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The Challenger disaster seen through Guardian spectacles

Some chick called Emma Brockes writes in the Guardian, “The Challenger disaster: we can’t say we weren’t warned about American hubris”.

The article itself will add nothing to your understanding of how the space shuttle came to break apart soon after launch. I might give the Netflix documentary a chance, despite the Guardian‘s description of it as “a timely meditation on the perils of exceptionalism”. It seems harsh to condemn anything on the basis of what the Guardian says about it, especially since the Guardian article in question contained incoherent sentences like the second one in this quote:

In a US news report about the space programme, a TV host says, with amazement, that the newest Nasa recruits include, “two blacks, an oriental, and six women”. (One of them, Sally Ride, is shown being asked by a journalist whether, when she tells a man she’s an astronaut, he believes her.)

Got that? Sally Ride told a male journalist that she was an astronaut. Then he (the journalist) asked her (the astronaut) whether he believed her.

[Edit: Correction to the above! And apology to Ms Brockes, in the unlikely event that she ever reads this. Commenter “Jim” pointed out that the sentence I quoted makes perfect sense if you see the final “he” as not referring to the male journalist but to the general category of men who Sally Ride might tell that she is an astronaut.

Edit to the Edit: Niall Kilmartin made the same point as Jim did but in such a gentlemanly fashion that I did not quite get it. I would happily delete this entire section in embarrassment, but my rule for blogging is that the very things you want to stealth-edit most are those you should not touch.]

So much for the article. However the readers’ comments (the Graun made the mistake of allowing them) are rather good. The most recommended comment is by “chunkychips”:

This is a bizarre article. We’re supposed to believe that a NASA cockup and some dude who approved the launch of the space shuttle 30 odd years ago based on the data available to him at the time is an example of American exceptionalism?? What?

I’m afraid I’m just left with the image of a bitter writer watching the documentary and a little light goes off in her head “oooh, I could make a massive and ludicrous leap into condemning a country of 300 odd million people for ever daring to try”.

I’m so sick of the drip drip of articles that condemn western countries for not being as good as they think they are. They never stop to think of the undeniable fact that the western world is still the best place to live in human history regardless of who you are and what you believe or think. So yes, pretty damn exceptional actually and worth protecting and preserving.

The second most recommended comment is by “YorkieBrummy”:

Contrast with the impeccable safety records of China and Russia.

Is UK/US “exceptionalism” the new Graun buzzword?

The same commenter then adds,

Nothing about NASA’s toxic masculinity?

32 comments to The Challenger disaster seen through Guardian spectacles

  • This is a standard PC technique: a few decades after the event, rewrite its history into what the narrative needs it to have been, hoping enough people have forgotten enough details.

    When done with big-name actors in a film that may be the only accessible popular-dramatisation of the subject, it can be effective. (I suspect this seen-today ignored-tomorrow Grauniad article will have less of an impact.)

    It was well-established at the time that a couple of NASA bureaucrats bullying down a phone line got a company to go mute and (after a screaming match in the conference room) unmute again, so the top company manager present could rephrase the pre-mute “don’t launch at that temperature with those O-rings” into “yeah, maybe it would be OK”, thus giving the NASA bureaucrats formal cover to violate NASA’s “don’t proceed if the supplier says it will fail” policy.

    Sadly, there is nothing exceptional about bullying bureaucrats interested in how it looks PR-wise rather than in the real world. Neither is there anything exceptional in cowardly managers in a company that is nominally private but very dependent on government contracts (IIUC, there pretty well was no other space-work back then).

    Aside: the sentence Natalie damns is ill-phrased but I think one could force its parsing to be meaningful – on re-reading it, you have enough meaning from the first reading to make the final ‘he’ refer to the hypothetical man Sally might talk to rather than the actual journalist who is questioning her. (I must confess a personal interest in my grammatical charity to a despised Grauniad writer 🙂 – I hope I would write much more clearly in a published article or Samizdata post but someone searching my many comments might find the occasional read-me-twice sentence. 🙁 )

  • Mr Ed

    This Challenger tragedy was around the same time as a little incident in the Ukraine called Chernobyl, where a cutting-edge Soviet nuclear reactor cut free from the surly bonds of graphite moderation.

  • Paul Marks

    Mr Ed is correct. How can the basic design flaws of the Soviet nuclear reactor (no real containment building – and control rods whose heads were the WRONG MATERIAL) be blamed on “capitalism” or “American Exceptionalism”.

