Review Of Netflix Original Challenger: The Final Flight 

“We really  need to have that recommendation to be put in writing and signed by a responsible Thiokol official.” -Assistant Center Director

“Joel Kilminster was the vice president of the program and had the authority and he was the one who signed it.”

“I knew how to run the fax machine and I’m the one who sent. it down” -Brian Russell Engineer, Solid Rocket Booster Program (1977-2015)

“The Vice President of Engineering says that we shouldn’t launch below 53 degrees Fahrenheit.”

“Good God, Thiokol, When do you want me to launch, next April?” –Larry Mulloy

On January 28, 1986, The Space Shuttle Challenger was a little more than 65 seconds post liftoff when Houston said to the crew, “Challenger, go with throttle up.” The pilot responded, “roger, go with throttle up.” 

Those were the last words that were spoken and then there was an explosion. 

In the press conference on February 2, 1986, Nasa said there had been an unusual plume in the lower part of the right solid rocket booster area of the system and that the cause is unknown. A reporter asked, “if by an unusual plume, do you mean to say flame?” The response was, “no the board said it was an anomalous plume.” Another reporter asked, “can you elaborate…as what was unusual about the plume?” Again, the response from the briefer said that the response from the board was it is an unusual plume and that is all I have.

The same day of February 2, The acting head of NASA Dr. William Graham went on the television show Face The Nation and was asked how it was possible no one picked up this plume, he responded, “These very heavy steel casings that constitute the structure of the solid rocket boosters are considered primary structure and not susceptible to failure.”

On February 6th, a presidential commission was assembled, President Regan appointed William Rogers to be in charge of the commission and that he didn’t want NASA embarrassed and that NASA would need to launch again in the future. On that commission were several people including Sally Ride–the first female astronaut–Neil Armstrong–the first man to walk on the moon and Richard Feynman–a theoretical physicist, also a nobel prize winner, an interesting fact is Feynman refused to accept the award as he thought it was a waste of his time.

Richard Cook, an employee of NASA, was concerned after watching the commission on tv that NASA wasn’t being truthful. Richard called the New York Times and Phillip Boffey, a journalist at the NYT found a NASA phone book and opened it and he challenged the caller that there isn’t a listing of an employee at NASA with the last name Lee. Richard then confessed that his last name is Cook. Mr. Cook told the journalist that he has some documents concerning the NASA explosion. Phillip Boffey asked him to see him the next day. Mr. Boffey looked at the documents and said this “looks like good stuff” and the publisher wants to use this as the lead story on Sunday but that you are going to have to use your full name. Richard was nervous about going on the record but he agreed to use his name. 

The documents exposed for the first time that there had been a problem with the solid rocket boosters that could be catastrophic. Instead of the commission being on live television the presidential commission met on February 10th and Larry Mulloy was going through his presentation and mentioned there was a conversation about an O-ring issue but it wasn’t a risk to the flight. Sally Ride was a member on the commission. She asked Larry if he has any documentation from a contractor worried about cold temperatures? Larry said, “I don’t recall any.” At that point, Allan McDonald from Thiokol, stood up on the back bench against the wall stood up and raise his hand, his voice was trembling and he said, “Mr. Chairman we recommended not to launch because of concern about the temperature.”

After the commission meeting, Sally Ride passed a note without saying a word to Mr. Kutyna, who is also on the commission, it had two columns, one was the outside temperature and the other was the resiliency of an O-ring. The paper showed that the ability of it to bounce back was less and less and NASA was withholding it. 

Kutyna was concerned how he could introduce this into the commission without getting Sally into trouble. Feynman came to his house for dinner. Kutyna walked Feynman to his garage whereby he had an Opel GT (vehicle) and as they walked to the front of the car, where the hood was opened and the engine was exposed, Kutyna told Feynman, “I have O-rings in this engine and they leak when it is cold.” On the counter he had an O-ring. Feynman picked up the O-ring and looked at it and he didn’t say a word. Later that evening around midnight, Feynman called another person on the commission and said he has to do something tomorrow during an open session of the commission but I can’t tell you what it is but I need to get some basic equipment for it. Feynman asked where can I can some pliers? His response was it is midnight in DC and the only place that is probably open is maybe a 24-hour drug store. Feynman responded, “take me to the drugstore.”

On February 11th,  Larry Mulloy was giving a presentation as he was finished, Feynman pushed the red button on his microphone and said, “well I took this stuff that I got out of your seal and I put it in ice water. I discovered that when you put some pressure on it for a while and then undo it, it maintains…it doesn’t stretch back.It stays in the same dimension. In other words, for a few seconds at least, and more seconds than that, there’s no resilience in this particular material when it is at a temperature of 32 degrees. Feynman dunked the O-ring into ice water to show that it becomes brittle. The next 24-48 hours every tv news channel replayed Feynman conducting his experiment. This changed the narrative to focus on the cold temperatures the day of the launch.

On February 19th, the NYT had displayed on page 1 that a top Morton Thiokol engineer had recommended against the launch but Malloy overruled him. Malloy was told by his boss, Dr. Lucas that he needed NASA to launch shuttles on schedule.

NASA had regrettably grown a culture that morphed from accomplishing, one could argue, the most consequential event in 1969 when they placed two men on the moon. Think about this from a moment. In 1903, The Wright Brothers launched the first airplane. In about 3 generations, less than one lifetime, man went from creating the first airplane that only traveled a few feet at Kitty Hawk to launching humans to the moon and safely returned to the earth. It then morphed into a culture of arrogance, bureaucracy and, worst of all, mendacity when they tried to cover up the truth until Sally Ridge and Richard Feynman exposed the truth.

Science requires to follow what the data and evidence show. The intentions of Dr. Lucas, Larry Malloy were probably genuine and they felt the pressure of a budget of several hundred billion to launch. Space travel is very risky. There was loss of life well before the challenger tragedy and there has been loss of life after. There will be more loss of life anytime men and women travel into space. The important message to learn from the Challenger tragedy is to look at the incentives built into a system, in this instance a bureaucracy. This can apply to corporations, governments, sports, any system comprised of people should not underestimate the power of incentives and to ensure there are redundancies in place to have a check on the risks that we as a society need to take to further technology and productivity for society but there also needs to have a check within the system to ensure the risks undertaken are not irrational as not wanting to wait a day, or a few days, when the temperature warms up. When the risk manifests into loss of life society should confront the truth, no matter how uncomfortable the truth is, so that we can learn to prevent future tragedies. 

Sally Ride to plant the idea in General Kutnya’s mind and then General Kutnya to have the clever idea to show a car of his in the garage to a brilliant man such as Feynman so that Feynman could publicly take on NASA in front of the entire world illustrates the best of society, that is, to follow the evidence, follow the data, regardless of the power of the entity to conceal it, that is what advances society and space exploration.


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