The Challenger & Columbia Space Disasters: Will Billionaires with Premature Liftoff Create Another?
Preventable, but it happened twice at NASA. Are we in for a third? Egomaniacal arrogance and denial that overlooks safety.
The Challenger disaster in 1986 was a once in lifetime space program tragedy…until it wasn’t (once in a lifetime that is).
Seventeen years later in 2003, we had the Columbia disaster.
Both were completely avoidable.
Both were the result of a dysfunctional system — an arrogant hierarchy of liars who ignored known safety issues.
How Could This Happen?
We first hear of the Morton Thiokol Corporation that built the Solid Rocket Boosters, at the end of the first episode of the Netflix docu-series Challenger: The Final Flight. The voiceover tells us they’d been having problems for years.
Leslie Serna was the daughter of Bob Ebeling, an engineer and the Manager of the Solid Rocket Booster Program from 1976–1986. Interviewed in the film, she said her father knew there was a major problem. She stated that one day he was visibly distraught, started shouting profanities and kept saying that nobody would listen. “I don’t care who you tell,” he said to his daughter, “The shuttle is going to explode!”
It was a no-brainer that it was the temperature causing the O-Rings to fail. The colder it was the more brittle they became. But for some reason, they couldn’t “prove” it so they put together a task force to study the issue.
The second episode began with the mention of teacher Christa McAuliffe and like every other time I’ve heard her name, I broke down in tears.
The back story was that the public was getting bored with the space shuttle missions, so NASA came up with the idea of a teacher in space as a PR campaign.
You would think of all the shuttle missions, that would be the one they’d handle with extra care.
The previous shuttle flight had launched in the coldest temperature to date and they discovered that both the primary O-Ring and the backup O-Ring had burned through — the most serious example of the problem they had seen.
NASA had a policy that required any time there was a failure in a redundant feature the shuttle could not be flown but had to stop while it was fixed.
It would have taken a couple of years to fully assess the O-Ring failures and redesign the booster rockets to solve the problem. The Space Shuttle Program, being run like a corporation, was on a tight schedule. They had an obligation to Congress (their shareholders) to whom they had promised a ridiculous number of missions per year.
In 1986, the public was anxiously waiting for the teacher to go into space.
Functioning as a corporation, NASA did what too many corporations do — they put money and public image ahead of safety.
Pressured by NASA, Morton Thiokol officials eventually made a judgment that “it was not risky enough not to fly,” (don’t you love the wording?)
Lawrence Mulloy, Manager of the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center issued a waiver related to the known O-Ring issue. While it’s hard to believe, he agreed to be in the Netflix series and had this to say about that waiver, “If you don’t keep your schedule you don’t keep your budget, so I put the pressure on myself just as a matter of pride.”
A matter of pride? Translation: it’s about money and arrogant delusions. They thought they would get away with it because they were drunk on their past success and felt invincible. They thought they could squeeze in one more “by the skin of our teeth” mission.
A mission that the entire world would be watching. A mission that was a huge public relations campaign. That’s the mission for which they were willing to take a huge risk!
The waiver meant that they knew there was a problem, they didn’t have time to fix it and stay on schedule, and decided to fly anyway.
What could possibly go wrong?
The engineers who had known for years about the problem said they held their breath every time there was a launch.
Safety Issues Had Been Documented and Discussed for Years
The safety issues were well documented, had been discussed for years but never addressed.
How the hell could NASA not address the safety issues of the Challenger in 1986?
But the bigger question is how the hell could NASA do the same thing 17 years later?
Seven people died in each disaster. Fourteen people total.
The Challenger carried five NASA astronauts, a payload specialist, and New Hampshire social studies teacher Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher in space. She went to space alright. She blasted off on a frigid morning in Florida and within 60 seconds was blown to bits right in front of her students, her family, and the rest of the world.
Millions of children were traumatized. Adults were shattered with grief.
The four-part series Challenger: The Final Flight is a must-see. It’s a comprehensive look at what happened, what went wrong, and the coverup.
Challenger | Netflix Official Site
Millions watched live in disbelief. But behind the scenes, some feared it was inevitable. A riveting study of an…
On a live broadcast after the disaster, news anchor Tom Brokow asked,
“The real question that remains to be answered is was there some kind of incompetence?”
