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Engineers vs.

Managers R101 to the Space Ship Challenger



Beall Fowler
Professor of Physics (Emeritus)
Lehigh University
Bethlehem, PA USA

This paper was presented at the Nevil Shute Centennial Celebration in Albuquerque NM
in January 1999.

My first encounter with Nevil Shutes work was as a high school student
in a small town in Pennsylvania in the early 1950s, when I read The Chequer
Board. A few years later, On the Beach came along, both in book and in film. But
my serious interest in Shutes extended work came by chance; in the fall of 1985
my wife, 10-year-old son Chris, and I were in Oxford, England where I was on
sabbatical leave from Lehigh University. My son had acquired an interest in old
coins, and had discovered a place called the Omni that dealt in used stuff. One
day while he was looking at coins, I looked at the used books and came upon a
paperback copy of Slide Rule. I bought it, and read it, and found it very
interesting.

Then a few months later we were in Parma, Italy, where I was continuing
my sabbatical, when word of the Challenger disaster came. As the events leading
up to that disaster unfolded I recognized many of the same symptoms that led
up to the R101 disaster that Shute discussed in Slide Rule. And so in the
intervening years I have become a Nevil Shute addict and have further explored
the Challenger and the R101 disasters. This is the topic of the present session.

I would like to break this session up into several parts.

First, I will summarize some of the highlights of Slide Rule and will remind you
briefly of the Challenger disaster.

Second, I will describe in more detail aspects of the British dirigible program,
including not only Shutes material but also information from some other
sources. In the process I will tell you that there are those who do not agree with
Shutes interpretation of some of the events, and will discuss these differences.

Third, I will describe also in more detail aspects of the U. S. space shuttle
program as they led up to the Challenger disaster. It should be recognized that I
am neither a dirigible nor a space expert, so my information will of necessity be
incomplete and aspects will no doubt be incorrect.

In the process of discussing these last two topics, I will stress aspects of the
tension between the engineers and the managers that led to tragic outcomes in
both cases. This will lead into the final part, an open discussion that I would like
to center on the topic of decision-making in an organization:

Recognizing the tension between the people who know whats going on at the
micro level (the engineers, the people dealing with customers, the faculty) and
those who have to make macro decisions (the managers, the department
heads, the deans), what can be done to expedite the decision-making process to
balance between over-caution and tragedy? It is a tribute to Nevil Shutes
insights that his work can serve as a catalyst for discussing such important
topics.


Summary of some highlights of Slide Rule:


Shutes autobiography up to WWII. Oxford graduate, young engineer with
Vickers working on R100, an experimental dirigible. A sister ship, R101, under
construction by the Royal Airship Works at Cardington. Competition, ill feelings
between the two groups. David vs. Goliath. A number of political pressures for
early success of RS 101 (Lord Thomson). R100 made successful trip to and from
Canada. R101 tried to fly to India before adequate tests had been completed,
crashed and burned in France, many deaths. End of British dirigible program.

(Another interesting story in Slide Rule: After this Shute and others formed a
company to make airplanes. Fascinating tale of the struggles of a start-up
company that illustrates some of Shutes moral qualities.)



Brief reminder of the Challenger disaster:

In January 1986 the space shuttle Challenger exploded after launch with all
aboard killed (including Christa McAuliffe, a teacher in space. Subsequent
investigations showed an O-ring problem, known to engineers but discounted in
the desire for a quick launch. Political issues in a more general sense; to maintain
funding the program had to be perceived as successful, which meant frequent
launches.
More detailed aspects of the British dirigible program, including not only
Shutes material but also information from some other sources. Other
interpretations of the story.

1920s: airplanes were small and seemed insignificant. Dirigibles were
considered the future of long-distance travel. German Zeppelins already in use.

British desire to develop a fleet of large dirigibles, in part to hold the
Commonwealth together politically.

Balance between Labor and Conservative parties led to compromise initial
program: two experimental dirigibles would be built, R100 by Vickers and R101
by the Royal Airship Works at Cardington. Cardington group in overall control
of the program. Plan enthusiastically backed by Lord Christopher Birdwood
Thomson, Minister of Air.

Bad idea. Not enough dirigible experts. Vickers had Barnes Wallis, the best
dirigible engineer, as well as Nevil Shute Norway. Cardington had lesser people,
it appears. Wallis a bit of prima donna, had little respect for the Cardington
group. Competition rather than cooperation each side blamed the other. Might
still have worked out except for delays and political pressures to show success.
Cardington group generated considerable PR, had to back it up.

Innovations in design. Vickers on a fixed price contract, losing money, had to be
clever. Cardington had plenty of money, tried a number of things.
Vickers: long flight would be to Canada, use gasoline engines. Cardington: long
flight would be to India, use diesel engines (fear of gasolines volatility in the
tropics).

