What the Challenger Disaster Proved

Emma Sarappo has a fascinating review of a new book about the Challenger space disaster (gift article). It is the first global disaster I was old enough to witness and experience in real time, and I’ve never been able to get those images out of my head. This review (and book) shines a horrifying light on the many human failures (mainly due to hubris) that resulted in this tragedy:

These issues—faulty O-rings, foam strikes—were understandable. Theoretically, with study and ingenuity, they were fixable. The problem was not really a lack of technical knowledge. Instead, human fallibility from top to bottom was at issue: a toxic combination of financial stress, managerial pressure, a growing tolerance for risk, and an unwillingness to cause disruption and slow down scheduled launches.

(Side note, tell me that last sentence doesn’t remind you of software development sometimes…)

Also, the astronauts knew what was happening:

The astronaut assisting them into place and finishing final preflight checks “looked down into her face and saw that her Girl Scout pluck had deserted her,” he writes. “In her eyes he saw neither excitement nor anticipation, but recognized only one emotion: terror.” She would fly for 73 seconds before the shuttle broke apart in a fireball and a cloud of smoke. After that gut-wrenching instant, and more seconds of stunned silence, a NASA public-affairs officer would speak the understatement that would become famous: “Obviously a major malfunction.”