I have always been a fan of movies about threats from space, or threats encountered while in space. You know, the ones in which a rag-tag bunch of smart-talking renegades (and at least one super-hot scientist) are obliged to destroy an asteroid hurtling toward earth, or a noble, square-jawed bunch of brave and selfless astronauts are obliged to pilot a malfunctioning shuttle to safety. That kind of thing. One of the most critical points about such films is that after many scenes of agitated, nice-looking scientists explaining things to strapping, bull-headed adventurers, and/or Ed Harris explaining things to square-jawed astronauts, the asteroid does not, in fact, collide with and annihilate the earth and the shuttle is heroically saved. 

I had realized that NASA's history was not bursting with vanquished asteroids, but I hadn't realized quite how questionable its history was. I knew about the findings made by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, the ones that indicated that NASA's reliance on communicating complex ideas through PowerPoint might have contributed to the crash

I didn't, though, probably because I was ten at the time and mostly preoccupied with the TARDIS, know all the details about the 1986 Challenger explosion. And somehow, probably because I am really good at being uninformed, I didn't find out that the whole thing had been totally avoidable until today, when I read Roger Boisjoly's obituary.

Roger Boisjoly was an engineer at solid rocket booster manufacturer Morton Thoikol who, in 1985, began trying to tell people that joints in Challenger's boosters might fail in cold weather. (In fact, there had been concerns about the joints since the late 1970s that had never been addressed.) Throughout much of the night before the launch, he and four other space shuttle engineers tried to tell anyone who would listen that the launch should be called off because there was a good chance the shuttle would explode. They called senior managers at their company; they pleaded with NASA. It was like one of those movies I like so much, with a rag-tag bunch of smart-talking renegades trying anything and everything to save lives. Except that they were treated like a rag-tag bunch of no-good renegades and completely ignored. Nobody listened. NASA said they hadn't made a really convincing case.

Boisjoly refused to watch the launch, so certain was he the shuttle would explode. And then it exploded, killing seven people. And then NASA tried to blacklist all the people who'd known what would happen and tried to stop it from happening. And Boisjoly, unsurprisingly, was haunted by all of it for the rest of his life.

The great thing about not always knowing about things when they actually happen is that you get the thrill of discovering sickening facts about long-ago cultural events that you can then try to share with people who've most likely known about and been sickened by them for years. 

POLITE DISCLAIMER: This site is intended for entertainment purposes only. If you are not entertained, fair enough.

frederick sweet
2/10/2012 01:08:23 am

--I was keenly, vividly alive at the time of the catastrophe and had no idea that there was such a whistle-blowing backdrop--thank you for helping me slightly less uninformed...

Frederick Sweet
2/10/2012 02:02:03 am

P.S.--of course, to be better informed = to be even more cynical: well done, Catastrophizer

2/21/2012 03:08:35 pm

i'll kill anyone that tries to take my guns away. god bless america


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