March 3rd, 2016
For thirty years guilt has been Bob Ebeling’s ever-present companion.
Now 89 and in hospice care, even his eyes are failing. His daughter must read aloud anything printed.
But emblazoned in his memory is a most vivid image of fire and tragedy.
You see, Ebeling was an engineer for Martin Thiokol, the firm contracted by NASA to create and maintain the flexible gaskets called O-rings that would seal the joints between each segment of the two solid rocket boosters (SRBs). Those boosters flank the Space Shuttle at launch, providing it the initial acceleration to space, and then fall harmlessly to earth to be refurbished and re-used.
Ebeling and his Thiokol colleagues engineered a system of two o-rings–two for the purpose of redundancy–that would concentrically traverse the circumference of each SRB section. Their inherent resilience would enable them to flex under the immense loads and to contain the super-heated gases a launch would create.
But as you likely know the story, on a terribly cold day in January, 1986–thirty years ago just last month–those O-rings failed. Super-heated gas breached the joint creating a plume of fire that would grow with every passing second. Within 73 seconds after ignition, the fire from the SRB would compromise the wall of the rust-colored External Tank (ET) and cause a catastrophic explosion that obliterated the whole stack and took the lives of all seven of its astronauts, including what was to be the first teacher in space, the ever plucky Christa McAuliffe.
In the post-accident analysis, one member of the Rogers Commission, (formed by then President Reagan to determine the cause of the accident and chart solutions for the mournful space-agency), Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman, did his own makeshift but telling experiment. By placing a segment of O-ring in a glass of ice-water and compressing it in a simple vice, he was able to show that the material lost its resilience at that near-freezing temperature.
On the day of the launch that January, the temperature was near 36 degrees, with it dipping into the high 20s overnight. No shuttle had launched at that temperature, and therefore no O-ring had ever had to perform its work of sealing the joint under those frigid conditions.
Bob Ebeling knew that.
So did a man named Roger Boisjoly, now deceased. Like Ebeling, he, too, was a Thiokol engineer intimately involved with the development and maintenance of the O-rings.
But the one thing those two engineers shared in common they most wished were not so is that both men raised substantial objections to launching the shuttle on the day before its fateful explosion. Both men were rebuffed for their concerns. And both men walked with an unimaginable guilt ever since–Boisjoly to his dying day, and Ebeling still. Surely, they told themselves, they could have done more to convince managers of the risks.
Why were they and a handful of other Thiokol engineers–as well as some NASA officials–repudiated for voicing vehement protests against a launch?
Testimony during the Rogers Commission hearings from NASA officials and Thiokol managers stated that Ebeling and Boisjoly based their arguments on no specific or hard data. There had been no experiments of the o-rings at a temperature of 36 degrees–the lowest a temperature a shuttle had launched heretofore was 53 degrees. So the two contrarian engineers could produce no verifiable evidence of the O-rings’ insufficient resilience at that near-freezing temperature. Furthermore, the issue they were raising represented an entirely new criterion by which NASA would commit or refuse to launch. Within the unimaginably detailed and complex decision-making trees of the country’s space-flight program, only well-conceived and well-tested variables would be introduced into the process of committing to launch. Here, mere hours prior to launch, managers found the demand to introduce this new variable indefensible.
Only later did the Rogers Commission conclude that NASA had unwittingly but effectively created a culture in which concerns could not be raised–a culture that had clearly spread to even the companies it had contracted with like Morton Thiokol.
But while analysts of the tragedy came up with phrases like “normalization of deviance” to explain phenomena that occur in large entities like corporations or government agencies, there is a factor eerily simplistic to account for what befell Challenger and its seven crew members.
During one moment of the lengthy Rogers investigation, commission member David Acheson had the following brief exchange with Lawrence Mulloy, one of NASA’s launch managers who had pressed to go on that icy morning:
MR. ACHESON: Did you have any feeling or apprehension that a delay of the launch date for reasons related to the propulsion system would reflect on you or the Marshall organization?
MR. MULLOY: No, sir. My decision to proceed with the launch as recommended by the Thiokol official responsible for making such recommendations was based solely on the engineering data presented by Thiokol engineering and the Marshall engineering evaluation of those data.
H.L Mencken was famous for saying, “when you hear someone say, ‘it’s not about money,’ it’s about the money.”
When you hear someone say that a decision was not about their or their agency’s reputation, in many instances it is precisely that driving decisions.
In other words, what we have at the bottom of an awful tragedy is but one more example of vainglory. We mentioned Sunday how vainglory can drive people apart, and how it can drive people into a suicidal despair. But Challenger teaches us again how the desire to be seen in a certain way can drive the kinds of decisions that are in the end both grossly negligent and lethal.
One comment does not a case for vainglory make. I know. But while Mr. Mulloy deflects the insinuation that the press to launch was motivated by a concern that the delay would reflect poorly on NASA, there were other moments in that day before launch that underscore my thesis.
