Challenger: A Major Malfunction

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The Challenger accident is one of the most notorious technical malfunctions in history, and definitely the best-known space travel accident. Everyone remotely interested in space technology has a rudimentary knowledge of O-rings that caused the shuttle to explode, how a commission was started to analyze the accident, and how Richard Feynman displayed the fragility of the O-rings by freezing them in ice water. A fascinating talk by Stephen Carver on the history of the Challenger accident piqued my interest in this historic event, and I bought this book second-hand upon his recommendation. Malcolm McConnell, a veteran space reporter, was present at the Challenger launch that ended tragically, and published the book within the same year as the incident, with all the memories still intact. The atmosphere of astonishment and dismay at the possibility of such an accident is tangible on every page. The self-criticism of McDonnell on how the space journalists corps were not critical enough of the shuttle program before the accident, and how they were treated and behaved like actors in the media show organized around the shuttle reads very sincere, given the shock of the event. The immediacy comes with a price, however. The books is rather thin on the aftermath, for example, and a deeper analysis of the organizational problems at NASA is missing.

This is not to say that the book omits context. McConnell’s journalistic and writing experience shines in his reports of the background of the accident, which is of course much more complicated than the simple O-ring issue. It is truly a ‘major malfunction’, in the sense that a whole organization actually malfunctions, making dubious decisions while organizing probably the most complicated engineering project in history. McConnell does a great job of laying out the tensions and dysfunctions within the organization that led to the string of (in retrospect) braindead decisions that caused the Challenger accident. There is the geologic separation and competition between the different project groups. The different centers are not communicating properly, and are in constant competition not to be the one to delay a launch. There is the dysfunctional culture in some teams, especially in the Marshall team responsible for the propulsion elements. Their manager is a tyrant that judges people solely based on loyalty and results. There are the external forces that pull NASA in all directions: Financial, military, political, and scientific. There is the constant pressure to deliver, so that the congress can be lobied for more money. Last but not least, there is the political and economic pressure from the contractors, who are doing everything in their power to get the lucrative shuttle project contracts.

The weird thing is that one gets a feeling of how this accident was pretty much unavoidable. As McConnell convincingly argues, after putting a man on the moon with the Apollo program, NASA was under pressure to create another exciting target to provoke the Americans’ imagination. This was necessary to keep paying the 400 thousand or so people NASA was employing as the Apollo program ended. The new target NASA picked was Mars, but the bill on it proved too much for the politicians. A compromise was reached in which NASA was promised continuous funding if it built something that wasn’t only for transporting humans reliably to orbit, so that a station could be built there to be used as a first base for further space travel. The vehicle had to also transport satellites to orbit, paying for itself, and opening the way for US-led “exploitation” of space. This constraint, coupled with others such as demands from the military, led to a construction with numerous technical compromises. Among these were the use of inherently more dangerous solid fuel, and the exlusion of air-breathing engines from the shuttle, allowing only gliding flight. McConnell does a great job of explaining the interweaving of these compromises with the aforementioned constant pressure to fly the shuttle. The shuttle that (maybe surprisingly) flew 24 successful missions before ending up in a fire ball was a technical Frankenstein that had to satisfy many masters, ending up too complicated and compromised for everybody’s sake.

One serious shortcoming of the book is that the constant discussion of various technical aspects is not supported through visual aids. Considering that the shuttle program is the most publicized space program ever, it shouldn’t have been hard to come find some diagrams in popular science magazines. The author keeps on using certain terms, some of which are explained in a list in the appendix, but the relationship of the different parts of the shuttle are occasionally too vague. It would have helped immensely, for example, if there were a few detailed images or diagrams of the shuttle itself with labels naming the various parts. I assume that the author has left such a diagram out because, as the book was being written, there was a state of over-publication regarding the shuttle.

“Challenger - A Major Malfunction” is a highly accessible book that has unfortunately suffered from the three decades that passed by. Nevertheless, it is still worth reading for the precise atmosphere it delivers, and as a guide to understanding what the shuttle program, and the Challenger accident meant to the US public at the time.