    NASA is another P.C. “Woke” government bureaucracy – it has very serious flaws, but they are the opposite of what he Guardian claims they are.

  • Jacob

    The basic question for a libertarian should be: should the Government busy itself (through NASA) with space exploration?
    The question is not if space exploration is desirable – it is whether it should be done by government employees, financed by taxes.
    It’s obvious that I would say: No.

  • Jacob

    Now, don’t point out to me the activity of Musk or Bezos. They are mostly government financed. Is that ok? Should government finance space missions – even when executed by private enterprise?

  • Tim Worstall

    To add to the joy Emma lives in New York…..

  • Stonyground

    Building spacecraft is really difficult and uses cutting edge technology. It is hardly surprising if occasionally things go very wrong. How many men would be instantly believed if they told a journalist that they were an astronaut?

  • Plamus

    Mr Ed, Chernobyl is especially (and ironically) relevant, because the disaster was the result of an ill-conceived safety test. Another example of cutting-edge Soviet technology is the less known, but deadlier by an order of magnitude, Banqiao Dam Failure.

  • The problem was that the safety margins were fudged left, right and centre when it interfered with either the operations or cost. The famous quote attributed to John Glenn in 1962 regarding the first US orbital launch may be apocryphal, but it sure sounds pretty accurate.

    ‘I felt exactly how you would feel if you were getting ready to launch and knew you were sitting on top of 2 million parts — all built by the lowest bidder on a government contract.’

    That the safety team at Morton Thiokol refused to sign off on the launch is well documented. Just like the Apollo 1 fire it was a disaster that was waiting to happen. If it hadn’t been the failure of the O Rings that got Challenger it would have been falling insulation (that destroyed Columbia) or some other bullshit.

    Of the 135 space shuttle flights, 2 failed killing the entire crew, so roughly 1 death for every 10 flights. If they were a private company they would have been bankrupted by legal charges, but because they were NASA “Lessons were learned” (or not) and they just tripled the budget to cover “Safety” (but not really, just bureaucratic safety) and kept on flying.

    NASA should have been disbanded the day after Apollo 17 splashed down.

  • The Wobbly Guy

    @John Galt,

    I read somewhere that the bureaucrats forced the launch to go ahead because one of the astronauts needed to conduct some live educational program from space for schools and present some much-needed diversity propaganda, and delaying the launch would have scuppered the plan.

    There must be some pressing reason to go ahead with the launch despite the warnings… so what were those reasons? Was it really for DIE (Diversity, Inclusivity, Equality) reasons?

  • Nullius in Verba

    “I read somewhere that the bureaucrats forced the launch to go ahead because one of the astronauts needed to conduct some live educational program from space for schools and present some much-needed diversity propaganda, and delaying the launch would have scuppered the plan.”

    You may be referring to the rumours that there was pressure from the Whitehouse because Reagan wanted to mention the launch in his State of the Union scheduled that evening, and in particular Christa McAuliffe’s role as ‘teacher in space’. The rumours were later judged untrue, and likely politically motivated.

    I expect it was the usual reason for management overriding technical – that continued funding depends on delivering positive results. NASA was already under considerable poltical pressure already as an expensive waste of money – a diversion, it was said, of taxpayers funds away from the desperate needs of welfare to pure-political American Exceptionalist-theatre cold war flag-waving. They needed an ongoing stream of successful launches and good publicity to maintain the government’s political support – and incidentally, keep 17,000 people around the country in employment. The launch had already been delayed several times. On being told that the low temperatures were to blame, the response was: “My God, Thiokol. When do you want me to launch — next April?”

    If the choice is between launching today and launching next week, the choice is easy. If the choice is between launching today and shutting down NASA with the loss of 17,000 jobs (especially your own!) and the future of American space exploration, not so easy. Such are the dilemmas of management.

  • Stonyground

    I thought that landing a robot on Mars was an amazing achievement. The thing had to be navigated there between two moving planets, across an immense distance with countless interfering gravitational fields and then slowed and parachuted through a really thin atmosphere and land without breaking. The whole process had to be worked out entirely in theory, there was no way to do any testing apart from actually doing it. So the theoretical stuff must have had to be done without a single mistake in order for it to work.

  • Jim

    “In a US news report about the space programme, a TV host says, with amazement, that the newest Nasa recruits include, “two blacks, an oriental, and six women”. (One of them, Sally Ride, is shown being asked by a journalist whether, when she tells a man she’s an astronaut, he believes her.)

