Steely-eyed missile dissenter

Trailhead: Howard Berkes. "Remembering Allan McDonald: He Refused To Approve Challenger Launch, Exposed Cover-Up". NPR (2021-03-07).

The story of Challenger that I know—at least of the of decision to launch and the investigation afterward—is mainly centered on executives and Feynman. I'm a Feynman fan, and I know about the simple demo with the o-ring and the cup of ice water, as well as his dissent in the Rogers Commission Report. And simple stories of the decision to launch feature some nameless executives at NASA or Morton Thiokol overriding engineers to give the thumbs-up to launch.

I know it's more than that, but that's all that sticks with me.

I assumed that, eventually, the managers and executives at Morton Thiokol bullied all of the engineers who gave a no-go to the launch into giving a go before sending that unanimous message back to NASA. All in favor signify by saying 'aye'; all opposed, turn in your badge.

That was a simple assumption and it's wrong.

Read/listen to the story of Allan McDonald, who recently died. He said no-go to launch, and he kept saying no for the same reasons that the launch failed. Later he spoke up at the Rogers Commission, and got demoted at Morton Thiokol for his troubles. That's career suicide (for what it's worth, after the people you were supposed to protect died themselves).

In the clinical setups of ethics questionnaires, the answer to questions about sticking to your position in the face of top-down pressure is easy: no. Don't relent. Stand up for what you believe is right. In the clench? I don't know. Outside of posturing here in my own writing... that's a heavy question. I've only talked back to one executive. He wanted to ship a system that wasn't working right to a test site, and pushing back wasn't something I really thought about. Mostly I was just pissed that my judgment and my data had been questioned, and I was operating off an impulsive amygdala response. Losing that battle would have cost a few thousand dollars and a few weeks of development, at most, not the lives of a team of astronauts.

We praise the people who say go in the face of danger or uncertainty as steely-eyed missile men, but sometimes the opposite is true.

He wrote a book, Truth, Lies, and O-Rings: Inside the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster in 2009. I'm going to look it up. I enjoy zany Feynman stories, but I'd rather hear from someone who had their head on the chopping block.

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