The National Aeronautics and Space Administration leadership persistently exaggerated the reliability of the space shuttle "to the point of fantasy" and by deceiving Congress and the nation--and perhaps even itself--placed the program on a path to catastrophe, a member of the presidential commission on the Challenger explosion said Tuesday.
One day after delivery of the full commission report to President Reagan, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard P. Feynman released a personal analysis that went further than the full panel in blaming the loss of the Challenger and its crew of seven on the space agency's refusal to admit to--and address--shuttle vulnerabilities.
"For a successful technology," Feynman concluded in his 13-page report, which in a compromise with commission Chairman William P. Rogers will be contained in the appendix of the full report, "reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled."
Feynman, a 68-year-old professor at Caltech in Pasadena, contended that NASA's departures from reality while assigning probabilities of shuttle failure were not confined to the faulty solid rocket seams culpable in the Challenger explosion. He indicated, for example, that risks associated with shuttle engine flaws also have been improperly weighed.
Feynman said that NASA--and by extension, the Challenger--fell victim to a form of fractured logic, and he offered a comparison to Russian roulette. After a player had squeezed a trigger and the sole bullet in the chamber had not fired, Feynman said, he "would be very foolish to spin it again and say, 'Look, nothing happened last time. There must not be any danger.' "
And yet, he told a press conference at which his report was distributed, every time a shuttle mission returned with evidence that erosion of solid rocket seals had occurred on liftoff it was interpreted, not as a warning of a problem that must be corrected, but as an indication that partly eroded seals were an acceptable flight risk.
"I can find it in (NASA documents) again and again: 'Look, the stuff blew by (the solid rocket seams) but the thing flew, so there is no danger. It's within our data base.' That phrase is used again and again. It simply says, 'We did it before and nothing happened, so it's within our data base, so everything is all right.'
"In that sense, yes sir, they were playing Russian roulette."
Reason Not Pinpointed
The commission determined that hot gases from the Challenger's right solid rocket burned through a lower seam in the multisection booster, directing a jet of heat at the shuttle's huge fuel tank that eventually resulted in an explosion. The precise reason the seal in the joint failed to contain the hot propellant was not pinpointed, although it was suggested that cold weather, rainwater, improper assembly or faulty materials could have caused the breakdown.
The seals had been an unresolved concern for a decade, Feynman said, adding: "The Challenger mission was a final accident of a sequence of things in which there was warning after warning after warning that something was wrong. It's not the kind of accident that just happened and nobody could have expected it."
The commissioners uncovered "enormous differences of opinion" about the likelihood a shuttle flight could fail, Feynman said. Estimates of potential for mission failures ranged from 1 in 100,000 to 1 in 100. He said he believes the later ratio to be the most accurate.
"The higher figures come from working engineers," Feynman said in his report, "and the very low figures from management. . . . It would appear that, for whatever purpose, be it for internal or external consumption, the management of NASA exaggerates the reliability of its product to the point of fantasy."
Why management continually offered better odds for safe flights than the engineers was a matter of conjecture, Feynman said. He has developed two theories.
"One is that they actually misled people," he said.
The other was that they "fooled themselves," coming to believe numbers based on the tortured mathematical extrapolations.
He said that NASA managers were "selling something" when they went before Congress with ambitious schedules and projections of minimal flight risks and suggested that engineers who warned that the goals were impossible could have been told, "Just be quiet, we're trying to get some money."
'Lack of Communication'
Feynman added: "The guys who know something about what the world is really like are at the lowest levels of these organizations and the ones that know how to influence other people by telling how the world would be nice, they are at the top. And there seems to be a certain amount of lack of communication."
Feynman said that rather than chasing impossible goals, the space program should determine what is realistic and then try to achieve just one notch above it, a process he called "imagination in a straitjacket."
"That kind of dream and that kind of excitement is the kind of excitement that should be in the space program," he said, "rather than dreams followed by disappointment. We talk about our frail technology, but fraility is simply the result of an exaggeration of a complete, utter fantasy."
Feynman, an energetic scientist who often conducted detective forays on his own initiative, said he personally chased rumors that pressure from the White House contributed to NASA's decision to press on with the Challenger launch despite poor weather conditions.
The most widely circulated rumor had NASA officials eager to get the flight aloft so that President Reagan could make prominent mention of it in his State of the Union address, scheduled for the next day. The most specific version had NASA posed to beam back television pictures and comments from the crew during Reagan's address.
Both the White House and NASA officials have denied any White House pressure and Feynman said that a check of telephone records by commission staff members disclosed no trace of calls between the Reagan Administration and NASA just before launch.
Feynman, however, said he checked himself with low-level NASA technicians to see if they had arranged for a crew hook-up and found that there was a standing capability to broadcast back from the Challenger in "three minutes."
"Since then, I talked about it some more and I think there was no direct telephone call of any kind (from the White House)." But, he added: "There may have been a general knowledge. . . . The good bureaucrats know what to do without being told. . . . There is not going to be any direct telephone call."
Feynman confirmed that he initially balked at signing the commission report, citing concerns about an endorsement of NASA that he considered too sweeping. Feynman also confirmed reports that a strongly worded sentence blaming NASA management of being either dissemblers or stupid had been deleted from his personal report.