Last night on Coast to Coast AM, Daniel, Michael and I discussed the Challenger disaster, one of the best known disasters in American history. RK, a listener, wrote that we had unfairly accused President Reagan of making the launch decision. I don’t think that anyone on air said that President Reagan decided to launch Challenger, but it might be a good idea to set the record straight.
The pattern of the evidence points strongly to the existence of a plan for the President to speak with the Challenger crew during his State of the Union address the night Space Shuttle launched. Such celebrations of American heroes were a classic Reagan touch, and NASA had submitted just such a proposal to the White House some weeks before. A hookup to the spacecraft required the launch on that day, and at that time, in order to be ready, since Challenger had to be settled safely into orbit. Others at NASA and at the White House appeared to be trying to make this dramatic moment happen for the President.
My belief cannot be confirmed, of course, since the people who were directly involved have never been questioned under oath. Nevertheless, it seems clear that the natural desire to please the President (as well as for other, more practical reasons, such as ensuring military funding of the Space Shuttle program) encouraged a number decision-makers to push hard for a launch rather than to postpone. Postponements had already occurred in this Challenger mission for a variety of reasons, and a delay until the afternoon to allow the ice to melt (Rockwell’s concern) and the boosters to warm (Thiokol’s concern) would not have been a big deal.
Without Reagan’s influence we are left with the question of why many levels of NASA administration would have overruled their contractors, who were certainly not in the habit of issuing dire warnings. We also are left with many questions about why the Rogers Commission investigation steered a wide path around the White House’s involvement, including the Commission’s failure to put various people on the record, or to collect certain documents and records that might have provided the American people with a better picture of why Challenger launched when it did. (The actual O-ring failure had been established definitively when the booster rockets were recovered: there was a hole in the casing large enough for a man to crawl through.)
Based on the evidence to date, it remains unconfirmed whether Reagan knew of the concerns raised about Challenger’s safety and made the launch decision. Certainly, he denied having done so. In my book, I reference Richard C. Cook’s Challenger Revealed (2006) that quotes Reagan’s astrologer Ed Helin, a man who clearly places the decision with the President. (Cook was a key government whistle-blower in the Challenger case and assembled evidence over many years.) Even without Helin’s accusation, it is important to understand that risks are often taken to please bosses, or at least not to disappoint them, even when the bosses do not give the order that puts people in harms way.
Although it is a heavy burden, all leaders must to be concerned about the unintended consequences of their behavior and the actions undertaken in their name, even when misguided. That President Reagan was apparently devastated by this decision taken on his behalf, even if not necessarily by his order, makes the Challenger disaster all the more tragic.
The analysis of the Challenger disaster appears in chapter 4 of Flirting With Disaster.