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Robert Boisjoly Dies At 73, the Engineer Who Tried To Stop the Challenger Launch

Soulskill posted more than 2 years ago | from the rest-in-peace dept.

NASA 380

demachina writes "Robert Boisjoly has died at the age of 73. Boisjoly, Allan J. McDonald and three others argued through the night of 27 January, 1986 to stop the following day's Challenger launch, but Joseph Kilminster, their boss at Morton Thiokol, overruled them. NASA managers didn't listen to the engineers. Both Boisjoly and McDonald were blackballed for speaking out. NASA's mismanagement 'is not going to stop until somebody gets sent to hard rock hotel,' Boisjoly said after the 2003 Columbia disaster. 'I don't care how many commissions you have. These guys have a way of numbing their brains. They have destroyed $5 billion worth of hardware and 14 lives because of their nonsense.'"

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In perspective (3, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38965543)

They have destroyed $5 billion worth of hardware and 14 lives because of their nonsense.

(This is going to be incredibly insensitive torwards those lives that were lost, but it has to be said.) 17 lives lost in the last 50 years of U.S. space exploration really is not too bad considering how many lives where lost during other times of exploration, pioneering eras and the building of industry. I think NASA tries to be perfect and after all they are rocket scientists, but to assume that NASA is the only place that has mismanagement is incredibly naive. Look at the rest of government. Look at the military. Look at the FDA for crying out loud. Am I saying that you should have deaths? No, what I'm saying is that you need to have a little perspective. Only 17 lives lost in 50 years means that you're at least doing something right to safeguard all the other lives that you saved through careful proceedure and cool heads.

Re:In perspective (2, Insightful)

jcreus (2547928) | more than 2 years ago | (#38965567)

You deserve to be modded down. Every life lost, that could have been avoided, is a disaster (and not great even taking into account superpopulation, I suppose your family wouldn't like you to be dead, the 17 people's neither). And, clearly, the Challanger disaster could have been avoided as this guy proved. By the way, here's a quick link on Wikipedia [wikipedia.org] about him.

Re:In perspective (5, Insightful)

Leebert (1694) | more than 2 years ago | (#38965735)

You deserve to be modded down.

No, he doesn't. He deserves to have a logical and thoughtful refutation of his opinion posted in reply. I'm so sick of (-1, Disagree).

Re:In perspective (1)

jcreus (2547928) | more than 2 years ago | (#38965753)

I believe that every single answer to his post had a logical and thoughtful refutation of his opinion. Most of such replies have been up-modded to insightful.

Re:In perspective (5, Insightful)

Leebert (1694) | more than 2 years ago | (#38965801)

And we've all learned something from that conversation, right? That's why we should be encouraging opinions that differ from ours, not encouraging moderators to silence them. It provokes good discussion.

Re:In perspective (0, Offtopic)

oh_my_080980980 (773867) | more than 2 years ago | (#38965995)

Which you would have gotten had you read the article. We're dealing with facts not opinions. Opinions carry no weight.

Re:In perspective (5, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38965791)

You deserve to be modded down.

No, he doesn't. He deserves to have a logical and thoughtful refutation of his opinion posted in reply. I'm so sick of (-1, Disagree).

One logical argument, coming right up: those deaths were entirely foreseeable and preventable. It's not like the deaths were a result of limitations of our knowledge, or an absolutely necessary sacrifice for the greater good of humanity. No, those deaths were because some idiotic bureaucrat couldn't be bothered to listen to qualified engineers. Far as I am concerned that guy should be 1) sued by the families for wrongful death and 2) tried for involuntary manslaughter.

Apparently legal action is the only thing that makes thick-headed organization-type bureaucrats wake up and take notice, cf. the insanity coming out of the public schools. No amount of logic or expertise or forewarning seems to have any effect on them.

Re:In perspective (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38965885)

No, he does deserver to be moddded down.
It is not logical in any way. It's one thing to have accidents, and constantly improve to change that, and acompletely different to have people die because they DON'T want to improve, which is what the GP implies.

Look at seafaring. When there were sailing ships, lives were constantly lost, passengers and freight. As time passed, the number of accidents was reduced, technology improved, that there are still ships sinking, but not because they're made of wood, and people don't die because they lack survival equipment.

Just because the number of deaths is reduced, that doesn't mean you should stop improving. It's like saying that there's no need to add a beacon to a ship, because the odds of losing ships and passengers are small, so, if they die, it's a very small percentage. That's his reasoning.

It's exploration, true, but unlike those people that "discovered" America long ago, we hold human life to have some value. Society and civilisation has changed drastically in the past hundred years, please try to keep up.

Re:In perspective (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38965793)

You are right, it is a disaster and I do see that. But let's look forward. Do you really expect that over the next 200 years of space exploration that we are going to have 0 disasters? That would be miraculous and its just as unlikely. Every astronaut I would hope has come to terms with the fact that they are risking their lives to try to push humanity forward. Its unfortunate when someone does have to give their life to the cause, but to lay down and not move forward for fear that someone may die for the cause is to disrespect what those before died in pursuit.

Pretty much everwhere in the United States the attitude towards fixing a problem is that it doesn't get fixed until someone dies. And even then sometimes change is hard. Its a sad reality, but it is a reality.

Re:In perspective (2, Informative)

oh_my_080980980 (773867) | more than 2 years ago | (#38966033)

You are a complete douche bag. These accidents could have been prevented. These lives could have been saved. When an engineer tells you that you have a problem and that lives are at risk it is your responsibility to stop. It's called process safety. Any corporation that has a safety culture understands that. Safety first.

