Who Discovered Why The Challenger Exploded?

This is my (slightly edited) comment, under the pseudonym Rudy, regarding the March 30, 2017 blog post Who Discovered Why The Challenger Exploded by A. Jesse Jiryu Davis.
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Rudy · 2 years ago
Unraveling all the threads that make up the fabric of history is always tricky. And although it doesn't hurt to give some credit to Sally Ride for her involvement, she was just one of several messengers. Feynman was just another messenger who got the lime-light because:
  1. He was not only a physicist, as were Armstrong and Ride, but also a Nobel laureate.
  2. He was an iconoclast (fiercely independent approach to everything).
  3. He was a showman, and this was used to effect by Air Force brass.
  4. He "loved the smell of rats".

In the What Do You Care book (pp. 127 and 156), Feynman acknowledges Sally Ride, and notes that she essentially had to remain muzzled by virtue of still being a NASA employee.

It's almost certain that the data sheet originated with SRB engineers at Morton Thiokol. It's well-known now (and Feynman was also aware) that the Morton Thiokol engineers had tried to get word of the 'the O-ring sealing problems pushed up their management chain, but that had been met with resistance based on totally unrealistic probability estimates and CYA political manoeuvring. See, e.g., The Engineer Who Opposed the Challenger Launch Offers a Personal Look at the Tragedy.

Feynman wanted to report all this but was met with similar (or perhaps worse) political resistance from Chairman "Feynman is becoming a real pain" Rogers. Part of the compromise was (a somewhat buried) Appendix F: Personal observations on the reliability of the Shuttle in the Commission's final report, which contains the now famous "nature cannot be fooled" quote (p. 237 of What Do You Care).

Feynman ultimately learnt that his "discovery" process was actually being orchestrated by people like Air Force General Kutyna, who was trying to get the word out to the public without implicating anyone and possibly jeopardizing their career. From No Ordinary Genius (p. 219):

"I was being worked — operated by somebody else who wanted to get something done without involving himself. Those guys are clever, you know — I think I'm running around on my own hook, getting a clue here and a clue there, but those clues were just little taps to make me run in the right direction. I was being had to a certain extent."

In contrast to the nationally televised "ice water" demonstration, that got all the attention, Feynman was more subdued in this 1986 PBS interview with Jim Lehrer. My impression is that he'd been told by lawyers, or other heavies, to cool it (if I can use that expression here). He tries to make it seem like there was no significant disagreement between him and Rogers. Rather, there were just some minor differences that became played up in the press. At least he maintains that the Challenger disaster was not an "accident".

A. Jesse Jiryu Davis -Mod- Rudy · 2 years ago
Thanks for the great info!

My comment is not displayed on Davis' blog because, for whatever reason, he didn't formally Moderate it, but he does acknowledge it. The comment can be expanded manually, but that means it doesn't show up easily in web searches. So, that's why I'm reproducing it here. Occasionally, I myself have needed to revisit it to find the original source material.

Archived by NJG on Saturday, December 15, 2018