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Friday, January 28, 2011

One Sad Day for Mankind

Today 25 years ago the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded high in the sky shortly after liftoff, taking the lives of seven astronauts on board, including a school teacher. In a congressional hearing on the causes of the tragic accident, the eminent physicist Richard Feynman would later elegantly demonstrate to the public that the O-ring seals in the booster rockets lost elasticity at freezing temperatures. He dropped a piece of the material into an ice water cup in front of him, letting it soak for a while. He then took it out and pinched it. The result was lasting indentations, affirming that the material changed its properties dramatically with dropping temperatures.

During the days before Columbia's liftoff, Florida endured a cold spell with freezing temperatures. The O-rings sealing the fuel into the booster rockets had turned stiff and leaky. Flames blasting sideways onto the main liquid fuel tank ignited the fuel, triggering the tank's explosion. The manufacturer's warning that the rings' strength would not withstand low temperatures had gone unheeded when the fateful decision for launch was cast.
Space Shuttle Decoy at Huntsville, AL, showing the white booster rocket and the brown fuel tank.
Projects as complex as the Space Shuttle program demand unprecedented care. Only a few nations are able to command the needed resources, infrastructure,  intellectual capital and economies sufficiently advanced to embark on such endeavors. The organizational challenges involved in the management of the risks inherent in such projects should teach us lessons. It may be true that great explorations are not for the faint of heart. Alas, the Challenger tragedy should serve as a lasting reminder to be prudent. Murphy's law does apply!

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2 comments:

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  2. Dr. Melzer,
    Re. Murphy's Law:
    in organic chemistry a professor advised that when 2 substrates are combined "anything that can happen, will happen, at various frequencies".
    as u pointed out, NASA was warned.
    they chose to launch "outside the envelope" without additional experimentation because of pressure from bureaucrats.
    hopefully scientists learned that even if your job is at risk, you got to say "no" when it's right and let the chips fall.
    worthwhile post to remind us to stand up to paper pushing bullies in industry or we are just one more maggot in a big pile of manure.
    steve

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