Today marks the 29th anniversary of the loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger and seven astronauts on launch, on January 28, 1986. It was an historic moment for the US space program, but sadly it lasted only a moment. In February of 2003, another shuttle was lost, along with another seven astronauts. After that disaster, NASA finally admitted some of the major design issues with the vehicle and some of the toxic institutional culture that killed 14 astronauts (more than the Soviet Union ever lost, even in its darkest days). But ironically, those issues had been pointed out, very effectively, by the famous Physicist Richard Feynman, a member of the accident investigation committee back in 1986. His special addendum to the official report was. and is, clear-minded, unsentimental, untouched by institutional toadying or flattery, and probably the best piece of official documentation ever released from NASA. His famous line, “Nature cannot be fooled,” perfectly sums up the way a scientist reacts when presented with political and corporate cultures that try to wish away “inconvenient truths” (to coin a phrase).
A BBC film from 2013 dramatizes these struggles, and these institutional arguments, masterfully well and is actually a great way to remember the true legacy of what happened on that cold morning in 1986. Titled simply The Challenger, it stars William Hurt as Richard Feynman, working his way carefully through the science and engineering challenges of the accident, while at the same time quickly dying from a series of cancers he had developed from working on the Manhattan Project years before. The British title is perfect, because it’s about Feynman’s challenging of the system, and is structured almost like a “man against bureaucracy” battle. (The unfortunate US title, The Challenger Disaster, not only removes any poetry and irony from it, but plucks at those very sentimental heartstrings in a way exactly opposite to what Feynman was fighting for.)
Feynman is teaching in California when the accident happens, and is summoned to Washington to sit on the committee by a former student, now the head of NASA. He is reluctant (“I’m not even that into the space program!” he protests to his wife), but once he’s in the room with the illustrious panel, he’s determined to go at it with all gusto. The committee is chaired by William Rogers, played here by Brian Dennehy, still the quintessential character actor. He beings their first meeting by saying, “We all know NASA took all precautions and did nothing wrong,” which immediately rings alarm bells with Feynman. (He later spits at the chairman, “I don’t know that!”) But it sets the tone for the story. Other notables on the committee are Dr Sally Ride (the first American woman in space) and, most importantly, General Donald Kutyna, played here by Canada’s great character actor Bruce Greenwood.
It gradually emerges that Ride and Kutyna are trying to feed Feynman information about the shuttle and its systems that NASA would rather not admit. But they have to do so in an indirect way, since Ride would like to fly again, and Kutyna is an Air Force General in charge of some secret projects. But Feynman is the one person on the committee with no allegiance, save to science and integrity. So, while the other committee members don’t even look for problems in NASA culture or with the shuttle, Feynman dives right in.
Hurt’s performance is one of his best in years, and it’s good to see him diving into a character again. He’s utterly convincing and dogged as Feynman, completely subsuming his well-known actor persona into a character, just as he did in another great performance in A History of Violence. It’s quite something to see a scientist played realistically by a great actor of the age, so this is a rare treat.
What the conflict was finally about came down to NASA’s corporate shell games, and their inability to admit that their space transportation system was flawed. The fact is (and even many former NASA people admit this now), the shuttle looked cool, but didn’t work. It was the result of too many compromises in the design phase. Originally conceived as a transportation system to and from a space station in the mid 1970s, the government took the illogical step of cancelling the destination while leaving the vehicle intact. So, the shuttle became its own destination and had to be re-designed many times to accommodate a wide variety of potential clients. It had many design elements that weren’t fail-safe, and NASA just decided that it was easier to ignore them and take the risks rather than develop a better, less glamorous, but safer ship more like the Russian Soyuz.
The big lie of the space shuttle, and this lie persists to this day, is that it was “reusable, therefore cheaper”. NASA had originally promised paying clients a launch every two weeks by the mid-1980s, at a bargain price, because, so went the marketing line, “it’s reusable, therefore cheaper!” It just wasn’t true. The shuttle became more expensive to fly than Apollo, per mission. The reasons were, in strangely circular logic, because of the reusability design. The thermal tiles on the heat shield, for example, had problems on the very first mission in 1981. But, since they worked well enough, it just became part of the culture. “Okay, so we’ll have to rebuild the heat shield after every mission.” And that’s just one of the things that had to be done to turn the vehicle around. That culture eventually killed seven people in February 2003 on the Columbia.
But in 1986 the culprit was fanciful wishful thinking and dishonesty. The shuttle had been sold as a cheap, safe way to space, and to demonstrate that, by 1985 NASA was sending up US Senators on joy rides. Meanwhile, the launch windows were slipping, and the promise of “a launch every two weeks” was long gone. And right down the proverbial street, the Air Force had a reliable satellite delivery system of its own, but couldn’t use it because they were “supposed” to use the shuttle, a more expensive, less reliable option. The pressure to show the world that the shuttle was a space “truck” (a better analogy would be a Formula 1 race car) led them to launch on January 28, 1986 under conditions that engineers knew to be unsafe, but were told to shut up when they voiced concerns. It was all about keeping the show going.
As Feynman dramatically uncovers in this excellent TV movie and in real life, nature cannot be fooled. Politicians and the general public could be fooled by cool space shuttle toys and big IMAX movies with big soundtracks and MTV logos, but when it came down to it, the shuttle didn’t work. The seven astronauts killed that day were victims of a space program preoccupied with image over engineering and scientific reality.