NASA has demonstrated an utter lack for safety.

You have demonstrated an utter lack of knowledge on the subject.

Re:In perspective (5, Insightful)

dragonhunter21 (1815102) | more than 2 years ago | (#38966217)

There's no such thing as an accident. Everything has a cause. Unshielded electronics that shorts out in LEO? Not an accident. Mistake kilometers for miles and crash your probe into Mars? Not an accident. Lightning strike on takeoff? Not an accident- weather guy should have done his job. Launching your vehicle when it's so cold your O-rings get brittle and burn through the supports for your SRB? Not an accident. Foam-strike on liftoff that punches through the wing and causes the vehicle to break up on re-entry, when such foam strikes had been documented before? Not an accident.

The blame falls on the engineers- until the engineers raise a fuss and the management ignores it. Someone is always accountable. Always.

Re:In perspective (5, Insightful)

JoshuaZ (1134087) | more than 2 years ago | (#38965983)

You deserve to be modded down. Every life lost, that could have been avoided, is a disaster

This is nice rhetoric. At another level, we do actually make real trade offs involving how many deaths are acceptable. For example, banning personal cars would likely save lives. But we're not going to do it because their convenience is too high. Similarly, in the US many children die drowning in backyard pools. Banning such pools would make sense if all you care about is total deaths. But we're not going to do so, because the overall chance of death is pretty small in any given case. Lots of people also die from alcohol related issues even without counting those from drunk driving. Etc. Etc. It creates a lot of cognitive dissonance to acknowledge that we're actually ok with letting some people die, because we don't like to tell ourselves that we allow that sort of thing. But we're still going to make the tradeoffs.

Re:In perspective (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38966349)

That's true, but still kind of beside the point. This was not an example of an intelligent tradeoff being made, or a reasonable risk being taken, that happened to end badly. This is a case where the best analysis available said one thing, and the managers did the opposite.

By way of illustration, I work in the pharma industry. Many of our drugs can cause dangerous side effects, and even death, but doctors still prescribe them because the risk-benefit analysis says that it's better to treat the disease even with an imperfect drug. But in the past, when drug companies have put out unsafe drugs, or have inaccurately expressed the risks associated with a product (think Vioxx, or fen-phen) they've been rightly hammered for it. I don't think most people would find it acceptable if one of our clinical trials said 'drug X is pretty dangerous and will likely kill people' and we shrugged and put it out anyway.

Re:In perspective (4, Insightful)

Leebert (1694) | more than 2 years ago | (#38966329)

For the record, I don't believe YOUR post deserves to be modded down, either. I'm sorry to see that it's been done, and I fear it might have been induced by my reply.

In my opinion, Flamebait and Troll are actions of intention. When I moderate down, I try to discern the intention of the poster -- were they attempting to incite something? Did they or should they have known better? Even if they were trying to incite something, do they have a legitimate point that CAN be replied to in an informative way?

Of course, more often I more try to find a good point-counterpoint thread and upmod both sides.

Re:In perspective (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38965579)

But it's still 17 too many.

Re:In perspective (5, Insightful)

elsurexiste (1758620) | more than 2 years ago | (#38965611)

This is going to be incredibly insensitive torwards those lives that were lost...

If you are so sure, maybe you shouldn't say it. Right?

My 2: 17 may be a low number, but 3 is a much lower one, and you only needed to hear your engineers!

Re:In perspective (4, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38965703)

you only needed to hear your engineers!

you need information on the false positive rate for engineers' warnings before making such a statement.

Re:In perspective (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38965827)

I'd rather heed a thousand false positives if once I save a life.

Re:In perspective (0, Flamebait)

NoNonAlphaCharsHere (2201864) | more than 2 years ago | (#38965977)

We should all thank $DEITY that pussies like you weren't around in the time of Magellan. NASA is in the business of exploration, not commuter transit.

Re:In perspective (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38966365)

Then it's really lucky for the rest of us that you aren't in charge.

Re:In perspective (5, Interesting)

Hijacked Public (999535) | more than 2 years ago | (#38965907)

Not really, because regardless of their false positive rate the evidence is what the evidence is.

Actually what you need is an eyes-wide-open, honest evaluation of the data, that isn't tainted by the interests of NASA or its subs or politicians who are have taken some positionon matters related to the above. And good luck with that.

If you read much Edward Tufte or attend one of his talks, he has a lot to say about the decision making processes for both the Challenger and Columbia incidents. I am dubious that an entire army of actual rocket scientists could have, of their own accord, made multiple data presentation choices that cast their employers in the best possible light. Laying out a graph that eventually helped a room full of smart people decide that the booster seals would be fine on the launch date. When those same data plotted differently showed an obvious direct correlation between failure and ambient temp and they were going to launch on the coldest day yet.

There is similar manipulating of the data from the Columbia.

People trying to serve some incidental interest, like preserving a contract or future funding, who are obviously cherry picking the information they share, aren't likely to be swayed by a low false positive rate. They made their decision long before they saw any evidence of anything anyway.

Re:In perspective (5, Insightful)

dragonhunter21 (1815102) | more than 2 years ago | (#38966307)

When the complaint is theoretical, yeah sure. When your engineers are complaining about frozen O-rings and are showing you video of O-rings spitting fire, or when your engineers are complaining about foam shedding from the fuel tank and have numerous videos of that exact occurrence happening, that's different.

Re:In perspective (5, Insightful)

MiniMike (234881) | more than 2 years ago | (#38966111)

This is going to be incredibly insensitive torwards those lives that were lost...

