I picked up Richard Cook’s Challenger Revealed without expecting too much from it. I’ve never thought that the writing on the space program was either that interesting or well done from the technical side, and on the political/sociological side it mostly all has been P.R. I also had my doubts that anything much worth reading was ever going to get written about as preventable a disaster as the Challenger loss was, particularly this many years on. On reading it, I was greatly surprised. Not just surprised, but shocked, infuriated, stunned, and inspired. Challenger Revealed is one of the best books on the present condition of the American nation’s current social and institutional sicknesses and failures that I’ve come across ever. It has been criminally ignored by the newsmedia and the literary community and it needs reading by every patriotic citizen of this country who is concerned with its present ailments and future prospects.
Richard Cook was a career Federal employee who was a GS-9 budget analyst hired into NASA eight months prior to the Challenger disaster. In the course of his first three months doing budget projections he discovered the fatal flaw in the solid rocket booster (SRB from here on) design that wound up destroying Challenger and killing its crew. Cook wrote a memo to NASA senior management that made plain the problem and urged an immediate allocation of funds for an engineering redesign to fix the problem. Naturally enough, the memo sank, and nothing was done until Challenger blew up. It is obvious that if someone that far down on the food chain, and that far removed from the engineering/technical side found out about the SRB problems that quick–and Cook will be the first to tell you that he has no scientific or engineering background–then everyone else at NASA above the secretarial and janitorial level knew about the problem too. Everyone at NASA ignored it and refused to act to fix it. The Challenger exploded, crew dies, and NASA acts surprised.
Cook tells how he made the difficult and courageous decision to go public with his memo, in violation of NASA’s mandated post-accident top-down information stonewalling and deception. Cook came to be the key source for reporters covering the story, and his actions demolished the planned NASA PR coverup. Cook went on to testify at the Rogers commission, and tells an excellent firsthand account of it as a government whitewash only partially derailed. Cook wisely left NASA shortly afterwards to work for the US Treasury for the rest of his working career. He kept following the story, and upon retirement did a great deal of reading and research (his interviewing Reagan’s astrologer for his role in the launch decision is most highly commendable) and wrote this book. This book must be regarded as the definitive work that we are ever likely to have on the Challenger from perhaps the only insider high enough and motivated enough and most importantly honest enough to write about it.
There is plenty of evidence of NASA being an institutional failure from Cook’s story. NASA’s vaunted technical and scientific excellence, and by extension, the United States’, must be mostly PR hot air if multi-billion dollar spacecraft and their crews are lost from basic engineering mistakes like the SRB design. As far as NASA’s professional integrity goes, Cook tells, probably without enough attribution to satisfy some, that the contract for the SRB was given to Thiokol for domestic political reasons involving the Utah (Thiokol’s home state) congressional delegation’s buying into the Shuttle program. This, despite the fact that Thiokol had the weakest design and the highest cost bid.* Cook details a never-ending stream of lies from NASA management, both pre-and post- accident, both in-house to staff and externally to Congress and the public, about the shuttle program and about the Challenger loss. Cook also shows that nobody ever was held to account for these lies. Cook also reveals that the Challenger astronauts’ bodies were deliberately left on the ocean floor to feed the fish for two months in order to hide the fact, fully known to NASA management, that they survived the explosion of the rockets and died from impacting into the ocean. Besides, bringing them up too soon would interfere with NASA’s news management of the story. This outrageous sordid disrespect for the dead by NASA management is beneath comment.
