A mountain was in labor, sending forth dreadful groans, and there was in the region the highest expectation. After all, it brought forth a mouse.
—Phaedrus, Fable 22, I
The president's space shuttle commission labored for nearly five months…and brought forth a mouse. With great moral fervor it zeroed in on the immediate cause of the Challenger explosion—a badly designed joint on the solid rocket booster. But it utterly failed to investigate the underlying cause of the tragedy. That cause is politics. Not the politics behind the decision to launch on January 28, 1986, but pervasive politicization of the entire shuttle program.
Consider some of the results: The shuttle did not have to be designed with solid rocket boosters; no man-rated booster had ever before used solid-fuel rockets rather than much more controllable liquid-fuel rockets. And only one other solid rocket booster had ever been built in segments stacked atop one another, requiring troublesome joints, rather than being cast as a single unit.
And no other manned launch system—even Soviet ones—had ever launched human crew members without any emergency escape system, leaving them helpless victims of any malfunctions. That all of these flaws were incorporated in a single vehicle is…well, "criminally irresponsible" is probably not far wrong.
Incredibly, the Rogers Commission avoided these issues, narrowing its focus to the minutiae of the joint design and the fateful launch decision. Even there it found evidence of a politicized decision process. NASA bureaucrats wanted almost desperately to launch the Challenger before the president's State of the Union address, so that he could read some NASA-drafted PR lines about a teacher in space. And Morton-Thiokol executives overruled their engineers out of fear of displeasing their NASA masters.
These obvious manifestations of politics driving the program should have tipped off the commissioners to more fundamental problems. But they did not.
The truth is that the history of the space shuttle is a history of a program created and driven by overriding political considerations. After the windup of the Apollo program in 1969, NASA needed another major program to "keep the team together." When it could not muster congressional support for its proposed next stage—a space station and a cheap "space truck" to supply it—the space agency went back to the drawing board.
All the major space constituencies had to be bought off. What emerged was a spacecraft with something for everyone: laboratory facilities to win over the scientists, a huge cargo bay and extensive reentry maneuverability to woo a reluctant Air Force, and a flight schedule like an airline's to seduce the space skeptics in Congress.
Having made these unkeepable promises to combine multiple features in one impossible vehicle, NASA then exerted relentless, brute-force pressure on the design. To hold down annual development costs, the agency abandoned its early plan to have both first and second stages be fully reusable (which would have saved money eventually in operating costs). But instead of using a throwaway liquid-fuel booster stage (as proposed by Lockheed), NASA's then-administrator James Fletcher chose the riskier option of reusable solid-fuel boosters.
Still, even with that unprecedented choice, NASA could have produced a safer design. But instead of a one-piece solid rocket proposed by Aerojet, Fletcher opted for the stacked-segments design by Morton-Thiokol. Although it was ranked least desirable technically out of four proposals, it had the lowest price tag—and the Thiokol plant is located in Brigham City, Utah. Fletcher, it turns out, is an ex-president of the University of Utah, his wife is from Brigham City, and Sen. Frank Moss (D–Utah) was chairman of the Senate committee that controlled NASA's pursestrings. Moss's top aide at the time has stated that there is no question that Thiokol got the job because of Moss.
Even with the segmented solid rocket boosters, the astronauts might still be alive today, had NASA not rejected what is known as "abort modes." And why did it? Politics again.
In McDonnell Douglas's 1972 shuttle design proposal, detailed modes of escape and recovery were provided for every portion of the launch. (You can see the charts and diagrams from this proposal reproduced in the February 1986 issue of Tom Brosz's excellent newsletter, Commercial Space Report.) Other contractors also proposed abort modes. But NASA eliminated them from the shuttle's final design to achieve a two percent weight saving and $270 million in cost savings over the life of the program. Because its design was so complex, the shuttle was badly overweight and chronically overbudget. So to keep the numbers within reach of what it had promised Congress, NASA simply axed the safety systems.
But it wasn't the space commission that uncovered these damning facts. It was a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News. For all the careful work the commission did on the immediate causes of the Challenger explosion, it never dug this deep. No fingers were pointed at the politicians and bureaucrats who overrode engineers' judgments more than a decade ago, thereby consigning seven astronauts to a fiery death.
Where do we go from here? As this issue goes to press, NASA administrator James Fletcher (yes—he's back!) is lobbying hard for construction of a replacement shuttle orbiter, at about $2.5 billion. President Reagan must decide whether to allow NASA to thus resume its role as the nation's quasi-monopoly space transporter or to restrict the remaining three shuttles to research and selected military missions. In either case, major design changes are essential before any shuttles fly again, preferably including one-piece solid boosters and an abort system. (NASA, characteristically, is resisting both changes.)
But the wiser course would be to learn from this tragic exercise in political technology. Space transportation is a business. A large and growing market exists for the (unmanned) launching of satellites, both commercial and military. Established aerospace firms and entrepreneurial startups are ready, willing, and able to build cheap, simple rockets to launch these cargoes.
Grounding the shuttle—or at least restricting it to those few essential missions where human presence is actually necessary—would be a simple recognition of reality. Politicized design gave us a turkey, and a damned dangerous one at that. It's time to cut our losses, in lives as well as dollars.