January 28, 1986 was not a good day for engineering.
Thirty years ago today, NASA management let politics and administrative expediency take priority over engineering and safety. Seven astronauts — seven of literally the best and brightest among us — lost their lives because of a hasty decision to go ahead with the launch despite the protests of engineers that the weather was too cold for the o-rings in the solid rocket boosters.
The astronauts were not our only loss, that day. We lost an extremely expensive orbiter, too — but perhaps an equally large tragedy was the extent to which the Challenger disaster set back humanity’s exploration of space. Because of a rushed management decision, the Space Shuttle program — and piloted spaceflight in general — suffered a delay of perhaps a decade. Many dreams, and many STS flights, were cancelled or greatly delayed.
What’s done is done — but the best way to honor the memory of the Challenger Seven is for us to learn from the management mistake that doomed them. Yes, NASA fixed the SRB design and used improved o-rings, but that’s not the real point.
The important lesson is that we must never let wishful thinking and politics override solid safety engineering practices. We’re competent enough with physics to know the risks in many situations, if we’re only patient enough to do the calculations — and accept the logical conclusions, even if they’re not the ones we want to hear.
“For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations — for Nature cannot be fooled.”