Challenger, Columbia and the Nature of Calamity

Thirty years ago, on Jan. 28, 1986, seven astronauts “slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.” America’s space program was never the same.

By Clyde Haberman
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They died as they slipped the surly bonds of Earth. The last words of that sentence, haunting words, were written by John Gillespie Magee Jr., an American airman and poet who enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1940, before the United States entered World War II. He was killed the following year in a midair collision over England. He was all of 19.

Poets can achieve immortality; Magee did with a sonnet called “High Flight.” Its opening and closing lines became embedded in the American consciousness when President Ronald Reagan invoked them in paying tribute to the seven Americans who died in the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger on Jan. 28, 1986. Those men and women, the president said in an address to a stunned and grieving nation, had “slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God.”

In this finale of its current series of documentary videos, Retro Report remains true to its mission of re-examining past news stories by summoning the heartache of that day in 1986 and also of another, 17 years later: the disaster that killed the seven crew members of the space shuttle Columbia on Feb. 1, 2003. Time can be the enemy of memory. But it is not too late, with Memorial Day behind us by mere days, to recall those who soared so high, only to fall back to Earth. On the Challenger, they were Francis R. Scobee, Michael J. Smith, Ronald E. McNair, Ellison S. Onizuka, Judith A. Resnik, Gregory B. Jarvis and, best-known of all, the schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe. The Columbia crew members were Rick D. Husband, William C. McCool, Michael P. Anderson, Kalpana Chawla, David M. Brown, Laurel S. Clark and Ilan Ramon.

Space shuttling under the aegis of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration belongs to the past, at least for now. Atlantisflew the last mission, three years ago. These days, Americans headed to the International Space Station have to hitch a ride on a Russian craft — with the United States government paying handsomely for the privilege.

No one can be sure if this arrangement will endure. Tensions over events in Ukraine have strained relations between Washington and Moscow to the point that a Russian deputy prime minister, Dmitri O. Rogozin, said recently that American astronauts might be denied access to Russian launch vehicles. Americans want to go to the space station? Let them do it “using a trampoline,” Mr. Rogozin said.

Over 30 years, there were 135 American shuttle launches and returns, and 133 were successes. Perhaps inevitably, it is the other two that people remember best.

Those missions turned into catastrophes for different reasons. On Challenger, an O-ring seal failed on a rocket booster, causing a breach that let loose a stream of hot gas, which ignited an external fuel tank; 73 seconds after liftoff, the shuttle broke apart over the Atlantic. With Columbia, a piece of insulating foam broke off from an external tank during the launch, and struck the left wing. The damage proved severe enough that when the craft re-entered the Earth's atmosphere after two weeks in space, hot atmospheric gases were able to penetrate the wing structure. The shuttle became unstable. It broke apart over Texas and Louisiana.

The two disasters led to investigations, to the removal of senior officials, to promises of institutional change, to undying expressions of sorrow. Among the remorseful were engineers who had warned that headaches like eroded O rings and missing foam created risks, but who could not persuade their immediate superiors to act. One former NASA engineer, Rodney Rocha, lamented to Retro Report that he wished he had been more aggressive in making his concerns known to those at the very top. Observing the chain of command looms large in the world of engineering, Mr. Rocha said, adding, “I will regret, always, why I didn’t break down the door by myself.”

In theorizing about what went wrong in these two disasters and in others, some social scientists have observed that certain circumstances may well be beyond anyone’s control. Even before Challenger, in 1984, a sociologist named Charles Perrow put forth the concept of “normal accidents,” by which he meant that in a technologically complex operation something is bound to go wrong at some point. These systems are made up of so many tightly linked parts, Mr. Perrow said, that even a seemingly minor glitch could lead to a cascade of woes that make cosmic failure almost unavoidable. An example for him was the near-meltdown in 1979 at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania.

Another sociologist, Diane Vaughan, has written extensively about Challenger and served on the commission that investigated the Columbia horror. She has advanced the theory of “normalization of deviance,” meaning that in many organizations — NASA certainly being no exception — some problems and risks are understood to be acceptable — part of doing business, if you will. Take those problematic O rings on Challenger. Their erosion had been evident on earlier launchings, but flying with them became routine. To Ms. Vaughan, NASA’s decision to forge ahead on that fateful January day in 1986, despite new concerns about the O rings that were raised, did not reflect cold, bottom-line thinking or an amoral bending of rules. “They applied all the usual rules,” she told Retro Report. Regrettably, they did so “in a situation where the usual rules didn’t apply.”

Theories of this sort can conceivably touch on other calamities. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico might be one example. Another could be the recent South Korean ferry disaster in which several hundred people died, most of them high school students. Setting aside possibly criminal conduct by senior officers who abandoned ship, reports out of South Korea suggest that safety failings had long been accepted as routine: normalized deviance, which included excessive overloading of cargo onto the ferry.

Even when a system is not technologically complex, a tiny defect can lead to calamity. This is not a new thought. Perhaps the tragedies of Challenger and Columbia, seemingly rooted in relatively minor problems, were ordained by a concept that has been around for centuries. It has something to do with what can happen for want of a nail.

CLYDE HABERMAN, a regular contributor to Retro Report, has been a reporter, columnist and editorial writer for The New York Times, where he spent nearly 13 years based in Tokyo, Rome and Jerusalem. Subscribe to our newsletter here and follow us on Twitter @RetroReport.

This article first appeared in The New York Times.