The 30th anniversary of the Challenger shuttle disaster has been marked with tributes for the sacrifice of the crew. In the investigation that came after the tragedy, the brilliant physicist Richard Feynman identified a culture at NASA where risk was not understood.
The Challenger was lost because one small part – an O-ring seal – failed during a launch in cold weather. The possibility of this part failing had been predicted long before, but NASA managers chose to ignore the concerns.
Richard Feynman, wrote a detailed report on risk following the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, entitled Personal Observations on the Reliability of the Shuttle.
In his account, much of the reasoning about risk at NASA effectively took the form that, if disaster hadn’t happened yet, it probably wouldn’t happen next time either. As he points out, we only have to think of a game of Russian roulette to see the problem with that reasoning. Instead Feynman recommended looking for warning signs. In Challenger’s case the O-rings were known to corrode and this warning was arguably not given sufficient weight.
Another key criticism was that much of the Shuttle was designed “top down”, that is in near-final form, rather than design evolving incrementally – part by part – as engineering usually does.