Chapter 2: “The Naked Launch: Assigning Blame for the Challenger Explosion”
As Collins & Pinch mention, everyone alive remembers where they were when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded. Of course, their first edition of this book was published in 1998 before 9/11 and the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. Many of you might not remember those events, but, obviously, 9/11 was a very tumultuous time when the public searched for answers, so, if you were old enough, you probably remember where you were. I remember the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, but, as the nation was gearing up for an invasion of Iraq, and we already had troops in Afghanistan, there wasn’t the same attention paid to it as to the Challenger disaster, which we discussed for months. As an aside, I was living outside Washington, DC, on 9/11 (teaching at George Mason University), so I was very much searching for answers and continued to anticipate the anniversary every year…until 2020. Yes, the 20th anniversary had more significance, but, I hate to say it, COVID pushed 9/11 out of my mind. It wasn’t until I heard a report on the radio about that day’s memorial for 9/11 victims that I remembered the significance of the day. Perhaps COVID-19 has replaced 9/11 for our main collective cultural event of trauma.
Similar to the “fog of war,” there’s a fog surrounding catastrophic events—lots of doubt, confusion, and misinformation. Sometimes it’s easy to figure out the immediate cause of a technological catastrophe, but it’s not as easy to have a bigger picture view in the moment or shortly after.
Three Things to Take Away From Ch. 2
- Judging past decisions can be skewed by hindsight. The Challenger disaster has many stories; there’s no single narrative.
- The details of the explosion that reached the public were incomplete and made into sound bites or easily consumed visuals.
- NASA and Thiokol engineers arrived at their decisions based on assumptions about the shuttle that were in dispute. The key players had to make arguments for or against launching.
Why still study the Challenger disaster?
Important Lessons/Questions to Consider
Continuing on the theme of more questions than answers, I hope the Challenger disaster reading allows you to think more about the rhetoric of technology. The discourse surrounding the Challenger disaster influences how people—lay person and expert—(re)construct the meaning of the event. In other words, the audience’s assumptions and the information filtered 2nd, 3rd, 4th hand…lead to conclusions.
It’s important to know your audience. Sometimes that’s easy, but often times it’s not. Although speakers can’t completely control their messages, understanding how an audience might interpret one’s message is important. Consider the following types of people below. How might a person of that disposition conclude regarding the Challenger disaster? Consider generic assumptions that a person may have and how that influences their conclusions.
- Conspiracy theorist—the government always lies and covers up facts
- World-renowned physicists—they know their words will influence the public
- Politician against funding NASA
- A voter very much in favor of funding for NASA
- pp. 41-42: The popular belief for the Challenger disaster: “NASA managers succumbed to production pressures, proceeding with a launch they knew was risky in order to keep on schedule.
- p. 43: “After the event it is easy to slot the heroes and villains into place. It is harder to imagine the pressures, dilemmas, and uncertainties facing the participants” making the decisions.
- p. 66: “The problems with the joint were not…suppressed or ignored by NASA, the engineers were actually too well aware of the problems and the risks.”
- p. 48: Burden of proof: “The engineers at Marshall had a reputation for being conservative and rigorous; they saw it as their job to keep the contractor honest by trying to ‘shoot down’ their data and their analyses.”
A stance from this perspective would be more than just skeptical. The engineers would approach the contractors as adversaries, forcing them to overcome a hostile audience.
- p. 74: “[A] risk-free technology is impossible and that assessing the working of a technology and the risks attached to it are always inescapable matters of human judgement.”
- p. 74: “[T]he technical cause of the Challenger accident is to this day [as of 1998] not absolutely certain.”
Consider the rhetoric of the two phrases:
“the Challenger accident” vs. “the Challenger disaster”
It’s probably obvious that labeling it “the Challenger accident” might possibly deflect that anyone was to blame; after all, it was just an accident. Whereas, “the Challenger disaster” conveys an inflammatory tone. Another key takeaway is that both phrasings are rhetorical. Furthermore, what’s the rhetoric of “the Challenger debacle”?
Similarity and Difference
- p. 50: “Things appear similar or different depending on the context of use.”
- p. 51: “Because most tests only simulate how the technology will be used in practice, the crucial question in judging test outcomes becomes: how similar is the test to the actual use?”
All description is done by comparison (to a large extent). When you define something, you use metaphors, similes, analogies, and other words. To explain an unfamiliar concept, you use a familiar concept to compare to it. For instance, the Internet protocol, TCP/IP is needed to have information successfully transmitted across networks. Without that, computers wouldn’t be able to talk to each other. Data wouldn’t be able to be assembled for delivery or compiled by the receiving computer. It would be like trying to have a conversation with another person who doesn’t speak your language. The words get to you, but you can’t translate them.
***The above bolded words are communication words that metaphorically show how “talk” relates to computer networking: Computers don’t talk the way humans do…yet…but they certainly communicate. This is one of many metaphorical uses of personification and technology. Ever “downloaded” with someone?
