The Challenger Disaster’s Minority Report
The Challenger crew. Image: NASA Human Spaceflight Gallery


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The Challenger Disaster’s Minority Report

Richard Feynman was the renegade of the Rogers Commission.

Today marks the 30th anniversary of one of the most excruciating tragedies in the history of spaceflight. On January 28, 1986, Space Shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after it was launched, killing all seven crew members onboard: Michael Smith, Dick Scobee, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe.

The disaster was a devastating blow to the space community, and prompted President Ronald Reagan to immediately convene 14 extraordinary specialists to investigate the cause of the accident. The result was the Rogers Commission, named for its chairman William P. Rogers. The team included astronauts Neil Armstrong and Sally Ride, as well as the prolific theoretical physicist and author Richard Feynman, winner of the 1965 Nobel Prize for Physics.


What began as a united effort evolved into one of the most fruitful spats over the appropriate response to a spaceflight disaster in history, with the ever-charismatic Feynman dead center. He was 68 years old, and had less than two years left to live, but he had lost none of the vitality that had defined the rest of his career.

"For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled."

Together with the other members of the Rogers Commission, Feynman helped to root out the technical failure that led to the explosion, which turned out to be the rubber O-rings fitted to the field joint of the shuttle's right solid rocket booster. The O-rings were designed to be dynamic and flexible so that when Challenger was launched, they would create a seal at this vulnerable rocket joint, thus preventing the hot ignition gases from sparking the fuel tanks.

But because the previous night at Cape Canaveral had been unusually cold, the O-rings had frozen into place, losing much of their elasticity. Feynman famously scolded NASA management on television for its lack of foresight on this issue, by performing a simple experiment that revealed O-rings to be very susceptible to prolonged brittleness in cold temperatures.

Feynman's address on the O-ring. Video: RichardFeynmanLove/YouTube

"I took this stuff that I got out of your seal and I put it in ice water, and I discovered that when you put some pressure on it for a while and then undo it, it does not stretch back," he said. "It stays the same dimension. In other words, for a few seconds at least and more seconds than that, there is no resilience in this particular material when it is at a temperature of 32 degrees."


But Feynman did not stop there, opting to become an entrenched renegade within the Rogers Commission. While the rest of the group acknowledged the severity of the issue and recommended many crucial improvements for the future, they were also sympathetic to NASA, and did not advocate for suspending shuttle activities, defunding the agency, or tarnishing its image in the public's eyes.

That's not to suggest that the other members turned a blind eye to the failures leading up to the Challenger tragedy—they rightly pointed out that it was "an accident rooted in history." But as spaceflight advocates, they did not want to cripple NASA with criticism, and thought the agency should deal with its problems internally.

Feynman, meanwhile, was so horrified by the results of his investigation that he felt he could not, in good conscience, endorse the optimism of his fellow commision members towards the shuttle program's future. Instead, he wrote a scathing report summarizing the deep institutional failures he witnessed at NASA, and recommended that the agency take a hiatus from shuttle missions until it could overhaul its broken system.

Rogers was furious, and told the commission that Feynman was becoming "a real pain in the ass." He tried to persuade Feynman to tone down his critique in order to shield NASA from budget cuts and public disappointment, but Feynman refused to budge, and threatened to resign from the commission if his report was not included.


CNN coverage of Feynman's minority report. Video: vsrr83/YouTube

Eventually, it was agreed that Feynman's minority report would be shoehorned in as "Appendix F" of the Rogers Commission Report, though it's worth mentioning that the version submitted to President Reagan on June 9, 1986 did not yet include Feynman's objections.

Appendix F is now available in full online, and is worth the read for its stunning clarity and his exhaustive criticism of shuttle safety procedures, most significantly with regard to the communication failures between NASA managers and the engineers at Morton Thiokol, the contractor that constructed the boosters.

The most damning evidence the commission found was that engineers were well aware of the O-ring issue, and NASA managers had either dismissed their warnings or rebuked them for even bringing them up.

"I fought like hell to stop that launch," Morton Thiokol engineer Roger Boisjoly told NPR. "I'm very angry that nobody listened."

Read more: How Mistakes Were Made: On Challenger, Columbia, and GM

Feynman also exposed the huge difference in how the engineers calculated safety risks compared to NASA's methods, which made the shuttles seem literally 1,000 times safer than Morton Thiokol's estimates. This screw-up was particularly upsetting to him, because NASA's unrealistically optimistic odds were the ones used to persuade civilian astronauts like social studies teacher Christa McAuliffe to participate in the flight.


"[T]his has had very unfortunate consequences, the most serious of which is to encourage ordinary citizens to fly in such a dangerous machine, as if it had attained the safety of an ordinary airliner," Feynman wrote in the appendix. "The astronauts, like test pilots, should know their risks, and we honor them for their courage."

"It would appear that, for whatever purpose, be it for internal or external consumption, the management of NASA exaggerates the reliability of its product, to the point of fantasy," he concluded. NASA officials had likewise "fooled themselves," in Feynman's view, by treating the repeated observations of erosion in the O-rings during the testing phase as a mark of resilience, rather than a portent of disaster.

"When playing Russian roulette, the fact that the first shot got off safely is little comfort for the next," Feynman noted.

In 1988, Feynman published his last autobiographical work, entitled What Do You Care What Other People Think?, which delved into his time on the Rogers Commission with trademark humor.

"I'm not exactly sure what Mr. Rogers thinks of me," he reflected on the commission chairman. "He gives me the impression that, in spite of my being such a pain in the ass to him in the beginning, he likes me very much. I may be wrong, but if he feels the way I feel toward him, it's good."

Of course, he also got some light digs in too—for example, his admission that "I felt sorry for [Mr. Rogers] when he was secretary of state, because it seemed to me that President Nixon was using the national security adviser (Kissinger) more and more, to the point where the Secretary of State was not really functioning."


But most importantly, Feynman had the opportunity to reprint Appendix F once more for a popular audience by bundling it into this last book. The chapter, like Challenger itself, remains a timeless reminder that spaceflight is fraught not only with incredible technical challenges, but also with deep-rooted bureaucratic and political obstacles.

In the end, NASA did own up to that reality by taking a 32-month hiatus from space shuttle missions in the wake of the report to address some of the problems Feynman laid out.

Even with those efforts, the Challenger Seven were sadly not the last astronauts to be killed in a shuttle accident, and the tragic loss of the Columbia crew in 2003 sealed the program's fate for good. NASA and its many partners have since moved on to testing even more ambitious launch vehicles, such as the Space Launch System and Orion capsule—the vehicles that may one land humans on Mars.

As we move forward, however, it's essential to keep the lessons of history in mind, including the one that capped off Feynman's infamous Appendix F.

"NASA owes it to the citizens from whom it asks support to be frank, honest, and informative, so that these citizens can make the wisest decisions for the use of their limited resources," he wrote.

"For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled."