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Feynman’s theory on the Challenger disaster

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While investigating the Challenger space shuttle disaster in 1986, physicist Richard Feynman pondered what had caused a disconnect between managers and leaders that allowed the shuttle’s equipment to fail and its crew to die.

NASA’s leaders insisted they didn’t know about problems. Feynman concluded that either they didn’t know, in which case they should have, or they did know, in which case they were lying.

Either way, he wanted to understand why.

When the Challenger commissioners learned that NASA manager Lawrence Mulloy had pressured Thiokol engineers to clear the shuttle for launch, they also heard repeatedly that the next level up knew nothing about the engineers’ concerns.

Feynman wondered why Mulloy wouldn’t have told a higher-up something like: “There’s a question as to whether we should fly tomorrow morning, and there’s been some objection by the Thiokol engineers, but we’ve decided to fly anyway—what do you think?”

Instead, Mulloy said something like: “All the questions have been resolved.”

Feynman’s theory:

When NASA was working on the moon shot, everyone wanted it. Scientists didn’t know if they could pull it off, but they all worked together. Everyone was interested in everyone else’s problems.

Feynman remembered this same atmosphere from when he worked on the atomic bomb at Los Alamos.

When the moon mission ended, Congress had to be persuaded that the space shuttle would be worthwhile, so Feynman thinks NASA’s leaders felt compelled to exaggerate how safe and economical it would be, how often it could fly, and how important its discoveries would be.

Meanwhile, he guessed, NASA engineers would be saying, “No, we can’t make that many flights and we can’t do it for that amount of money!”

The leaders wouldn’t want to hear that kind of talk. It would be better if they didn’t hear it, so they “could” be more “honest.”

Before long, attitudes would shift. Disagreeable data wouldn’t rise. No leader would say explicitly, “Don’t tell me,” but that message would come across. When problems surfaced, you’d have managers saying, “Well, see what you can do about it.”

Engineers who tried to communicate would get pushed back, Feynman figured, and soon would decide, “To hell with it.”

That’s why NASA’s leaders didn’t hear about problems that would doom the Challenger.

— Adapted from “What Do You Care What Other People Think?” Richard P. Feynman, W. W. Norton & Co.

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