If you are so sure, maybe you shouldn't say it. Right?

He shouldn't keep quiet because he's insensitive. He should keep quiet because his argument is poorly thought out. It is not proper to compare human losses in other irrelevant or loosely related areas to losses in space exploration. The Challenger disaster simply would not have happened if the management had listened to the engineers. The Columbia disaster was caused by a known problem which they had always been lucky with before. Apollo 1 seems to have required several mistakes, including the flammable material in the cabin and the high-pressure O2 in an untested environment. It's clearly impossible to be perfect, but that doesn't mean you should just write off the resultant deaths, and ignore the lessons.

Re:In perspective (0, Offtopic)

JoeMerchant (803320) | more than 2 years ago | (#38965619)

Columbus, Magellan and Bligh were not broadcast live on world-wide TV.

Re:In perspective (4, Insightful)

JoeMerchant (803320) | more than 2 years ago | (#38966295)

To the Offtopic mod... the connection to topic is that the "acceptable risk" reference above was talking about the last age of exploration. There were high risks taken during the last age of exploration, but they were more acceptable mostly because the risk takers went out of sight and either returned triumphantly or didn't return at all. Even those who returned with tales of horror were relating stories of events that happened months ago, out of sight and largely unimaginable to the listener.

Live TV puts the situation right in everyone's face, immediate, real, and something they can empathize with. People watching Challenger blow felt the explosion themselves. It makes the risk less acceptable.

Live TV cut popular support out from under the Vietnam War - it was no more gruesome than WWII or WWI, but it was wholly less acceptable to the voting public - for many reasons of course, but having the war brought live to your living room has a way of making it just a little more important to your decision making processes.

Re:In perspective (5, Insightful)

LighterShadeOfBlack (1011407) | more than 2 years ago | (#38965623)

17 lives lost in the last 50 years of U.S. space exploration really is not too bad considering how many lives where lost during other times of exploration, pioneering eras and the building of industry.

But when those losses could have been prevented had the people with authority not ignored those with operational knowledge then it really is unacceptable. If someone gets struck by a micro-meteor out in space or dies because of a serious failure after weeks of operation then yeah, that kind of thing can be considered the price of pioneering; the kind of stuff you just can't practically account for. Dying in an explosion seconds after launch from a fault that was detectable and warned against prior to launch is not.

Re:In perspective (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38965633)

Make it some actual statistics (17 over how many people sent to space + compare with relevant statistics about "other times of exploration, pioneering eras and the building of industry") and maybe then we'll discuss whether they're doing something right or not ...

Re:In perspective (5, Interesting)

sl4shd0rk (755837) | more than 2 years ago | (#38965649)

> 17 lives lost in the last 50 years of U.S. space exploration really is not too bad

Understand your reasoning but that's not the point here. Those lives and money were lost due to human negligence and pure bullheadedness. The loss was easily preventable.

Re:In perspective (2)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38965651)

In perspective, at the very least the challenger disaster could have been avoided, as it's clearly stated the problem was known but management refused to listen. The columbia disaster was also just waiting to happen, they knew about the foam issue, but didn't know how to deal with it so just hoped for the best. You are a disgrace for defending the negligence that caused such unnecessary loss of life.

Re:In perspective (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38965669)

Yes it is insensitive, to the tune of "A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic." ~ Joseph Stalin (1879-1953)

Re:In perspective (1, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38965675)

I have had NASA contracts, they almost broke me. Their main concern was, "where does the NASA sticker go?". I vowed to become homeless before ever taking on another NASA contract. And I never have.

Re:In perspective (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38965691)

Am I saying that you should have deaths? No, what I'm saying is that you need to have a little perspective. Only 17 lives lost in 50 years means that you're at least doing something right to safeguard all the other lives that you saved through careful proceedure and cool heads.

Those 14 lives could of been saved from preventive measure. So I'm not entirely convinced with your opinion. It doesn't make sense. If you can save lives because someone with a brain says "don't go there, cancel it" then you better listen to him. For fuck sakes, he's an engineer not some idiot citizen who doesn't know what do say.

Re:In perspective (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38965717)

Even engineers have been wrong about that kind of stuff before.

Some engineers seem to make bank on saying "That'll never work" like a bunch of negative harpies, and while in raw terms they're wrong more often than not, when they are right, they crow about it so they seem like the Second Coming.

I have read a book where a mercenary captain made a point to record advice the complete opposite of what he said in council just so he could prove that he wasn't responsible for whatever happened.

Do you think it's inconceivable some engineers might also do that?

Re:In perspective (1)

oh_my_080980980 (773867) | more than 2 years ago | (#38966083)

Are you an utter moron or do you like to ignore the facts. The engineers stated the facts for the problem which had been known for over a year. Physicist Richard Feynman who investigated the accident gave a very simple example of how O rings could fail in cold temperatures.

When lives are at stake, you err on the side of caution.

Re:In perspective (2)

FunPika (1551249) | more than 2 years ago | (#38965719)

But still, the total amount of people who were at risk on NASA missions was probably much lower than the number of soldiers at risk of dying in war or the U.S. population at large who is at risk if something dangerous slips past the FDA.