Cook also brings to light the fact that one of the earliest shuttle flights–STS-16, 51-D, in April, 1985, had a piece of foam insulation from the liquid booster tank impact the shuttle airframe with sufficient force to fracture the shuttle protective tiles and the shuttle consequently and inevitably had a burn-through to the airframe in reentry as a result. Fortunately for that shuttle crew, the damage was in a non-critical part of the airframe (a wingtip). NASA was, according to Cook, fully aware of the problem of foam fragments from the liquid fuel tank impacting on the shuttle with ensuing catastrophic failure and loss of aircraft from at least STS-16 onwards, and did nothing to address the problem until Columbia burned up on reentry in 2003. NASA management’s 2003 post-accident public expressions of bewilderment and surprise after Columbia’s loss demonstrates that a generation on a new generation of NASA management learned nothing from Challenger disaster except that what they got away with in 1986 they can equally get away with in 2003.**
Cook also tells a good story of the professional incompetence and cowardice of the newsmedia in dealing with the story. Most none of them knew enough about science and technology to report adequately on the story. From Cook’s account one must wonder if any reporter in the US newsmedia knew what an O-ring was or had ever seen one before in their entire lives, and worse, ever bothered to learn about any once the story broke. (The NYT originally reported Cook’s story as “old rings”. Gadzooks.) Worse than their technical ignorance was their willingness to report uncritically what officials in the US government told them. In defense of the US reportorial corps on this issue, Cook does not adequately consider laziness as an explanation for this behavior of theirs. But Cook does tell an excellent story of the instinctive attitude to cover for the obvious falsehoods and idiocies of Ronald Reagan that pervaded the US newsmedia in the Reagan years,*** and has continued to a large degree since. Cook had the goods on Reagan’s personal responsibility for the launch decision, WH denials notwithstanding, and presented it to the newsmedia, and instead the newsmedia turned on him, pillorying him instead.
Hard questions must be asked then about what this book’s tale of the gross institutional failures of NASA–professional incompetence, institutional corruption, ingrained and incurable managerial mendacity, shameless disrespect for the dead–point out about American society. Cook, to his credit, just lays out the story and leaves it to us to ask what it means that the technologically preeminent and most highly esteemed US government agency is riddled with these flaws, then, and shows them again, worse, fatally again, seventeen years on. Is NASA’s behavior any much different than any other major American institutions? And if our institutions fairly reflect American society and the American people, which they must, then who are we as a people and what good are we to this earth? I suspect that this book’s inevitable leading any perceptive reader to these questions is the core reason for its being ignored by the newsmedia and the book press. Much as NASA couldn’t honestly face the hard questions about the gross defects of the SRB design and the foam and tile design defects, and couldn’t conceive of the notion that there was something wrong with its institutional culture and practices, the American press and the American political system cannot honestly face asking hard questions about NASA, and cannot conceive positing the questions about gross defects in American institutions, American society, and the American people, that NASA’s actions have demonstrated as existing in spades throughout the entire history of the shuttle program. Can the average American do better? And these questions are, can only be, the most important questions that we can grapple with as a people and a society, and we must do so, for our own sake, for our country’s sake, and for the world’s sake as well.
*Roger Boisjoly, the other hero and whistleblower of the Challenger story, the Morton Thiokol engineer who argued strenuously against launching Challenger on a day that cold, tells of a post-Challenger conversation he had with one of his engineer counterparts at Rocketdyne, the company who made the shuttle’s liquid fuel rocket motor. The Rocketdyne engineer told him: “Boisjoly, our rocket motor is a nightmare of supercritically machined high-alloy parts rotating at unimaginable RPM’s while undergoing horrific shock and vibration stresses, with one end of it as close to absolute zero as we can get while the other end is burning well above any metal’s melting point. Tell me, Boisjoly, how the hell is it that your lousy piece of pipe blew up?”
**One must doubt that NASA has in fact done anything to fix this problem. Cook the non-engineer, in a private e-mail, argued that the problem is inherent in the design and is consequently unfixable. I suspect he’s right, and this fact is probably the driving force behind the shuttle’s impending retirement. Losing two shuttles to the same design flaw is probably one of the few things beyond the powers of NASA’s PR machine to paper over successfully.
***Strobe Talbot, in one of his books–Deadly Gambits or Deadly Deceits, can’t remember which one–tells the story of how Reagan met in the White House with a group of reporters to discuss his arms limitation/arms race proposals. During the course of explaining what he was trying to do, Reagan announced that the key difference between submarine-launched and land-launched ICBM’s was that the submarine launched ones could be recalled after they were launched. The reporters were rightly flabbergasted at how anyone, least of all anyone with their finger on the red button, could believe anything that goddammned dumb, or how it managed to get into Reagan’s brain in the first place. Word of this remarkable piece of Reagan’s knowledge never made it into print until Talbot wrote about it in a book five or more years after it happened.
from the archives:
Richard C. Cook: Whistleblowing Isn’t for Sissies (updated) videos no longer available