Risky Business

In Goodbye to All That Robert Graves wrote that in W.W. I, young officers went through some distinct stages in their acclimatization to trench life. For the first couple months, the new man was a danger to himself. Ignorant of how things worked, he easily could walk in the wrong place at the wrong time and be injured or killed. Then, from around month three to six, the officer functioned well, armed with more knowledge but maintaining a healthy fear. The real problems came after the sixth month, when the officer now became a danger to others. The abnormal risks of trench life were now normal life for him, which influenced the officer to take stupid chances that foolishly cost lives–choices that the officer would not recognize as abnormally risky at all. Graves, of course, experienced this first hand as a young officer himself.

Diane Vaughn’s excellent The Challenger Launch Decision made me think of Graves’ remark. Ultimately I lacked the patience and technical familiarity to fully benefit from her magnificent analysis of the decision to launch the Challenger in January 1986. A sociologist by training, she still demonstrated a solid command of the technical information. But she focused not on what happened but the working cultures of engineers, managers, and NASA in general. The end result lends a great deal of complexity to our standard understanding.

After the tragedy, the standard understanding of the event went something like . . .

  • NASA faced unusual pressure to launch as part of their two pronged effort to 1) Advertise civilians in space (teacher Christa MaCualiffe), and 2) Be included in the President’s State of the Union address.
  • The unusually low temperatures created the possibility of the failure of the ‘O-Ring’ to seal. Design engineers noted this possibility and passed their concerns up the chain of command.
  • Design engineers indeed did initially recommend canceling or delaying the launch, but faced with strong pressure from NASA managers, changed their minds and approved the launch.

Events seemingly fit a Hollywood script–plucky engineers, lone dissenters faced down by The Man, with tragic results.

But Vaughn painstakingly points out that this narrative dramatically oversimplifies what happened.

First, the idea of risk . . .

Vaughn gives a helpful picture for us regarding perception of risk. Imagine a butcher shop, with its variety of saws, knives, etc. A two year old around said saws and knives would have no perception of any risk whatsoever. His mother would have an entirely different perspective. The butcher himself would have yet a third perspective. He understands the equipment, knows that it can be dangerous, but accommodates his life to work around and manage these risks. Without willingness to do so, he could not be a butcher at all.

So too, Vaughn reminds us that space flight remains extremely risky, at least relative to almost anything else our government undertakes. When the general public, unfamiliar with such risks, sees engineering reports that describe “possible” malfunctions (or some other such phrase) we react in ways that NASA personnel would not. To attempt to fly into space at all meant assuming a great deal of risk to begin with. That something might go wrong was perfectly obvious, the more relevant questions for NASA routinely ran along the lines of:

  • What is the likelihood of something going wrong?
  • Does this likelihood exceed the threshold of “acceptable risk?”
  • Why do you think it would go wrong? Is this a theory, or do you have testing data to back it up? If you have data, is that data conclusive or conjectural?

NASA had known for years about the problems with the solid rocket booster design and performance. They had known that what happened to the Challenger might possibly happen. The Solid Rocket Boosters (SRB’s) always worried NASA. They launched in spite of these concerns because, “we are in the business of launching rockets”–they routinely “pushed the envelope.” If you don’t want risks. then you don’t want to go space. No one thought the shuttle design perfect–far from it–but the shuttle was what they had to work with.

Vaughn suggests that NASA made the important decisions about the SRB’s years before the Challenger Launch, when they accepted a design that all knew had flaws, and then began a process of systematically normalizing these flaws. Bigger flaws then became smaller flaws, because the starting point itself had flaws built in.

Most Americans accept, however, that space travel has risks. What seemed abnormal and negligent were the events leading up to the launch. We had a launch in unusually low temperatures, a launch to which the SRB design engineers from Thiokol objected to the night before. They had fears that the rubber O-rings might not seal properly and allow too much explosive gas to escape at any temperature below 53 degrees. Of course this is exactly what happened.

But NASA managers strongly criticized Thiokol’s assessment and (seemingly) put pressure on them to change their opinion. Larry Mulloy stated, “My God, Thiokol–when do you want me to launch? Next April?” Another NASA manager, George Hardy, stated that he was “appalled” by their recommendation. Thiokol went back to confer among themselves and then reversed their position. The rest is tragedy, and on the face of it NASA seems horribly guilty.