Re:In perspective (3, Insightful)

samoanbiscuit (1273176) | more than 2 years ago | (#38965761)

Who the fuck mods this insightful? How about this for a little perspective: the countless explorers in those previous eras who gave their lives to the crucible of progress, were working with almost no data. Remember that old cliche about "Here Be Dragons"? Not so false in those days when cartography was more of an interpretive art than a useful field. When it comes to space exploration, and especially NASA's efforts, "rocket science" as we like to call it, the physical, mathematical and logistical knowledge from thousands of years of the scientific method and western (and other) civilizations were put to bear on the problem. Any deaths that could have been avoided, such as the Challenger fiasco this brave whistle blower tried to warn NASA about, are UNACCEPTABLE!

Re:In perspective (5, Insightful)

Aladrin (926209) | more than 2 years ago | (#38965769)

I actually agree that we are too cautious in our space explorations. We need to take more risks and spend more money.

But in this case, they were told exactly what would fail, why, and how. And they argued late into the night, and Boisjoly was so sure that he refused to watch the launch. There was absolutely no doubt in 5 engineers' minds that this would happen.

This was not an acceptable risk. It was easily avoidable. Not with 14 lives at stake. (The $5 billion ship might have been acceptable, though.)

Re:In perspective (3, Interesting)

ledow (319597) | more than 2 years ago | (#38965771)

When you push the boundaries of capability and science, there are bound to be accidents, oversights and, yes, casualties.

And just because this guy did spot the problem, it doesn't make NASA any less dangerous a place to be in even today, knowing about it. Thousands of cranks and scientists probably doubted every section of every component at one time or another. How many people *thought* there'd be a slight risk of an accident with the numerous things they were responsible for but there never was? It doesn't mean it was right, or he was any more wrong, but it's a HUGE project pushing every capability to the maximum so it's always a risk.

This is what gets me most about modern warfare. One soldier dies and it's front-page news. Do you have any notion of how many died just a generation or two ago in wars that involved much fewer countries?

It's a matter of perspective. For those 17, it was tragic. For their families, it was awful. For anyone who knew that it was incredibly sad. For everyone else - they were fecking military test pilots flying something completely outside the normal historical bounds of flight.

Just how many lives do you think have been claimed by things like land-speed records? Is that tragic? How many by Arctic expeditions just to say they set foot on the pole? How many by people trying to climb Everest for charity? All *completely* avoidable - so long as we don't want to try to do anything like that.

They still died, of course, and were still human. But, in context, that many people die EVERY WEEK just in ordinary car accidents. These people were on the cutting edge of science, propulsion, flight, control systems, and on one of the hugest amounts of flammable fuel every collected in order to blast off into the most inhospitable environment that humans have ever been in. It's not exactly a shocking amount of deaths, no matter what the circumstances (more people die every time a train derails because someone forgot to check it).

You can either take it into account and move on, or you can abandon spaceflight entirely because someone might die. One of those progresses science and one doesn't. One of those would shut down CERN, nuclear reactors, etc. overnight and one wouldn't.

They knew what they were risking, and that's part of *why* they signed up. They didn't *need* to die but the fact that they, or someone doing the same things, died is hardly shocking to even themselves - and shouldn't be to us. Remember them, but don't "blame" them by proxy for us never wanting to put another human on a rocket again.

Re:In perspective (4, Insightful)

oh_my_080980980 (773867) | more than 2 years ago | (#38966147)

You don't work for a corporation where safety is first. You do not understand what process safety is. No one was pushing the boundaries of space by pushing O rings beyond their safety limits. This was a preventable accident. Your specious arguments don't prove otherwise.

Wrong perspective - already knew it was a bad idea (5, Insightful)

dbIII (701233) | more than 2 years ago | (#38965833)

Look kid, it's not a case of always doing things right. It was a case of people coming in that were not doing things right and as a consequence getting others killed. The Russians had that problem as well, for instance an idiot in charge of a project forcing people to take stupid shortcuts at gunpoint and getting hundreds killed in an explosion. Yes, bad management happens a lot but that's no excuse not to put projects with severe consequences of failure under adult supervision instead of some horse judge that has powerful friends.

Re:In perspective (3, Informative)

Tastecicles (1153671) | more than 2 years ago | (#38965837)

17 lives lost out of how many flown and returned safely? call it 881 (man-flights) as at midnight UTC 8 Feb 2012. Two lost shuttles from 134 launches. [source [kursknet.ru] ]. I think you'll find NASA's safety record is by orders of magnitude worse than the auto industry, commercial airlines, rail, shipping (throughout history)... yet they repeatedly fail to listen to those who build and maintain the vehicles (Morton Thiokol and Rockwell International in the specific cases of Challenger and Columbia respectively) and push for mission efficiency at the cost of safety.

If I remember the Challenger report correctly it was mentioned that the O-ring problem was not unique to STS-51L, it had occurred on previous flights and NASA were well aware of the effects of subzero temperatures on the compounds used. It took the destruction of Challenger for the issue to finally be addressed with a seal redesign, likewise with Columbia it took the destruction of that vehicle for NASA officials to recommend via the investigation report that the robotic arm, fitted with a high resolution camera, was to be used to inspect particularly the wing roots, but also the rest of the underbelly of the craft once it had reached orbit to check for damage incurred during launch. Why it had not been done previously was, among other things, the extra weight of a camera (which would have required another half ton or so of fuel to bring it into orbit) and the time incursion which would distract at least one crew member and the full employment of the remote arm for upward of a couple hours - but what price life, eh?

Re:In perspective (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38965839)

Mod parent down. The Columbia disaster wasn't some pioneering venture gone wrong because people didn't understand it, it was a well polished technology that failed due to incompetence and mismanagement in spite of forewarning by the people who existed purely to keep it in check. The government doesn't do anything well but war - stick to your job and be happy when you are just on standby assholes.

