The problem of complex systems

Space Shuttle Challenger
Space Shuttle Challenger at the moment of launch, 28 January 1986.

Just finished watching Netflix’s 4-part documentary on the Challenger disaster of 28 January 1986, Challenger: The Final Flight. This tragedy, or rather disaster, occurred almost 35 years ago, and my memory of the event was fuzzy to say the least. I say disaster, advisedly, as in a fateful event brought on by bad luck and bad stars, not tragedy, which in the classic sense means the fatal flaw of a great man and his subsequent fall. The disaster of the Challenger owes not to the faults of any man but of the system in which all NASA men and women and their contractors were involved.

Obviously, the work of assembling a rocket and launching astronauts into space is an enormously complex and difficult undertaking. The science and technology of the enterprise are mind-boggling. Much simpler, but perhaps more mind-boggling, however, are the management systems that sanctioned the launch of the Challenger vehicle and the loss of the seven human lives that exploded with the vehicle 74 seconds after launch.

If you work in a sizable company or corporation, or an institution like academe, you’re no doubt aware of how quickly the systems can go askew. You’ve sat through meetings, long and draining meetings in which one or the other party asserts his will to power and insists, explicitly or not, on his predominance in the hierarchy. You go along with him or, so the feeling might be, lose your job or your standing in the group.

Challenger Disaster at 25: A Still-Painful Wound - CBS News
Space Shuttle Challenger blows up a minute or so after launch on a cold January 29, 1986. (Photo: CBS News.)

This is what happened with the Challenger. The engineers for Morton Thiokol, which designed and manufactured the O-rings used in the joints of the solid-fuel rockets, all testified to the unreliability of these crucial parts in cold weather. But in the face of an ambitious launch schedule NASA browbeat Thiokol: what should they do, wait till April for a warm day? The Thiokol GM, deciding to put on his manager hat not his engineer hat, reversed the company’s decision and signed a document okaying the launch for the next day, when the temps were to drop well below freezing. (One of the witnesses in the film calls this a “save your ass” document which NASA required in order to deny or deflect blame.)

The problem of complex systems that I’m addressing here is not so much technical as psychological. It’s in the nature of human beings to go along and get along, to submit to the superior force or bullying power of those in charge, to be social or socioeconomic not conscientious animals. The Thiokol GM was doing this vis-a-vis the NASA manager. The Thiokol engineers were doing this, willy-nilly, vis-a-vis their GM. They may well have regretted not having the guts to challenge him more forcibly or at least, as one of them argued, to record on the document their dissenting opinions.

To this day, the Thiokol GM defends his decision, even if no one else does (on the Netflix film). It’s hard to watch, this stubborn old man justifying the decision that resulted in those seven deaths and the billions of dollars wasted. But he’s defending both himself and the system, of which he remains, insistently, a part. The hell with the billions of dollars, in fact. Challenger: The Final Flight makes amply clear the pain and grief of the survivors of the astronauts, the shock to the nation, and the difficulty of bringing out the truth in the Rogers commission which investigated the disaster.

I’m not arguing here for individual rights or narcissistic prerogative. But for doing the right thing for the sake of those who have the right stuff. For individual courage in the face of collective cowardice.