Selfishness Played a Role in the Shuttle Disaster

Charles Peters is the editor-in-chief of the Washington Monthly. His comments are excerpted from the magazine's current issue

Everyone is asking why the top NASA officials who decided to launch the fatal Challenger flight had not been told of the concerns of people down below, like Allan McDonald and the other worried engineers at Morton Thiokol.

One of the hottest rumors around Washington is that the White House had put pressure on the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to launch so that the President could point with pride to the teacher in space during his State of the Union speech. The White House denies this story, and my sources tell me that the denial is true. But NASA had--and this is fact, not rumor--put pressure on itself by asking the President to mention Christa McAuliffe. In a memorandum dated Jan. 8, NASA proposed that the President say:

"Tonight while I am speaking to you, a young elementary school teacher from Concord, New Hampshire, is taking us all on the ultimate field trip as she orbits the Earth as the first citizen passenger on the space shuttle. Christa McAuliffe's journey is a prelude to the journeys of other Americans living and working together in a permanently manned space station in the mid-1990s. Mrs. McAuliffe's week in space is just one of the achievements in space we have planned for the coming year."

The flight was scheduled for Jan. 23. It was postponed and postponed again. Now it was Jan. 28, the morning of the day on which the speech was to be delivered--the last chance for the launching to take place in time to have it mentioned by the President. NASA officials must have feared that they were about to lose a public-relations opportunity of stunning magnitude--an opportunity to impress not only the media and the public but also the agency's two most important constituencies, the White House and Congress. Wouldn't you feel pressure to get that launch off this morning so that the President could talk about it tonight?

NASA's sensitivity to the media in regard to the launch schedule was nothing short of unreal. Here is what Richard G. Smith, the director of the Kennedy Space Center, had to say about it after the disaster: "Every time there was a delay, the press would say, 'Look, there's another delay . . . here's a bunch of idiots who can't even handle a launch schedule.' You think that doesn't have an impact? If you think it doesn't, you're stupid."

I do not recall seeing a single story like those that Smith describes, but there were a few. The point is to realize how large even a little bit of press criticism loomed in NASA's thinking.

When NASA's George Hardy told Thiokol engineers that he was appalled by their verbal recommendation that the launch be postponed and asked Thiokol to reconsider and make another recommendation, Thiokol, which Hardy well knew was worried about losing its shuttle contract, was in effect being told, "Don't tell me" or "Don't tell me officially so I won't have to pass bad news along and my bosses will have deniability."

In addition to the leader himself, others must be concerned with making him face the bad news. These include subordinates. Their having the courage to speak out about what is wrong is crucial, and people like Bruce Cook of NASA and Allan McDonald of Thiokol deserve great credit for having done so. But it is a fact that none of the subordinates who knew the danger to the shuttle took the next step and resigned in protest so that the public could find out what was going on in time to prevent disaster. The almost universal tendency to place one's own career above one's moral responsibility to take a stand on matters like these has to be one of the most depressing facts about bureaucratic culture today.

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