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A disaster of technology

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For somewhat obscure reasons the Challenger disaster became, in the USA, what (much more understandably) the assassination of JFK had been for a previous generation: a shocking event whose symbolic resonance was such that, as the cliche has it, everyone can remember where they were when they first heard the news.

One of the odder aspects of the event was the extent to which, in the aftermath, the whole business never took on any real taint of scandal, even though it was a scandal.

First, the whole shuttle program was — and remains — a classic bureaucratic boondoggle: a massive waste of public resources on a venture that never had any good scientific, economic, or even non-utilitarian justification. (It has been noted that using the shuttle to put payloads in to orbit is the equivalent of putting a postcard into a safe before mailing it.) As for the “romance” of human space flight, the original thrill of placing people in low-earth orbit — the shuttle never rises more than a few hundred miles above the earth’s surface — understandably faded long ago.

But beyond that, the specific cause of the disaster, which took the life of a civilian schoolteacher as her own students were watching, was a combination of a very familiar and predictable brand of managerial incompetence, manifested in a willingness, for both psychological and political reasons, to wildly over-estimate the safety and reliability of shuttle flight. That was made clear by Richard Feynman in his understated — and therefore all the more devastating — critique of the program, which he appended to the Challenger Commission’s whitewash of the disaster. Feynman’s short but very detailed report is well worth reading in its entirety, as it captures the essence of what Charles Perrow has since named “normal accidents.”

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