On the lengthy and often heated conference call between NASA and Thiokol engineers, during which the concern about temperature’s effect on o-ring resilience came to the fore, another NASA manager, George Hardy, said he was “appalled” that Thiokol engineers would raise this concern without hard data–especially with the O-rings having a redundant system in place. Mulloy, who was also on that call, responded to the recommendation to abort the launch with a question, now infamous,
“My God, Thiokol, when do you want me to launch, next April?“
There’s more to this particular launch issue behind a bristled question like Mulloy’s.
The Space Shuttle had been pitched with the promise of a system that might be able to perform dozens of flights a year and at a cost far less than any time in the history of spaceflight. But when costs ended up being meteorically higher than originally projected, and the system kept experiencing delay after delay, the agency realized its own increasingly precarious position in the eyes of those who held NASA’s purse-strings. That institutional pressure became internalized in managers like Mulloy and Hardy. When January, 1986, rolled around and engineers began uttering concerns about the flight-safety of a system that would demand more delays and cost-overruns, the reputation of the program and the agency hung in the balance. Or at least that reputation was deemed more significant than other concerns.
So that day, they flew. And failed. Call it what you will from an institutional standpoint, but the desire to be seen in a certain light, and all the implications that derive from that desire, is what drove brilliant people to make disastrous choices. In an appendix to the Rogers report, Feynman made a sobering observation that confirms the dangers of letting vainglory surface:
For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.
And nature wasn’t fooled that day.
Ironically, it’s those who insisted upon a launch who have done most to absolve themselves of guilt. While it’s those who did most to prevent it who have most shouldered ongoing guilt.
Roger Boisjoly was haunted by his managers intransigence and only after dedicating his later life to educating budding engineers in decision-making ethics did he find a measure of peace.
Bob Ebeling however would rarely speak to media, and only anonymously for two decades after the accident. On the tragedy’s thirtieth anniversary last January he finally spoke with abject candor to National Public Radio. Recounting the events of that fateful week, and the enduring pain of the ensuing three decades, Ebeling confessed that despite all the efforts by friends and colleagues to absolve him of that lingering guilt, nothing seemed to ameliorate his agony.
Then just last week, the NPR journalists who filed that anniversary report issued a follow-up. Their January story had provoked countless people to send Ebeling words of affirmation and consolation. He had done what he could and could not be faulted for the institutionalized vainglory of agency managers was their common message. Ebeling sincerely appreciated those kindnesses coming from people he didn’t even know, who had no obligation to take the time to offer their support. But it was not until Ebeling received a personal message from a different category of individuals that some of the darkness began to lift.
One of them was NASA manager, George Hardy–the one who had been “appalled” by their January 27th recommendation–who wrote,
“You and your colleagues did everything that was expected of you. The decision was a collective decision made by several NASA and Thiokol individuals. You should not torture yourself with any assumed blame.”
But for Ebeling the most liberating comment came from current NASA administrator Charlie Bolden:
“We honor [the Challenger astronauts] not through bearing the burden of their loss, but by constantly reminding each other to remain vigilant. And to listen to those like Mr. Ebeling who have the courage to speak up so that our astronauts can safely carry out their missions.”
Ebeling’s daughter told reporters that no single communique had done more to unburden her father of his crushing shame. That was because there’s something to being absolved by someone who had true authority and intimate knowledge of the whole situation–who understood the particular challenges of the moment but more so who knew the particularities of the persons involved.
NASA’s folly teaches us the bitter lesson of following vainglory.
But it’s a NASA’s administrator who reminds us that the clearest path out of the mire of guilt is by taking it to One most furnished to know, love, and clear us.
In a week when we saw a man return to earth after nearly a year in space, it’s heartening to know that when we fall we yet may rise when Grace meets us.
Vainglory was last week’s focus. We’ll let the following scene from Ratatouille (with apologies for its clarity) serve as a hint to our focus this Sunday. (You may have to click over to Youtube to see the clip). The scene involves a famous, and famously conceited, food critic, aptly named Anton Ego. He is here about to judge the quality of a restaurant he’s previously scorned by a simple dish of ratatouille created by the unlikeliest duo of budding chefs.
As you’ve come to expect, whatever the vice it’s usually both more complex and subtle than your initial impression.
Our vices are all about one thing: desires run amok. But desire is itself not diabolical–only when it’s misdirected or inordinate.
A first and recently published book by Jen Michel comes recommended to us this week, and on what’s at the heart of this Lenten series: right desire. It’s entitled simply, Teach us to Want: Longing, Ambition, and the Life of Faith.
Anyone want to listen and write up a review for us?
Okay, one more. (We promise.)
Because it is both so good and yet just a week late, we conclude this Backstory with another cartoon from the New Yorker.