Vaughn has plenty of criticism for NASA throughout her lengthy book. The book gives copious details about the budgetary issues, design choices, and the engineering culture that was NASA between the early days of shuttle development and January 1986. I will focus on the launch decision itself, because what made The Challenger Launch Decision such a great read for me is that by the end of it, I perceived these seemingly damning comments given above entirely differently. Vaughn devotes at least half of the book towards this end. NASA bears ultimate responsibility for the disaster, but Thiokol bears much of the blame as well. Events proved them right, but those that objected to the launch were not right for the right reasons, or perhaps, for reasons that the engineering culture of NASA would be able to hear and act upon.

Of course NASA had known of the the O-ring problems for years.

Thiokol’s stated position that the design flaws [of the SRB] are not desirable but acceptable.  Neither NASA or Thiokol expected the rubber O-ring sealing joints to be touched by hot gases of motor ignition, much less be partially burned.  However, as tests and flights confirmed damage to the sealing rings, the reaction was to consider the amount of damage “acceptable.” At no time did management recommend a redesign of the SRB . . . 

Presidential Commission Report on Challenger

From the beginning, a certain understanding of risk developed within NASA.

As in all previous space programs, certain residual risks have been accepted by management.  These residual, or acceptable risks, which remain after all feasible corrective actions have been taken, have been thoroughly reviewed . . . 

The conclusion of this review is that there is no single hazard nor combination of hazards that should be considered a constraint to launch.  All phases of Shuttle development and operations are continually being monitored to ensure that the aggregate risk remains acceptable.

Space Shuttle Safety Assessment Report, 1981

Before the Challenger, NASA had 24 successful launches in different kinds of weather. Yes, the O-rings would always be damaged, but that damage stayed within the bounds of “acceptable” wear and tear.

Vaughn collected a great deal of documentation and first hand testimony to describe what happened on the fateful eve of the disaster. NASA had several critiques of Thiokol’s recommendation to postpone the Challenger launch.

The 53 Degree Limit

As mentioned above, on the night before the launch SRB designers Thiokol declared that they could not recommend any launch when the outside temperature dropped below 53 degrees.

For NASA, this posed some terrible problems.

Whether [NASA’s Richard Mulloy’s] choice of words was a precise as perhaps it could have been, it was certainly a valid point, because the vehicle was designed to launch year-round.  Thiokol was proposing significant changes to the whole shuttle program on the eve of launch.  

NASA Engineer Larry Wear

The implications of trying to live with the 53 degree [limit] were incredible.  And coming in the night before the launch on such a weak basis was just–I couldn’t understand it.  

NASA Engineer Bill Riehl

And from Richard Mulloy, of the “launch next April!?” comment:

There are currently no launch criteria for joint temperature.  What you are proposing to do is to create a new launch criteria [not backed up by data], after we have successfully flown 24 launches with the existing criteria.  With the new criteria we may not be able to launch until April.  

I was frustrated.  Their analysis was dumb.  The data said one thing, the recommendation another.  Their 53 degree limit did not solve the technical issue, which was–what temperature did the joint need to be, [not what temperature it was outside]?

I find Mulloy’s point about joint temperature rather than outside temperature most crucial. Also, the Challenger launch had already been delayed several times, and on some of the other proposed launch days the temperature was below 53 degrees. None of the postponements were based on temperature, and Thiokol never raised this objection at any time before. The launch was scheduled for January 27, when it was 37 degrees out, and postponed, but not for cold temperatures. Again, Thiokol failed to raise temperature objections January 27. Thiokol engineer Jack Kapp admitted that,

Most of the concerns we presented . . . we had a very difficult time having enough data to quantify the effects we had talked about.  A lot was based on engineering “feel.”

It seems unreasonable to me to ask that the NASA cancel a launch and completely revise launch criteria based on “feel.” In fact, in the various O-ring tests, the worst damage the equipment had ever sustained came on a day of high outside temperature. Thus, no data existed to show that low temperatures had a conclusive impact on the ability of the O-ring to seal. And yet, NASA said they would have canceled the launch had Thiokol stuck to their guns.

George Hardy, of the “appalled” comment, also stated according to many witnesses that he would not launch against designer advice, and also said, “For God’s sake, don’t let me make a dumb mistake.” If Thiokol truly thought they were on to something, they failed to state their case in a way that could convince NASA or even convince themselves beyond the standard nerves everyone has for a launch. They had no data. They had a “feeling.”