Similarity doesn’t mean being identical. A metaphor just has to be close or relatable enough to the audience. If one uses a comparison not closely enough related, it’s consider fallacious and called a false analogy. It is possible to refute all analogies as false if one argues that the comparison standard isn’t similarity but being identical. However, that would be too extreme and would miss the role similarity plays in defining concepts. Beware of rhetorical chicanery.
Acceptable Risk in Technology
We debate risks constantly. There is a risk to nearly every activity. All technologies have risks associated with them, but we still use them. No car is 100% safe, but we still drive because we’ve accepted the risks involved. The Challenger had risks associated with its operation, but the key players deemed those risks acceptable. Collins & Pinch point out that risk was also based on perspective.
- p. 55: “It is wrong to set up standards of absolute certainty from which to criticize engineers.”
- An extreme “hater” could have this perspective
- An average citizen could have such a perspective
- p. 55: “[T]o what degree do [the O-rings] have to seal?”
- To what degree does light bend…depends on which plate you use.
- p. 57: Acceptable risk is negotiated. It involves compromise.
- p. 63: “Although the engineers at Marshall and at Thiokol were alarmed about the first ever blow-by, they felt that they had a three-factor rationale for continuing to classify the joint as an acceptable risk.”
- There was agreement on the acceptable risk based on shared assumptions regarding O-ring erosion.
- There wasn’t agreement on the risk of low (or high) temperatures and to O-rings.
- p. 64: “[A]ll the engineers directly involved…still considered the joint to be an acceptable risk.”
- p. 65: We can’t assume “engineering knowledge is certain knowledge.”
- But we do expect probability. What’s probable? Context usually dictates the level of probability of safety we expect from a technology.
The points above aren’t here to claim that scientists lie and deceive the public. Of course, there have been occasions where that has happened, but if that was the majority of science–deception–we wouldn’t have the knowledge we have today or the technologies we have. There would be only negative scientific ethos. Scientists and engineers are human (even if they don’t talk like humans), and they make mistakes just as all humans do. Hindsight might make us sure, but, being in the “thick of the event,” is different. Just because scientists and engineers supported different positions doesn’t mean one side was lying or misleading.
Statements Coming Back to Haunt You
Remember, the media report sound bites and focus attention on an area of a topic. They can’t go into the amount of detail a huge investigation would go into. Provocative statements, even if out of context, can influence an audience more so than explaining complex issues and data.
- p. 69: “When do you want me to launch, next April?”
- p. 72: “It’s time to take off your engineering hat and put on your management hat.”
Pliability of Rubber
At the end of class on Tuesday, we discussed designs that needed pliable materials, such as rubber, to function better. Just as skyscrapers on the West Coast ought to have the ability to sway because of earthquakes, bridge joints need to “work like an accordion, opening and closing to accommodate movement, and the rubber seals have to move in concert. It’s a delicate balance between strength and pliability” (An Expansion Joint Seal for an Iconic New Bridge). You want to use rubber or similar materials to allow “give and take” in certain structures. Because of the hot gas pressure during launch, the O-Rings allow the joints to expand and seal, so they were a solution for the rocket design (c.f. pp. 44-47). The Morton Thiokol engineers and NASA-Marshall engineers/managers disagreed about how open the joint would be on lift off (p. 49).
But under what conditions will the O-Ring rubber hold up? As discussed, rubber is pliable and can be used to protect fruits and vegetables of a variety of sizes. It’s versatility and pliability are expected effects. For the O-Rings, the discrepancy was with how pliable and resistant to the cold the would be–the engineers disagreed. Dr. Richard Feynman’s demonstration (linked above) with the vice-gripped piece of rubber in the glass of ice water convinced the lay public that the Challenger launched at too cold a temperature. In the minds of the public, Feynman’s soundbite was enough proof, and many continue to assume that the O-Ring failure–due to it being too cold on the morning of the launch–is the main or ultimate reason for the accident (including this link to More information on the Challenger explosion is at Space.com). While it’s hard to be certain that there was just one reason for the accident, the O-Ring failure appears to have been a very likely factor. Collins & Pinch’s chapter doesn’t dismiss this theory but complicates the prevailing assumptions that the cold temperature caused the O-Rings to fail, and that was the only reason for failure.
Please understand the nuance here. These shuttles were launched before with no accidents; there was doubt on both sides of the decision to launch or not; and other culprits might be potential reasons for the accident. The certainty the publics holds on the matter is based not on a thorough examination of the facts, figures, and testimonies; instead, it’s most likely the easiest explanation to convey. Also, after researchers looked further into the accident and wrote up new findings, I believe the public moved on and was less interested in the topic.
Although this may seem rather cynical, having something definitive to blame as opposed to dealing with the ambiguity of multiple contributing factors could be a comfort. Pay attention to one’s commitment to black-and-white thinking and either-or conclusions. Most topics have a lot of gray area.
For Wednesday, 9/28, read Ch. 5 and 6–notice I’m asking you to skip Ch 3 & 4. Don’t forget that your post for this week is due Friday, 09/30, at 11:00 pm.