Re:In perspective (1)

JoeMerchant (803320) | more than 2 years ago | (#38966339)

Mod parent down. The Columbia disaster wasn't some pioneering venture gone wrong because people didn't understand it, it was a well polished technology that failed due to incompetence and mismanagement in spite of forewarning by the people who existed purely to keep it in check. The government doesn't do anything well but war - stick to your job and be happy when you are just on standby assholes.

I never thought of the Shuttle program as well polished technology, even after 100+ flights - the tiles falling off had a lot to do with that, but all in all, it's a highly orchestrated endeavor with very few actual complete executions. In 1986, it was definitely still raw.

Re:In perspective (0)

spectro (80839) | more than 2 years ago | (#38965841)

I agree.

Trying to hold space travel to a 100% safety standard is ridiculous. If we held any new kind of transportation to such standard we would be still riding horse carriages.

Re:In perspective (1)

oh_my_080980980 (773867) | more than 2 years ago | (#38966169)

Because that's exactly what they wanted....**eye roll*....the accident was preventable. That's the problem. Get a clue.

Re:In perspective (0)

spectro (80839) | more than 2 years ago | (#38966395)

Every accident is preventable... after the fact.

What would have happened if we had applied the same mindset after the first fatal car or airplane accident? Would these technologies ever develop?

100% safety is impossible. There is always something you miss, and you will only discover after an accident. You can either get paralized by it and stop any further development while commissions investigate for years resulting in added bureaucracy or you can take calculated risks and press on.

The FAA would have never allowed the Wright Brothers to take off in their experimental plane, too unsafe.

Re:In perspective (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38965889)

I agree that the total loss of life in 50 years of space exploration (which is an inherently dangerous job) is pretty good. But, the seven astronauts on the Challenger were not lost due to mechanical malfunction. They were lost because of bureaucracy and politics. I can forgive the space agency when they're all standing around saying "WTF?" when something happens. But people knew, and people were told, about the issues before the Challenger ever left Earth, and the information was purposely ignored not because it wasn't scientific, but because of agency agendas and massive bureaucracy. To me, that's the big difference.

Re:In perspective (1)

Overzeetop (214511) | more than 2 years ago | (#38965899)

Or you're not flying that many people. Only about 520 people have gone into space, worldwide.

Re:In perspective (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38965911)

Space "exploration"? I can bike further in a day than the Shuttle went up... What, precisely, is being explored?

Re:In perspective (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38966333)

Space "exploration"? I can bike further in a day than the Shuttle went up... What, precisely, is being explored?

Ummm, a place that you can't ride your bike to?

Re:In perspective (1)

PT_1 (2425848) | more than 2 years ago | (#38966387)

Space "exploration"? I can bike further in a day than the Shuttle went up... What, precisely, is being explored?

I know you're trolling, but... No you can't.

'Once in orbit, the Shuttle usually flew at an altitude of 200 miles (321.9 km), and occasionally as high as 400 miles.' [wikipedia.org]

Re:In perspective (2)

harvey the nerd (582806) | more than 2 years ago | (#38965941)

The lives were lost unnecessarily due to politics at different times and levels. From the political contracts that needed segmented boosters for inland transport to repeated gross negligence on the design, monitoring and launch decisions way out of spec. Empty suits are getting away with more and more and more in America. Utterly no accountability.

Re:In perspective (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38965959)

The number [wikipedia.org] is a little bit higher than 18.

wrong perspective (2)

wienerschnizzel (1409447) | more than 2 years ago | (#38965961)

That is not the right perspective. It's like putting a one time murderer "into perspective" by saying he managed not to kill anyone in the previous 50 Yyears of his life and therefore he must be doing something right.

Killings have to be considered on a case-by-case basis. perpetrators need to be punished and lessons need to be learned.

Re:In perspective (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38966075)

Comparing apples to oranges. It's like trying to exploring the oceans on a boat that is likely to leak and sink. That's 17 lives over the course of how many launches? Those comparison you gave are just pointless as they aren't even remotely similar since the danger types are different (faulty equipment that is 100% chance to kill if fails vs say an army that's trying to kill you). Faulty equipment can be prevented and mitigated or are you saying that isn't something that should be held in high efforts?

But in this scenario, we had someone who warned management of the dangers yet it was ignored. This isn't so much about death but about ignoring the warning signs from the people most knowledgeable about it. Their handling on the entire issue was quite simply wrong and that is the entire problem.

Re:In perspective (5, Insightful)

kubernet3s (1954672) | more than 2 years ago | (#38966101)

As you say, they are rocket scientists. Which means that when the rocket scientists say don't go, you don't go, because they are the goddam rocket scientists and no matter how "cool" your head is, you know less than them about rocket scientist. Yes, there are mismanaged agencies all over the world and all throughout history. However, when the military makes a poor decision, or the FDA, they at least have the defenses that their endeavors are risky to begin with, that they have responsibilities that at times conflict with careful procedure, and that their management requires the synthesis of varied data towards a relatively nebulous end. Space programs are feats of science and engineering, both of which are far more concrete in their aims and guidelines. If a research program in say, a university laboratory, experienced accidents on the scale of the challenger disaster, large inquiries would be launched, and the guilty parties or policies identified, rather than the "whoopsie!" reaction NASA seems to always give, which given that they were forewarned in this case is especially troubling.

