What Do You Care What Other People Think

2008-12-01

in Bombs and rockets, Books and literature, Geek stuff, Politics, Science, Space and flight

This sequel to Richard Feynman’s Surely You’re Joking covers some of the same ground as the prior book, though it is focused on the inquiry conducted after the Challenger space shuttle disaster. The book includes an appendix to that report, written by Feynman exclusively. Apparently, he was going to remove his name from the findings on account of his section being censored. Eventually, they printed something largely identical to his final copy.

As he explains it, the solid rocket booster failure that destroyed Challenger was largely the result of disjointed and poor communication between layers of administration at NASA and its supplier companies. The statistical modeling of the behaviour of the O-rings in the boosters was very poorly done. Information on the vulnerabilities of the shuttle either did not reach the most senior levels or was paid insufficient heed there. In any case, it seems likely that even if cold weather and design problems hadn’t caused this specific failure, something would have eventually gone wrong anyhow. For example, Feynman describes in detail some technical and procedural issues associated with the main engines. Such problems are not really surprising, given the overall complexity of the vehicle, the ‘top-down’ manner in which it was constructed (designing whole systems before testing individual components), and its fundamentally experimental nature. That being said, Feynman’s assessment probably has continuing relevance for other projects with similar associated risks and management structures. In particular, the contrast he draws between the strong protocols used in programming the shuttle’s computer – as compared with the protocols for sensors and engines – demonstrates that it is possible to do things well, provided sufficient attention and resources are devoted to the task.

Overall, the previous book is more entertaining and shows more of Feynman’s character. Aside from a section on Feynman’s first marriage, as well as the illness and death of his first wife, this book focuses on the details of Feynman’s investigation, including his famous demonstration with the O-ring and glass of ice water. All told, I found the earlier book more diverse and interesting. This book may be more useful for those whose professional work involves dangerous machines.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

. December 1, 2008 at 10:19 am

Milksop Nation
Jack Gordan
November 15, 2002

“The modern American attitude toward risk was captured perfectly 16 years ago in the aftermath of the Challenger space shuttle debacle. On January 28th 1986, a New Hampshire schoolteacher, Christa McAuliffe, and six other crew members were vaporised when Challenger exploded 74 seconds after lift-off from Cape Canaveral. The commentary leading up to the launch had been full of admiration for the death-defying heroism of “the first average American in space” and her comrades. But the national mourning period that followed the blast was characterised far less by grief than by astonishment and recrimination. Commentators and citizens alike were shocked—shocked—to learn that the bold adventure was, in fact, unsafe. Who was responsible for this outrage? Who made the faulty O-ring? Who killed Christa?

It was as if the entire nation saw the fireball but nobody had so much as glanced at the space shuttle itself. The thing was then, and is now, a Rube Goldberg contraption of breathtaking audacity. It’s an airplane clamped onto the side of a highly explosive booster rocket, as if with a rubber band. What did we think the talk of bravery had been about? The shuttle is—or should be—a visceral reminder of a time when the term “American” was likely to describe a person who crossed the Atlantic in a leaky wooden boat, then climbed into a rickety wagon and drove it west across 2,000 miles or so of hostile and unforgiving ground until he either died or found a place to drop a plough. And who did all this even though, from a safety standpoint, the whole enterprise should have been illegal.”

. December 1, 2008 at 10:35 am

Space Shuttle Challenger disaster >> Rogers Commission investigation >> Role of Richard Feynman

. December 1, 2008 at 10:39 am

“Although significant changes were made by NASA after the Challenger accident, many commentators have argued that the changes in its management structure and organizational culture were neither deep nor long-lasting. After the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003, attention once again focused on the attitude of NASA management towards safety issues. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) concluded that NASA had failed to learn many of the lessons of Challenger. In particular, the agency had not set up a truly independent office for safety oversight; the CAIB felt that in this area, “NASA’s response to the Rogers Commission did not meet the Commission’s intent”. The CAIB believed that “the causes of the institutional failure responsible for Challenger have not been fixed,” saying that the same “flawed decision making process” that had resulted in the Challenger accident was responsible for Columbia’s destruction seventeen years later.”

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