Last night I watched a well-done dramatization of the investigation into the catastrophic events of 28 January, 1986, when at 73 seconds into the 51L shuttle mission, the Space Shuttle Challenger was destroyed ... mostly because NASA felt under pressure to launch, because people were strong-armed into hiding or altering evidence, and because no one is supposed to question NASA when NASA says, "we got this."
I had no idea that the investigating commission had as one of its members Nobel Laureate Dr. Richard Feynman, or that he played a critical role not just in discovering the problem, but in holding it blatantly up to the NASA officials who were determined to sandbag the commission and say as much as, "YOU FUCKED UP. This was a simple, understandable problem and you either missed it or tried to pretend it wasn't there." Because of Feynman, Astronaut Sally Ride, and Air Force General Donald Kutyna, we DO know about the O-rings and about their vulnerability to cold ... and maybe NASA now thinks a bit more about safety issues at a deeper level and a bit less about how it looks superficially.
For those of you who haven't seen The Challenger Disaster, I strongly recommend you catch a repeat broadcast or look for it when it comes out on DVD ... because it was one of us - an atheist - who was in large part responsible for bringing some serious light to an investigation which might otherwise have devolved down to a dog-and-pony show.
As I cannot embed the videos available from The Discovery channel, I offer you a link to a few scenes here. Please enjoy.
Here is a part of a BBC documentary regarding Feynman and his participation in the Challenger investigation, including part of his testimony which involved a "teaching moment" he indulged in with one of the SRB O-rings:
Good, I am glad you have this testimony of Feynman. His knowledge, delivery and courage to speak wisdom to power thrills me after all these years. Thanks Loren. I am Twittering, OK? If not, you can wring my neck and hang me out to dry.
Joan, WHAT am I gonna do with you? [grin!]
Twitter to your heart's content!
Feynman's illness was beginning to show in this clip. What a man! I hope the citizens realize how important it is to look at reality, to honestly confront, with competence and commitment. He wasn't put onto clues by accident, people on the team wanted the information out when members of the staff wanted to protect NASA. How appropriate to have such a man as Feynman deliver the message. He will go down in history as a real patriot.
If you had a chance to watch the Discovery Channel piece, it would become obvious that Feynman was the "rogue," the loose cannon who could do what none of the others could. The rest all had too much invested in the system, in the bureaucracy, in the establishment. That was what Richard specifically loathed. He did NOT want to become involved in the investigation at all, because of his earlier participation in the Manhattan Project. Yet because of the flattery of Gweneth, his wife, and his own self-confidence, he DID join that effort.
And it's just possible that NASA is a touch better because of it.
If it takes flattery to get a necessary job done, then Gweneth, you deserve the prize of Peace.