While your exploration analogy appeals well to intuition, it is disingenuous insofar as space exploration is not a group of bold pioneers setting out with bowie knives and covered wagons, nor is it a capitalist enterprise where a few workers caught in the gears are considered acceptable losses: it is a careful and scientific exploration of human capability, and in such an exploration, care, more than speed or distance or results, is paramount. The Challenger disaster was a failed experiment, not in that it returned an unwelcome result, but that in it return no result of use. We now know that when you send humans into space with equipment you know to be faulty, there is a chance they will perish: how does that enrich our understanding? A failed exploration at least illuminates the conditions for failure; a slew of workplace accidents are unlikely to spoil the products of industry even as they illuminate no hazards. There was no illumination here, because the initial conditions were known, and led to the result we were almost certain to obtain. If a death happens, it happens. If a death happens, and it could have been prevented, but was not due to any concern which is ancillary to the central aim of the endeavor, is unforgiveable

Re:In perspective (1)

kubernet3s (1954672) | more than 2 years ago | (#38966197)

*rocket science. Gosh.

Re:In perspective (0)

JDG1980 (2438906) | more than 2 years ago | (#38966121)

The difference is that earlier forms of exploration generally served some useful purpose, while sending humans into space is just a publicity stunt with no real scientific or economic value.

Re:In perspective (4, Insightful)

voss (52565) | more than 2 years ago | (#38966235)

We are not talking about 17 lives in 50 years. We are talking about 3 human lives lost during the entire 17 year Mercury, Gemini and Apollo eras with 0 lost during actual flight versus the 25 year shuttle era that lost 2 of the 4 shuttles with 14 crew in 50 flights. The problem is NASA spacecraft should be getting safer, less expensive and more reliable and instead were getting more expensive and less reliable and less safe. Project Constellation was more of the same with senators putting safety considerations secondary to contracts for their home districts.

Re:In perspective (1)

AJH16 (940784) | more than 2 years ago | (#38966363)

Your argument seems decent until you consider the overall population size you are dealing with. Not that many people have been launched in to space. There have only been 165 manned launches of which 2 resulted in fatalities. That's more than 1% error. That's still a pretty significantly high margin, even in comparison to other forms of exploration (at least recently). We certainly have gotten better than we were in the past, but I wouldn't say that it was all that impressive either.

Incomplete Information (4, Insightful)

trout007 (975317) | more than 2 years ago | (#38966401)

Here is some perspective. The question is how many of these types of warnings are issued every flight? It's very similar to when environmental groups oppose every development project. If you go out every time warning of disaster eventually a disaster happens and you are proven right. But what is the alternative? To never build? To never fly?

Anyone who has ever designed anything critical always has a feeling they may have missed something. There is a phase called analysis paralysis (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Analysis_paralysis) . It is when you never do something because you are always checking another scenario in which it may fail.

Whenever any complex system fails there will always be a record of someone warning about it because that is what engineers do. In fact it is obvious after the fact. We always think of ways something can fail. But with limited time and limited budget we can't follow all of those lines of thought to their conclusion. You have to prioritize the risks and accept them to get things done.

Get his name right! (5, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38965563)

It's *Roger* Boisjoly, like TFA says.

Re:Get his name right! (1)

jcreus (2547928) | more than 2 years ago | (#38965663)

Wikipedia confirms it [wikipedia.org] .

Re:Get his name right! (5, Funny)

MiniMike (234881) | more than 2 years ago | (#38965853)

You must be an engineer, as they're ignoring you too.

How is this "news for nerds" (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38965569)

Did he use Linux or something?

Re:How is this "news for nerds" (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38965601)

Did he use Linux or something?

Please hand in your nerd badge at the exit before you leave.

Re:How is this "news for nerds" (1)

jcreus (2547928) | more than 2 years ago | (#38965681)

Because it's also stuff that matters, yet what he said didn't matter a lot to [whoever's fault was], apparently.

A prize nomination? (5, Interesting)

samjam (256347) | more than 2 years ago | (#38965593)

Perhaps he should be nominated for the not-yet existing Bradley Manning prize for integrity in the face of overwhelming odds.

Re:A prize nomination? (4, Informative)

Whalou (721698) | more than 2 years ago | (#38965665)

He won the AAAS Award for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility in 1988.

Re:A prize nomination? (5, Interesting)

Rotag_FU (2039670) | more than 2 years ago | (#38966227)

While not a prize, he is someone who has been effectively immortalized in engineering ethics classes, at least in the US. The Challenger incident, and his participation of it, are studied in some depth right alongside the Tacoma Narrows and Quebec River Bridge incidents. Admittedly I speak from a relatively small sample size (direct personal experience plus anecdotal evidence from ~10 other engineering colleagues), but the samples are from geographically diverse schools in the US. I'm curious if this case is studied in engineering ethics classes abroad?

Joseph Kilminster ? (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38965609)

Kil + minster ?

Minister of Killing ?

You cannot make this shit up.

Re:Joseph Kilminster ? (1)

Z00L00K (682162) | more than 2 years ago | (#38965915)

I'd rather trust Lemmy [wikipedia.org] Kilmister instead...

Re:Joseph Kilminster ? (1)

Whalou (721698) | more than 2 years ago | (#38966345)

You cannot make this shit up.

I think you just did.

In perspective (-1, Flamebait)

fezzzz (1774514) | more than 2 years ago | (#38965679)

Somewhere the manager/funder needs to make a weighed decision on which risks to take and which to spend time and money on investigating. Unfortunately, on the Challenger, he made the wrong call. Fortunately, on the millions of other projects that do succeed, the right calls are made.

I reckon in every launch there will be some crack head who says this is too dangerous or has fundamental flaws. Excluding the mother and/or wife of the explorer. Afterwards these crack heads only get attention if they are right.