    Got that? Sally Ride told a male journalist that she was an astronaut. Then he (the journalist) asked her (the astronaut) whether he believed her.”

    Not the way I read that. I read it as the journalist asking the (female) astronaut that when she tells a man (ie any random male person she may be talking to who doesn’t know she is an astronaut) that she is an astronaut, does the random man believe her or go ‘Get outta here! Women can’t be astronauts!’ or some such boilerplate sexist response.

  • Stephen Houghton

    Jacob, the reason this is some what justified is as I wrote in my last paper for the 2019 Mars society convention. “What sea power was to the last 500 years, space power will be for the next 500 millennia.If the United States, the English-Speaking Peoples and more importantly the cause of freedom are to have a future, we need a strategy for space. A strategy to stimulate the private sector mining and settlement, including a system of space prizes, property rights, monetary policy, and tax policy.” http://www.marspapers.org/paper/Houghton_2019.pdf

  • Couple of observations: When you work with bleeding-edge technology, sometimes the blood on the floor is yours. In the same vein (!) it has been observed on the ski slopes, that if you don’t fall down from time to time, you aren’t trying very hard.

    First hand experience for both.

  • Paul Marks

    Tim Worstall – if you mean New York City, then Emma should look around her.

    Even more than California, New York City shows the results of “Woke” (i.e. ultra left) policies – the results of a Collectivist Governor (Governor Cuomo) and an even more Collectivist Mayor. Although I would argue that Governor is really just as much of a Collectivist as the Mayor – Governor Cuomo just believes that Collectivism should be HIDDEN, whereas the Mayor is OPEN admirer of Fidel Castro and so on (the bitter dispute between Mayor and Governor is over TACTICS not OBJECTIVIES – both passionately hate liberty and wish to utterly destroy the limited government United States of America).

    The cultural “elite” support what has been done to New York, State as well as City (for it was the Governor who said, YEARS AGO, that Conservatives were not even welcome to live in the State), which should tell everyone all they need to know about this “elite” and their economically collapsing Credit Bubble city, with its boarded up shops and killers roaming free on the streets.

    Like so many other Democrat cities – Chicago, San Francisco and …. well basically all the Democrat cities. The distinction between Democrat and Socialist has collapsed – now the distinction in the Democrat party is between Fabian Socialists (Gradualists) and Revolutionary Socialists – the Antifa and “Black Lives Matter” crowd.

    “But Big Business supports Biden/Harris” – yes they do (most of them), and God Damn the Corporate managers who made such decisions.

    I am not using a figure of speech. They want some sort of Saint-Simon type of socialism – where Big Business managers would not be shot, they would actually be IN CHARGE of the Collectivism (Credit Bubble Bankers at the top – but all in the name of “Science” in the FALSE Sir Francis Bacon, Jeremy 13 Departments of State controlling all aspects of society, Saint-Simon sense) – if they get the Marxist sort of socialism instead (and find themselves being shot) they will have only themselves to blame – after all they are the ones financing (for example) the Marxist BLM terrorists.

    How much money did “Bank of America” alone give to a movement created by Marxists in 2014, controlled by Marxists, and open in its desire to exterminate “capitalists”.

  • The Wobbly Guy (October 18, 2020 at 2:35 pm), it was Christa McAuliffe and your summary is (IIRC) not quite fair to her. She was the winner of a competition NASA held to let a teacher go into space. She planned to teach her class from space.

    From NASA’s PoV it was a big PR stunt sending a member of the public into space, not just an average launch, and it was correspondingly embarrassing that they had already had to delay the launch, so the bureaucratic pressure inside NASA not to have to tell the press it was delayed yet again was intense.

    I know no harm of Christa who seems to have been well-liked by her class.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    Jim, you’re right. In fairness to Ms Brockes I’ll amend the post.

  • If the choice is between launching today and launching next week, the choice is easy. If the choice is between launching today and shutting down NASA with the loss of 17,000 jobs (especially your own!) and the future of American space exploration, not so easy. (Nullius in Verba, October 18, 2020 at 3:42 pm)

    Blowing apart a popular teacher and six astronauts at a time when unusually large numbers of Americans, especially children, were watching wasn’t the most obvious way for those two NASA bureaucrats to ensure continued funding, nor did it do wonders for their own careers. And conversely, since NASA has continued to exist till the present day despite doing this, it seems clear that yet one more day of delayed launch would not have seen the agency shut down.

