information, shows how the crude way the available data on weather effects was presented actually made it extremely difficult to perceive the heightened risk. His short paper on an early cholera epidemic and the Challenger launch decision is well worth digging up and reading – Visual and Statistical Thinking: Displays of Evidence for Making Decisions, 1997, Graphics Press, Cheshire, Connecticut.

  3. Cranky, the problem with manned spaceflight is not the deaths, it is that the deaths were for nothing … No benefit to be weighed against the costs. There is nothing to be gained from putting monkeys in space or humans or dogs or any other being whose existence you want to preserve, because it turns what should be an exploratory mission into a billionsa and billions dollar boondoggle, where the science apparatus are all crowded out to make room and weight available to keep the meat alive. Space exploration is flowering gloriously in the unmanned departments, it is only in the truck, shuck and jive of the STS that we waste lives and money for literally absurd “science” projects where all the science has been removed.

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