If I predict disaster on every launch for this or that reason and post it on youtube (and delete the video it if there is no disaster), I might become famous on the one time that disaster strikes.

Re:In perspective (3, Interesting)

sunderland56 (621843) | more than 2 years ago | (#38965785)

Fortunately, on the millions of other projects that do succeed, the right calls are made.

Not exactly. On the millions of other decisions, when the wrong call was made, it was either (a) caught in time, or (b) was non-fatal, or (c) was like Apollo 13, where an engineering mistake caused an extremely serious incident, which was rescued by the brilliance of other engineers.

Re:In perspective (5, Insightful)

UnknowingFool (672806) | more than 2 years ago | (#38965805)

If I predict disaster on every launch for this or that reason and post it on youtube (and delete the video it if there is no disaster), I might become famous on the one time that disaster strikes.

If he predicted disaster on every launch, you might have had a point. The article and subsequent investigation did not reveal such a fact. It seems that this was the only time he and his coworkers argued against a launch. When someone takes a stand against what they normally do, you should pay attention.

Re:In perspective (4, Interesting)

FunPika (1551249) | more than 2 years ago | (#38965859)

Still, this guy should have been taken somewhat seriously. He had over 20 years of experience, had been working at the company that developed the SRB's for several years, and was ignored even after showing his managers photographic evidence of damage being caused to the O-rings by cold weather with several of his colleagues on the team agreeing.

Re:In perspective (2)

dbIII (701233) | more than 2 years ago | (#38965887)

Somewhere the manager/funder needs to make a weighed decision

By ignoring everyone with a clue? That's called wishful thinking instead of being any sort of "weighed decision" - and there's that sort of stupidity in the stories behind many disasters.
Accountants, economists and guys that got a reward for spending time drinking with those that later became powerful have to learn that after they set things in motion they have to leave it to those that actually know how to drive.

Re:In perspective (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38966199)

I've modded up (thus I'm AP), but ...

No.

It's very common to have whiners who complain about everything. Nobody listens to them. There's cranks who call in, and you tell them that they have an interesting point then hang up.

Normal team members *don't* argue late into the night about a safety issue unless they are willing to risk their careers over it. This doesn't happen very often - no-one wants a reputation for being a naysayer unless they have a bloody good reason.

It's very rare for a good member of the team to say that things are fucked. It just doesn't happen very often, and when it does it should be a big concern. NASA engineers are not neurotic - if something spooks them it's for a good reason. If they talk it over with their colleagues, and their colleagues agree, there is almost certainly a problem.

This wasn't a matter of one guy saying he was worried about the launch. This was one guy with good evidence, who stood up to his manager with the backing of his colleagues. This is remarkable. You might tell your boss "it could have problems" on a regular basis, just to cover your ass, but no-one tells a manager to delay a project unless there's a really good reason.

Seems to be a management thing (1)

evil_aaronm (671521) | more than 2 years ago | (#38965697)

It's not the same scale, but I've had similar arguments with my manager about the quality and safety of the products we develop and even thought I'm the one who knows the code and how it works, he's the one that decides that we don't need to fix it and that it's "good to go." How well does it work? Bring up a simple informational screen and the system crashes.

These airheads seem to think that just because they're in a position of authority, they must be right.

Re:Seems to be a management thing (0)

NoNonAlphaCharsHere (2201864) | more than 2 years ago | (#38965817)

Two hours after the explosion I was saying (and several people have reminded me that I did) that the cause was probably some middle manager screaming at an engineer "WHADDYA MEAN I CAN'T SHIP ON TIME!!??!!".

Space is hard (1)

giorgist (1208992) | more than 2 years ago | (#38965723)

In every disaster you will always find somebody that predicted it and that includes clairvoyants. If these guys did not have a strong enough case, there where up against the others that made a better case then them. NASA should and has been held accountable for its wrongs. Do not forget that going to space is hard, real hard and NASA designed and flew the space shuttle which was the most complex machine by a margin and it hardly had any prototypes.

The other options are spend a hell of a lot more money ensuring safer rides or don't go (or possibly fix what is wrong with NASA).

  I think NASA a has a good balance considering its successes and now the private sector is being baby stepped into taking some of the roles.

So why isn't Kilminster behind bars? (2, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38965747)

He killed 14 people, so why isn't he in jail?

Really? (2)

Lumpy (12016) | more than 2 years ago | (#38965757)

" NASA managers didn't listen to the engineers."

This is different from any place else? CEO's and executives are convinced they know more than the engineers. And when they don't listen and fail, They BLAME the engineers.

This is Modus Operandi of any corporation and Government agency.

Guess what executives, engineers do know a whole lot more than you do.

I know the solution, any time engineers reccomend against something and management does it anyways and a failure happens. 1st the executive has to take all responsibility for the failure. Financial and moral.

2nd, every engineer gets to kick the executive in the nuts two times.

Re:Really? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38965927)

Two questions.

1) What if the executive has one nut, or no nuts?

2) Is it two kicks per nut, or two kicks in total?

Once we have ironed out these questions, I'm sure all mismanagement will cease!

Re:Really? (1)

hipp5 (1635263) | more than 2 years ago | (#38966017)

CEO's and executives are convinced they know more than the engineers.

And engineers assume their perspective is the only one that matters. Part of being a manager is hearing input from every group in the company/organization/unit and evaluating their various perspectives to make a decision. Engineering considerations are only one aspect of a successful operation. Sometimes it's better to release a sub-optimal product (from an engineering perspective) for other benefits in timing, marketing, financial efficiency, etc.

