Challenger Disaster

There has been a lot of discussion, in the Rogers Commission and elsewhere, concerning the effect of climate on the Challenger disaster. It seems clear that weather was a factor. There is a different kind of climate, however, that may have been equally important--the political climate.

In these Reagan years, with public relations the determining consideration of our policy-makers, decision by political thermometer can hardly be ignored.

The awesome influence of our presidency is such that each Chief Executive sets the tone--establishes the climate--for the entire nation. (Consider the quiet euphoria of the Eisenhower years, the Camelot of Kennedy, the pervasive amorality of the Nixon period.)

Now we have a President who is both a creature and a devotee of public relations. In that world of fantasy, image is more important than substance and perception more important than fact.

Can there be any doubt that the public--and the Congress--were lulled by the exaggerated claims for the National Aeroautics and Space Administration and its wonders, trumpeted by the Ringmaster himself? The shuttle--an astounding piece of experimental engineering--was hailed as a proven mode of travel, a heavenly bus that left and arrived on schedule.

Given this climate, is it any wonder that possible flaws were brushed aside, that the warnings of qualified engineers were ignored? NASA had a part to play, a public image to sustain, a schedule to meet!

No one believes the Administration put direct pressure on NASA to launch that particular day. The disturbing thing is that this wasn't required. There was no need for discreet phone calls--even for winks and nudges. The President was to make his State of the Union speech that evening. In the present environment the dimmest of bureaucrats could recognize a PR windfall if it could be announced that a successful launch had safely delivered the first teacher to outer space.

It is not easy to turn back the clock--to return from Oz and its wizard to Kansas and reality--but surely we must try.


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