FEYNMAN AND THE CHALLENGER EXPLOSION
Arthur E. Sowers
arthures at access5.digex.net
Sun Jan 28 23:19:06 EST 1996
I'm not exactly clear on what theme or themes Bert is working on (see
below the double line: "==="), but I interpret it as an issue of "safety
Although it was a high profile techno-disaster, I would maintain that in
terms of the propensity of human beings to do things that turn out bad
instead of good that they should have been able to predict and avoid, the
Challenger disaster was a drop in the bucket compared to many other
1. The sinking of the Titanic.
2. Painting radium on clock dials back when? 1940s?
3. Atmospheric nuclear testing (Iodine-131 into the food chain).
4. Numerous major ecological disasters (viz the literature).
5. The use of pure oxygen atmospheres in the early 3-man space
capsules (I don't remember the names & dates etc, but 3 guys were
burned to a crisp in about 2-3 secs and there was a committee report
recommending against the pure oxygen for safety reasons).
6. Two other recent major nuclear disasters (with much questionable
7. A maybe less "techno" issue, but of enormous significance, are the
unfoldings going on right now involving the tobbacco industry.
8. Many other examples.
All except #5 led to, or are in the process of leading to, more deaths,
premature deaths, severe health problems, and larger economic impacts
(loss of property, etc.) than the Challenger disaster. All of them have
been intensively studied and analyzed. If a demo on TV, lasting seconds
to minutes, is to be given more credence than whole bookcases of studies,
then I demure.
If some small percentage of the TV audience stops to think that they
should maybe, in the future, rebel out of conscience against "something"
then fine. Unfortunately, acts of moral conscience by one or a few people
against large and powerful hierarchical systems are disappointingly futile
most of the time. I applaud, however, those who do stand up and fight
On 28 Jan 1996, Bert Gold wrote:
> Richard Feynman knew, when he appeared on national television, in a press
> conference disclosing the reasons for the Challenger explosion, that many
> people would not like him very much. He had already interviewed several
> engineers at Morton Thiokol, the prime contractor for the rocket engines,
> who had disclosed to him that they anticipated the explosion before it
> occurred. But what noone at the press conference expected was that
> Feynman would be brazen enough, in front of the national media,
> to carry out an experiment, which would implicate those who made the
> decision to launch, as the cause of the accident.
> Feynman was a smart, jewish guy from New York, whom the generals did not
> like. This was a remnant of his days at Los Alamos, where Feynman
> had made a hobby of picking the locks on Top Secret files and taunting
> the General with their contents. You see, in our terms today, Feynman
> was just 'too' smart. He saw through the 'management' efforts of the
> General at Los Alamos as misbegotten and misdirected. He realized that
> the capital of politicians and soldiers, money and power, were not
> shared by his scientific brethren at Los Alamos who honored art,
> music, and elegant solution to difficult problems as their most sought
> after currency.
> So, when Feynman plopped a piece of rubber O-ring into a glass of
> ice water on national television, verifying his theory that the hardening
> of the otherwise viscoelastic properties of the rubber at low temperature
> was reponsible for the lack of separation of the rocket stages: Hence
> the Challenger explosion. Feynman upset many. Because he had told
> a great truth that America did not want to know.
> America is filled with delusion now; and the generals have now had
> their way, in that all the guys that are 'too smart' like Feynman
> was then, are either keeping quiet, (I believe the term is Shvai in
> Yiddish), have been silenced by intimidation, or have left this earth.
> I miss Richard Feynman on the tenth anniversary of the Challenger explosion.
> I think it would be a better world if his spirit could be kept alive today.
> Bert Gold, Ph.D.
> San Francisco
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