Story of the Day for Friday July 20, 2012
Reality is a Stubborn Thing
Truth has stumbled in the street.
On January 28, 1986, NASA officials tried to defy reality . . . and failed.
The Challenger space shuttle was scheduled for launch on January 22nd, but the launch had to be postponed until the 23rd, then the 24th, then the 25th, and then the 27th.
Officials at NASA were growing increasingly frustrated with each scratched launch date. They wanted to establish a reputation as a reliable market for scientific and commercial markets, and the frequent postponements weren’t helping their reputation. They had an ambitious launch schedule, and by postponing the Challenger, they would be forced to scuttle launch dates all down the line. President Reagan was preparing his State of the Union address and wanted to feature the Challenger mission – which would be awkward if the shuttle was still sitting on the launch pad. Further, classrooms across the country were tuned into TV to watch Christa McAuliffe, a New Hampshire school teacher, give the first school lesson from space.
The controversy before the scheduled launch on January 28th focused on the o-rings in the solid rocket boosters. The rocket is built like cans stacked on top of each other. The explosive gases, reaching temperatures of 5000 degrees Fahrenheit, are sealed between the different rocket stages by o-rings.
Engineers at Morton Thiokol were adamant that the launch must be postponed. The temperatures had dipped to 18 degrees in the night, and, at launch time were still around freezing. Morton Thiokol’s contract with NASA specified that the temperature tolerance of the o-rings extended from 40-90 degrees.
At first the managers at Morton Thiokol sided with their engineers. But NASA was not happy. Under pressure to please their customer the managers finally caved in and gave NASA the green light to launch.
The engineers watched helplessly as the countdown began. They knew the o-rings would not seal. Seventy-three seconds after liftoff, as the Challenger went into its first roll, the o-rings failed, and the space shuttle exploded – killing all seven astronauts.
The well-known physicist, Richard Feynman, served on the Rogers Commission investigating the accident. “Reality,” he concluded, “must take precedence over public relations,” adding that “nature cannot be fooled.”
It is not only Nature which cannot be fooled, but all truth. Some think that morality can be supplanted by a “new morality” as often as youth update their wardrobe.