    Those bullying bureaucrats did not force the company reversal for anything remotely as important as the future of America’s space programme – and I’m not (just) talking about their morals here, I’m talking about their intellects, as their attempted self-defences in the subsequent investigation and in interviews made embarrassingly clear. As for the bullied muted managers, notoriously the one that passed on the bulling (ordering the saner but more junior manager to “take off your engineering hat and put on your manager’s hat”) utterly refused to look at the graphs despite the lead engineer presenting them ‘vigorously’.

    This was not remotely a case of safety fascism that chanced to be right, or even of balancing a real risk against a political demand. The engineers were certain that it would blow up, and were genuinely astonished that it got so far off the launch pad before doing so. (IIRC, it emerged that some unburned fuel briefly blocked the disintegrating seal.)

    Feynman reported a NASA culture in which safety estimates given by NASA management were inflated up to a thousandfold from the estimates of working engineers.

  • Nullius in Verba

    Always easier to say with hindsight.

  • itellyounothing

    Yes, otherwise how else would you get an outside voice heard in group think city?

  • RNB

    Other pressure on NASA to launch ‘Challenger’: I remember hearing the CBS Evening News anchor (might have even been Dan Rather) intoning: “It was high tech / low comedy at Cape Canaveral as NASA scrubbed the launch of the Space Shuttle ‘Challenger’ again…”

  • @RNB – Yes Dan Rather and Bruce Hall were rather scathing at the time.

    Dan Rather began his newscast on the eve of the shuttle tragedy this way: “Yet another costly, red-faces-all-around space-shuttle-launch delay. This time a bad bolt on a hatch and a bad-weather bolt from the blue are being blamed. What’s more, a rescheduled launch for tomorrow doesn’t look good either. Bruce Hall has the latest on today’s high-tech low comedy.”

    Hall reported from Kennedy Space Center that “confidence in NASA’s ability to maintain a launch schedule has been rocked by this series of embarrassing technical snafus and weather delays.”

    [LINK] Did the Media Goad NASA Into the Challenger Disaster?

  • Barry Sheridan

    The west is beyond all doubt dreadful, you can see that in the numbers of people from wonderful places elsewhere who abandon their utopian life to come here and suffer!

  • Anyone who hasn’t yet watched the documentary definitely should – it’s fascinating and heartbreaking in equal measure.

  • +1 to JuliaM (October 19, 2020 at 7:45 am). And thanks to RNB (October 19, 2020 at 1:26 am) and John Galt (October 19, 2020 at 1:35 am) for recovering a Dan Rather quote that illustrates my point (Niall Kilmartin, October 18, 2020 at 6:07 pm).

    It was the certainty of public smart-set mockery that evening on the news (that would of course have become old news a few days later as Christa taught her class from space), not concern about any very doubtful and long-term public opinion effect on support for NASA if a successful launch were delayed yet another day or two, that motivated the bureaucrats to make such a very very very silly decision. They never said that, of course, but they said enough to reveal a certain mindset (that can also be found elsewhere, alas).

  • Sigivald

    In a US news report about the space programme, a TV host says, with amazement, that the newest Nasa recruits include, “two blacks, an oriental, and six women”.

    I wonder if the author has ever seen American news (I have no idea how the BBC handles it, or Sky)?

    Because “amazement” is more or less their default tone for anything that isn’t incredibly everyday.

    (“A TV host”. Was it a daytime talk show? Local news report? National news? Could that possibly matter? Not to the Guardian!)

  • ap

    I have a question for the women reading this blog: If you met a guy in a bar and he said he was an astronaut, which would be more likely?
    a) he is an astronaut.
    b) he is a guy who gets his pickup lines from Barney Stinson’s playbook.

    I probably would not have believed Sally Ride if she said she was an astronaut, but I wouldn’t have believed a guy who said that either.

  • bobby b

    I’d believe the woman in the bar before the man, because it’s a rare woman who needs to use a pickup line in a bar more complicated than “okay.”

  • I probably would not have believed Sally Ride if she said she was an astronaut, but I wouldn’t have believed a guy who said that either.

    I’d probably have believe Neil Armstrong if he’d said it when he was alive. 😛

  • You’d better believe Buzz Aldrin…if you know what’s good for you!

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