No, Tom, there was no incompetence, just the usual arrogance, denial, and greed.
President Reagan formed a Presidential Commission to investigate the Challenger disaster. He put Bill Rogers in charge, a political figure, with no technical knowledge of the Space Program. Reagan said to Rogers, “Whatever you do, don’t embarrass NASA, they’re national heroes, we’re going to need them, they’re going to have to launch again.”
During the hearings, NASA officials flat out lied and tried to cover up their knowledge of the safety issues. By the end of the hearings, the agency’s dysfunctional, dishonest culture and attempt at a cover-up were exposed.
The Rogers Commission concluded that poor communication or inadequate procedures were responsible for the tragic accident.
A Later Investigation Reported Serious Anomalies Were Ignored
Here’s Chapter 12 ACCIDENTS, ENGINEERING, AND HISTORY AT NASA, 1967–2003 from the report from Critical Issues in the History of Spaceflight.
Conclusions in this report conflict with the Rogers Commission:
“The Committee feels that the underlying problem which led to the Challenger accident was not poor communication or inadequate procedures as implied by the Rogers Commission conclusion. Rather the fundamental problem was poor technical decision-making over a period of several years by top NASA and contractor personnel, who failed to act decisively to solve the increasingly serious anomalies in the Solid Rocket Booster joints.”
They ignored the known anomalies and therefore failed to address them. There were red flags staring them in the face, but problems and issues weren’t in their plan so they stuck their heads in the sand with their fingers crossed behind their back praying nothing would go wrong.
Top people at NASA and their contractors put their agenda above safety.
Seventeen Years Later a Repeat Performance of Preventable Tragedy
From an article about the Columbia disaster in 2003:
“Besides the physical cause — the foam — CAIB had a damning assessment about the culture at NASA that led to the foam problem and other safety issues being minimized over the years.
“Cultural traits and organizational practices detrimental to safety were allowed to develop,” the board wrote, citing “reliance on past success as a substitute for sound engineering practices” and “organizational barriers that prevented effective communication of critical safety information” among the problems found.”
What is This Culture of Arrogance and Denial?
Here’s an investigative article:
Columbia’s Last Flight
Space flight is known to be a risky business, but during the minutes before dawn last February 1, as the doomed shuttle…
Highly Dysfunctional Culture and Embedded Irresponsibility
These incidents happen in a toxic system that has no accountability process.
This kind of preventable tragedy happening once is inexcusable and a complete atrocity. For it to happen again seventeen years later within the same corporate system indicates something is very wrong.
No Value of Human Life — No Responsibility for Billions of Dollars Lost
If human life meant nothing to the megalomaniacs at NASA, what about the billions of dollars from a lost spaceship? The millions spent training those astronauts?
But we’re talking about the United States, where those with great power are never held accountable.
There are quite a few recommendations in the 2005 final report.
Three Mile Island Disaster Also Resulted from Lies & a Coverup
The same exact operational approach that led to the Challenger disasters was responsible for the 1979 nuclear meltdown at the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania.
“Before the 3 Mile Island accident, there had been repeated problems with pressure safety valves of Babcock & Wilcox reactors. This should have forewarned of the possibility of an accident.”- Walter Cronkite.
The testimony of a Nuclear Regulatory Commission inspector:
“There has been in the past a certain philosophy of the NRC about reactor safety. That these accidents couldn’t happen.” — testimony of Jim Creswell, NRC Inspector.
Creswell sent a memo sounding the alarm just as one or two guys did at Morton Thiokol but management didn’t listen. They denied everything and then engaged in a coverup.
Watch this documentary series about the Three Mile Island disaster (released and added here in May 2022)
Watch Meltdown: Three Mile Island | Netflix Official Site
Insiders recount the events, controversies and lingering effects of the accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power…
Will There Be Another Space Disaster As Billionaires Compete?
On June 11, 2021, in episode 227 of the Pivot Podcast, Scott Galloway made a prediction —
“These guys are tempting disaster. A really terrible decision in the corporate world involves ego and these guys competing against each other — this is where capitalism meets space exploration.” — Scott Galloway, June 11, 2021 Pivot Podcast
Galloway continues, “You now have three megalomaniacs (probably not true of Branson) — Three people who either explicitly or implicitly are putting pressure on their organizations to get them into space and I’m telling you, space travel is expensive and really dangerous. They are tempting disaster.