Now of course–they were right about this feeling! This adds to the Challenger tragedy. They had a hunch, but could not translate that hunch in a way that could lead to meaningful action. NASA would have listened to them, but Thiokol could not speak in a way they–or even themselves–could understand. Canceling would have meant that

  • New launch protocols would have been introduced without any real data to back it up
  • The number of shuttle launches planned would have to be drastically reduced
  • NASA management would have to have a reason for the cancellation to their bosses, and would have been asked to base it on a “feeling.”

To cancel the launch would have essentially upended the entirety of NASA’s culture. This is exactly what should have happened. But Vaughn wants us to see that, all things considered, it is not reasonable for us to expect that either Thiokol (which did reverse their recommendation to cancel) or NASA to do this. We do not have a Hollywood script with heroes and villains. The Challenger astronauts died not at the hands of craven management, but as part of something much larger. Vaughn’s analysis shows us that questions we should ask in the aftermath of the tragedy are much more complicated than we might have thought. Once an organization establishes a culture, some decisions almost seem to get made automatically.

Vaughn wrote her book in 1996, and if anyone at NASA read it, it had no impact. We may remember the destruction of the Columbia in 2003 upon re-entry. It’s heat shielding was very likely damaged upon launching when insulation foam from the external tank dislodged during liftoff and struck the left wing. The tank needed insulation to keep the fuel cold enough, but it routinely dislodged during launch, as we might expect given so much thrust and vibration. Unfortunately, this time a large piece dislodged and struck the shuttle in a vulnerable spot during liftoff under the left wing. Columbia lost control and disintegrated upon re-entry. The official investigation into the crash stated that,

Cultural traits and organizational practices were allowed to develop . . . and reliance on past successes [served] as a substitute for sound engineering practices. Organizational barriers prevented communication of critical safety information.

Some might take solace in the fact that NASA’s culture of risk appears to have changed. In their partnership with Space-X, for example, their criteria holds Space-X to a 1 fatality for every 230 launches. Some applaud this reform. But others find this impossible–how can NASA hold Space-X to a standard that no space program at any time and place have ever been accountable to? How much risk must we accept to make progress?


Time Me

This post is slightly dated, as it was originally written three years ago.  I repost it based on our discussions in class this week . . . . .


I don’t follow baseball vey closely, nor do I watch many games.  I had no interest in watching the Home Run Derby before the All-Star game.  Unfortunately I still listen too frequently to sports talk radio.  After the said derby, commentators proclaimed that the new rules involving time limits had made the experience much more enjoyable.  “The clock saved the Home Run Derby,” proclaimed one radio host.  After discussing it briefly, they quickly turned to other areas of life where clocks could make things better, like for teenage daughters in bathrooms, bank lines, and so on.  If only we could have more clocks in our lives!

This got me reflecting a bit on the the invention of the clock.  Besides fire and the wheel, I have a hard time thinking of other inventions with as much staying power.  The influence of the clock goes so deep we don’t notice it.  Part of the motivation for me to read Authority, Liberty, & Automatic Machinery in Early Modern Europe by Otto Mayr was the hope that, among other things, he would give some perspective on the clock and its impact.

By “clock” Mayr means the mechanical clock.  People used sun-dials from ancient times, but even the most reliable  sun dials (in Egypt where the sun always shined) did not facilitate an acute subdivision of our experience of time.  In other more cloudy locales the sun-dial had even less influence.  The mechanical clock came on the scene in the late middle-ages and immediately made a dramatic impact on that society.  People fell in love immediately.  In his Paradiso Dante used the metaphor of the movement of a clock’s implements to describe the movement of the angels in heaven, and this merely stood as one example among many. The rare dissenting voice did exist.  The Welsh bard David Gwillym wrote,

Woe to the black faced clock which awoke me on the ditch side.  A curse on its head and tongue, its two ropes and heavy wheels, its weights, yards, and hammer, its ducks which think it day and its unquiet mills.  Uncivil clock like the foolish tapping of a tipsy cobbler, a blasphemy on its face.

But on the whole the “ayes” substantially overwhelmed the dissenters.  People praised the precision and complexity of the instrument, and almost immediately various metaphors for God’s design of the universe arose.  And as we might expect, no people sang such great peans to the clock as in Germany.

Such was the scene on the continent.  Yet those in England reacted far differently.  Yes, many liked the clock and it came into general use.  But far more dissented in England than in other places. In Love’s Labor Lost Shakespeare uses a “German clock” as an epithet.  In Richard II Shakespeare flips all the positive clock metaphors and in a soliloquy by Richard has the clock stands for a symbol of undue self-consciousness and a failed life.