I'm not weighing in on the correctness of the management decision in this case; I don't know enough of the details. But the statements you made seem to me to be very self-centred and naive of the complexities of the world.

Re:Really? (1)

Lumpy (12016) | more than 2 years ago | (#38966157)

Says an executive that does not want to be kicked in the nuts by the engineer.

What is wrong with forcing the Executive to bear ALL The responsibility of his decisions?

prevention is the key (3, Insightful)

bigbangnet (1108411) | more than 2 years ago | (#38965779)

When an engineer says don't go with the launch. Sorry but just stfu and listen to him. FFS, he's not the idiot citizen who doesn't know squat. He's an engineer and 3 of them argued...wow. And the management still didn't listen. It leaves a sour taste in my mouth. On top of that, I'm not an american and I'm very touched by this story, news and especially those lost lives. All of that could of been avoided and they would still learned from their mistake, corrected the problem and go forward with the launch later. My question is: what happened to the guy who still said let's go with the launch ? Did he get accused of murder ?

NASA not any different today (4, Interesting)

HangingChad (677530) | more than 2 years ago | (#38965863)

Both Boisjoly and McDonald were blackballed for speaking out.

I think that's the bigger issue here. NASA really hasn't changed, they're the same arrogant, top heavy, risk adverse organization they bloated into during the 80's. You'd think they would have been humbled by seeing heavy lift moved over to the Russians, but it hasn't dented their attitude one bit.

It's not the lives that were lost, it was the circumstances surrounding the loss and the general lack of accountability afterwards. Engineers who try to sound warnings still will get blackballed. Nothing really changes when you have the problem dictating the solution.

Re:NASA not any different today (2)

Z00L00K (682162) | more than 2 years ago | (#38965939)

Not very different from any other business you will encounter.

"Shit happens" is the attitude and many in the top layer gets a good payoff and goes on to their next job as a punishment.

Misplaced modifier (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38965877)

"Robert Boisjoly Dies At 73, the Engineer Who Tried To Stop the Challenger Launch"

73 tried to stop the Challenger Launch?

Whistle-blower ostracization (4, Insightful)

drobety (2429764) | more than 2 years ago | (#38966041)

From the 1987 LA Times article:

And for that, there was an additional private cost: resentment on the part of those who had been hoping to avoid, at least in part, official blame. It came from corporate executives, and from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Morton Thiokol's biggest customer. And it came from colleagues fearful that too much exposure of truth might hurt business and cost them their jobs.

"If you wreck this company, I'm gonna put my kids on your doorstep," grumbled one. Someone finally dubbed the engineers "the five lepers."

This is the sad reality: Whistle-blowers are often the target of ostracism from their contemporaries, while usually unanimously admired later in historical context. It's still not easy to be a whistle-blower [fairwhistleblower.ca] , if anything, it's harder than ever [whistleblower.org] .

Problem Recognized EARLIER by Rudolph Krueger... (5, Interesting)

BoRegardless (721219) | more than 2 years ago | (#38966055)

When the bids went out to professional engineers in the aerospace seal business, my friend, now gone sadly, was asked to bid on the large O'Ring seal design for the shuttle booster rockets.

He did his basic expansion calculations on what temperature changes would do to the large diameter structure and came to the conclusion it would not work and replied declining to quote with a note that it didn't seem to be workable because of basic physics.

Rudolph's opinion was never seriously taken and we know the result.

Worth Mentioning (2)

elkto (558121) | more than 2 years ago | (#38966149)

It is worth mentioning that CONTRACTIALY the SRB’s were rated to handle such weather. Who failed there? Why is this not mentioned or reported?

Then there is Lockheed’s nonsense with changing over the foam insulation on the Shuttles external tank to an “Environmentally Friendly” one which exacerbated the issue of blowing holes into the flight vehicle. Somebody knew enough about the potential problem to get a exemption from the EPA to use the old foam, yet the new foam was utilized.

it was inevitable (1)

PJ6 (1151747) | more than 2 years ago | (#38966203)

Groups of people tend toward internal modes counter to their purpose. The larger and longer-lived the group, the stronger this effect. It's easy to think we're intelligent and capable beings when you look at individuals, but on larger scales our true nature becomes clear. Unnecessary disasters will always plague large engineering projects, because we're more like monkeys than ants.

A few words for the man (5, Interesting)

A10Mechanic (1056868) | more than 2 years ago | (#38966275)

I prefer to remember him as the cool guest lecturer and advisor we had at Weber State for the NUSAT program. Keen intellect, razor sharp, and driven. There's more to the man than just Challenger.

Corruption in management is universal (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38966281)

It took courage for the engineers to speak up and back their assertions and warnings, but more to the point, there had to be irrefutably compelling evidence for them to do so. That is what I find so disturbing. It is an unfortunate paradox that, in big business (and let's not fool ourselves; NASA is big business), priorities are different for upper management than they are for those doing the actual work... and the brains and ethics do not lie in management, regardless of venue.

Ron McNair was in the physics program at MIT with my brother-in-law, and they were extremely close for numerous reasons. Ron was brilliant, selfless, deeply touched the lives of many young people, was a phenomenal father and husband, and a gift to his community and beyond. His future was exceedingly bright. Ron was like an uncle to my nephew, who was four when he watched uncle Ron that day. For very personal reasons as well as universal ones, I wish management had done something right for a change.

His first name was Roger, dammit (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#38966381)

That is all. Also, kinda late to the party with this news.

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