The whole thing makes me nervous because I think that there are individuals nobody wants to let down and they’ve announced that they are going to go into space. It’ll come at a cost. The cost is more than money.” — June 11, 2021 Pivot Podcast
Galloway was referring to Elon Musk, Richard Branson, and Jeff Bezos — the three billionaires using space travel to manage their mid-life crisis. They will likely deny it but we know they are competing against each other. They all want to be first.
This is the exact same kind of male ego that caused the other two disasters. We can see this one coming and there’s not a damn thing we can do about it. These are private companies run but know-it-all billionaires who take advice from no one.
Who will pay with their life this time?
Apparently, they already have — during a test flight in 2014, Virgin Galactic’s Enterprise broke apart and the co-pilot, Michael Alsbury, was killed.
Branson is in the lead according to this video published July 7, 2021, by NowThis with this statement: “Sir Richard Branson is set to be the first to lift off in the billionaire space race, 9 days ahead of Jeff Bezos.”
Will Jeff Bezos let nine days stand in his way of being the first in space?
I’m fearful he will cut corners to blast off sooner.
I hope that Scott Galloway and I are wrong.
I hope the billionaire payload returns safely home to planet earth with its passengers unscathed.
Let’s cross our fingers, say our prayers, and hold them in the Light.
Traveling Mercies to you, 1% Space Cowboys!
Once you’ve proven your manhood and come back down to earth, how about investing a few dollars in the country that helped make this happen?
A fraction of the riches of the three of you can create economic opportunities for marginalized communities, support education, help revitalize communities, or fund training for green jobs to save your dying planet so you don’t have to rocket off to the next one.
Maybe even follow the lead of MacKenzie Scott?
MacKenzie Scott says she's donated another $2.7 billion, condemns the wealth gap
MacKenzie Scott, the ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, on Tuesday said she gave away another $2.74 billion of her…
July 11, 2021 UPDATE:
Is Virgin Galactic’s Unity 22 Space Plane Safe?
Is Virgin Galactic’s space plane safe?
Richard Branson is finally getting his trip to space on Sunday. It has been a very long wait for Mr. Branson, the…
From the New York Times article:
“The federal government does not impose regulations for the safety of passengers on a spacecraft like Virgin Galactic’s. Unlike commercial jetliners, the rocket plane has not been certified by the Federal Aviation Administration…the F.A.A. is prohibited by law from issuing any such requirements until 2023.
The rationale is that emerging space companies like Virgin Galactic need a “learning period” to try out designs and procedures and too much regulation too soon would stifle innovation that would lead to better, more efficient designs.” Is Virgin Galactic’s space plane safe? by Kenneth Chang New York Times, July 11, 2021
Ah, the rules that don’t apply to the privileged!
But is it safe?
“The Virgin Galactic design already has an imperfect safety record. The company’s first space plane, V.S.S. Enterprise, crashed during a test flight in 2014…The Enterprise broke apart, and the co-pilot, Michael Alsbury, was killed. The pilot, Peter Siebold, survived after parachuting out of the plane.
In 2019, Virgin Galactic came close to another catastrophe when a new metal thermal protection film was improperly installed…The mishap was revealed earlier this year in the book “Test Gods” by Nicholas Schmidle...The book quotes Todd Ericson, then the vice president for safety and testing at Virgin Galactic, saying, “I don’t know how we didn’t lose the vehicle and kill three people.” — Kenneth Chang New York Times, July 11, 2021
We kept our fingers crossed.
July 11, 2021, a little after 8:30 am pacific time: A sigh of relief after Virgin Galactic’s Unity 22 had a flawless flight and landing.
This officially opens space travel for the wealthy.
A bazillion dollars will be spent on a fleet of spacecraft filled with those with means. Theoretically, space travel will eventually become more affordable. It will become accessible to millionaires rather than just billionaires. Then those who are half-millionaires and perhaps in 20 years will be something you and I can consider.
There’s only one problem. With the trajectory we are now on, in 20 years we won’t have a liveable planet from which to blast off.
If these billionaires don’t invest in and use their influence to address the climate emergency, their dreams will be underwater with the rest of us.