Now sir, the sound that tells what hour it is

Are clamorous groans, that strike upon my heart

Which is the bell.  So sighs, and tears, and groans

Show minutes, times, and hours . . .

Why did they feel this way?  Here we get to the heart of the main idea of Mayr’s book.

Mayr believes that ultimately the answer lies in the different kinds of political cultures of England and the continent.  Briefly, authoritarian style politics had far more “boots on the ground” in places like Germany and France, which explains their love of the clock.  He develops the connection thusly: England’s political theory emphasized balance.  Whether they invented the idea of the “separation of powers” is beside the point.  They had a long history, predating the Magna Carta, of seeking equilibrium between different political bodies, which the European continent lacked.  This led England to put much more emphasis on developing “feedback” technologies.  These devices did not exert power so much as prevented one element from gaining too much power.  The thermostat serves as a good example of such a device.  It helps create balance.  Neither heat nor cold win the day. Notably, thermostats only come on when they need to correct the temperature.  Otherwise they lie dormant.

We may balk a bit at this distinction.  We may not consider the clock a device associated with unchecked power.  The clock may always be “on,” we surmise, but it exerts no direct influence over us.  Perhaps, but I think Mayr has a good point.  During the talk show I mentioned earlier, for example, all the ideas that people had related to people having to move faster because of the presence of the clock. They wanted the clock to make people act in certain definite ways.  Our speech reflects this as well. We “answer to the clock,” and so forth.  This idea played itself out politically.*  France had Louis XIV, Robespierre, and Napoleon. Prussia had Frederick the Great.  When England’s Charles I attempted to reign more independently he faced a revolution and the loss of his life.  Mary Tudor and James II also failed to introduce significant changes.**

The book moves along nicely to show how other “self-regulating” systems developed in England.  Aside from the political self-regulation between king, parliament, and courts, Adam Smith developed the idea of a self-regulating economy. Mercantilism, the prevailing economic theory in the 18th century, called for one to dominate other countries via exports over imports.  Smith believed the market could work much like a thermostat and correct itself with no government interference.  Central control of trade not only was unnecessary, but counter-productive.  We need not wonder about the veracity of Smith’s theory here.  What seems obvious from Mayr’s extensive knowledge is how developments throughout a particular culture have a common root.  The thermostat and Smith’s free market ideology come from the same place.

If the clock occupied pride of place for inventions from 1300-1800, what shall we say about our own day?  We would first need to decide what invention has pride of place in our society.  One would at this moment probably say the smart-phone, but we might wonder if in 10 years we will have moved on.  So we should settle on something larger, like “digital technology.”  As Peter Thiel has commented frequently, we have dramatically advanced the world of “bits” while the world of atoms has remained stagnant.  We need to look beyond mere profit and opportunity to understand why we have done so.

The digital universe excites us perhaps mainly because it has no discernible limits.  The powers of computers change all the time.  We can assume different identities, and so on.  We can always have our music.  We can contact anyone we want at any time.  It seems at times as if we can defy reality itself.  The world of atoms, however, confronts us with limits.  And if our recent behavior surrounding gender and sexuality give us any clues, we do not like limits.^  Our politics may soon start to reflect this and our corporate practice.^^  Who can say exactly where this will end up?  But if the trend continues we may need to revisit De Tocqueville’s dilemma regarding liberty (no limits on our actions) and equality.  We cannot have unfettered doses of both, for at some point they work against each other.  We must choose.  We still live in the real world.


*Compare Bishop Bousset’s explication of absolute monarchy for Louis XIV to James I (King of England) own writing on the subject.  Both reach similar conclusions, but in very different ways.  Bousset’s writing has an inexorable logical methodology.  James I writes more haphazardly, and more poetically.

**Henry VIII may be the exception that proves the rule.

^I re-watched The Matrix recently and noticed something curious.  At the end of the movie Neo speaks into the phone to the machines and tells them that he will show people “a world without limits, a world of possibility” and so on, and then proceeds to fly in the air.  But surely he refers to the world of the Matrix?  This is the world that offers the possibilities of dodging bullets.  In reality we remain subject to gravity.  On board their ship they have to wear dingy clothes and eat protein goop.  So what did Neo really mean?

True to form, the story starts to bleed out in the next two installments.  The Wachowski’s can’t stay content to let Neo be limitless merely in the Matrix (which makes some sense within their invented world).  By the end of Matrix Revolutions Neo can stop the Sentinels in reality just as he could stop bullets in the Matrix.  The Wachowski’s refuse even stay within the limits of their own story.

^^I like Amazon, but I found it a bit odd that they essentially tried to start their own holiday (Prime Day).

10th Grade: The Galileo Myth

This week we continued with many of the same themes as last week, with a special focus on Galileo.

Thomas HobbesBefore tackling him, we looked at the political philosophy of Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes’ concerned himself mainly with outlining his vision of a workable political system, but he was strongly influenced by the tenor of the times.  Hobbes, like Descartes before him, believed that getting at the truth meant reducing the world to its simplest, most understandable components.  If we dig deep enough, we will finally find an irreducible foundation.  For Descartes, it was thought, and Hobbes builds his politics on the concept of motion.  Mankind, for Hobbes, was in many ways “matter in motion.”

The Scientific Revolution did indeed change many things, and this concept of knowledge may have been at the heart of those changes.  The Medieval philosopher would have argued that to see a thing truly, it must be seen as a whole of many parts.  Not only that, they would have gone further and said that to know a thing, one must know its purpose, its end, its “telos.”

Galileo continued the revolution in other facets of thought.  Copernicus had established the possibility of a heliocentric universe in the 16th century, and while his ideas did not gain wide acceptance, Copernicus was not a controversial figure.  Aristarchus of Samos had, in fact, proposed a similar theory in the 3rd century B.C.  Galileo caused controversy by proposing a new idea of how we arrive at truth, and blurred the lines between theory and fact.  In 1543 a man named Osiander wrote in the preface to Copernicus’ work that,

[W]hen from time to time there are offered for one and the same motion different hypotheses…, the astronomer will accept above all others the one which is easiest to grasp. The philosopher will perhaps seek the semblance of the truth. But neither of them will understand or state anything certain unless it has been divinely revealed to him…. So far as hypotheses are concerned, let no one expect anything certain from astronomy which cannot furnish it, lest he accept as the truth ideas conceived for another purpose and depart from this study a greater fool than when he entered it.

Owen Barfield, a contemporary of C.S. Lewis, wrote in his Saving the Appearances, that Galileo

began to affirm that the heliocentric hypothesis not only ‘saved the appearances,’ but was physically true.” What they professed was in fact a new theory of the nature of theory; namely that, if a hypothesis saves all the appearances, it is identical with truth.

What (I think) Barfield meant by the idea of “saving the appearances” was the old idea that our notions of scientific truth should do their best to explain the reality that we see around us, to preserve the validity of the senses.  However, this was always recognized to represent our “best guess” and may not reflect actual truth.

But after Galileo the burden of proof shifted.   Arthur Koestler writes in his book The Sleepwalkers that,

if theologians could not refute Galileo their case [would] go by default, and Scripture must be reinterpreted.  This implied (though Galileo did not dare state it explicitly) that the truth of the system was rigorously demonstrated. It is all so subtly done that the trick is almost imperceptible to the reader and, as far as I know, has escaped the attention of students to this very day. Yet it decided the strategy he was to follow in the coming years.

Galileo was right about the Earth’s rotation around the sun, though we would later discover that the sun, too, is in motion.  The issue that I wanted to stress to the students, however, was the fact that one can be right for the wrong reasons.  Many great scientific minds of this time were likely sincere Christians, but the ways which they reached their conclusions may have helped lead people away from Christianity.  True knowledge must involve more than what we see with our senses.

The Scientific Revolution also raised the question of how we should interpret Scripture.  To what degree should scientific discoveries impact how we read the famous passage about the sun standing still in Joshua?

On the day the Lord gave the Amorites over to Israel, Joshua said to the Lord in the presence of Israel:

“Sun, stand still over Gibeon,
and you, moon, over the Valley of Aijalon.”
 So the sun stood still,
and the moon stopped,
till the nation avenged itself on its enemies,

as it is written in the Book of Jashar.

The sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day. There has never been a day like it before or since, a day when the Lord listened to a human being. Surely the Lord was fighting for Israel!

Of course the Church made mistakes at this time too.  In condemning Galileo they surely overreached and made themselves look silly, contributing to an unnecessary and unhealthy divide between science and faith that lasted for at least three centuries, from which we have fully to recover.