R100 (Vickers) made successful trip to and from Canada. A close call flew
through thunderstorm, but made it.

R101 (Cardington) too heavy. Cut apart, install new section. Expand gas bags,
leading to chafing problems.

Christopher Birdwood Thomson, Air Minister: extremely anxious to make the
long trip to India. Unhappy about delays. Several reasons wanted to convince
others to finance next stage of program (several more dirigibles), wanted to
enhance his personal prestige (possible appointment as Viceroy to India).

Thomson: (after a short test flight in R101): [The R101] is as safe as a house
except for the millionth chance.

Thomson: (as plans for the long flight proceeded): I must insist on the
programme for the India flight being adhered to, as I have made my plans
accordingly.

Frantic preparations deterioration of parts of cover. Reluctance of outside
experts to grant a certificate of airworthiness. Brief trials in good weather were
clearly inadequate preparation for the India trip. Engineers presumably knew
better, but all carried away by the stream of events, the pressure to fly to India.

R101 left in bad weather, which got worse as it flew over France. Gently crashed
and burned, most on board killed. Cause? Not certain, probably deterioration of
cover and gas bag leaks. The end of the British dirigible program.


Postscript: Shutes portrayal of the Vickers team as the good guys and the
Royal team as the bad guys has been contested by others as being too one-
sided see, e.g. Masefields and Johnstons books. This ill feeling towards Shute
was confirmed in a phone conversation I had with a person at the Airship
Heritage Trust at Cardington. I do not want to get into this further at this point
none of the principals argues with the poor judgment in the decision to have
R101 fly to India, or Thomsons fault in pressuring the flight to occur. However,
the Cardington people fault the Vickers group, particularly Wallis, for a lack of
cooperation. Vickers seemed (perhaps correctly) to perceive the program as a
winner-takes-all competition, while Cardington treated it as an experimental
development program in which they had sub-contracted part of the work
elsewhere. The point is, one should be aware that the views concerning the
relationship between the two groups as expressed in Slide Rule are not the only
ones extant.
More detailed aspects of the U. S. space shuttle program as they led up to the
Challenger disaster.

The U. S. space shuttle program suffered from the outset from the absence of
well-defined long-term goals. It was a compromise project that kept NASA afloat
after the successful completion of the Apollo moon project.

In order to justify the space shuttle program, it was necessary for extravagant
claims of its potential benefits to be made. Thus the principals claimed that a fleet
of shuttles would make frequent space flights, during which important science
and technology would take place, at a small cost compared with the cost of
launching non-reusable rockets.

However, the space shuttle is an extraordinarily complex piece of equipment
whose success is critically dependent on the lack of failure of large numbers of
components. It is not surprising, then, that the vision of low cost and rapid
turnaround was unrealistic. However, as that vision became unattainable,
increasing pressure was placed upon NASA officials to justify the space shuttle
program.

This led to programs that generated public notice, such as the congressman in
space and the teacher in space programs. But it also led to pressures to launch
shuttles as rapidly as possible.

In December 1985 January 1986, a series of technical and weather-related
problems had forced NASA behind its launch schedule. Furthermore, President
Reagans State of the Union address was coming up, and the Challenger was to
contain among its crew Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher in space. Thus, while
there is no evidence of overt White House pressure to launch before the State of
the Union, clearly if that could be done the President could refer to the teacher in
space and NASA would gain valuable publicity.

Various delays did in fact occur, and when finally the launch date was set
Florida suffered a rare and serious freeze. Never before had a shuttle been
launched in such cold conditions. This created worry among a number of
specialists, especially among engineers from Morton Thiokol who were
responsible for the O-rings in the large booster rockets. These O-rings, made of a
flexible material, were designed to keep hot exhaust gases confined within the
rocket at places where the sections of the rocket were joined. And they were not
designed or tested for operation under such cold conditions. Furthermore,
exhaust gas leakage at O-rings had occurred in earlier launches; this was a
recognized problem.

Despite serious reservations by Thiokol engineers, the managers decided to OK
the launch. As we all know now, one of the O-rings did fail with catastrophic
results. Not only were lives lost but the entire space shuttle program was set
back several years.
Aspects of the tension between the engineers and the managers that led to
tragic outcomes in both cases:


Engineers: knew limitations of systems.

Managers: desire for success led to wishful thinking, denial?

Estimates of risk:
R101: Lord Thomson, (after a short test flight in R101): [The R101] is as safe as a
house except for the millionth chance. (This despite a fatal failure in an earlier
British dirigible.)

Challenger: (from Feynmans book): likelihood of engine failure; engineers, 1 in
200 or 1 in 300; manager, 1 in 100,000.

Drive to go ahead:

R101: Lord Thomson: (as plans for the long flight proceeded): I must insist on
the programme for the India flight being adhered to, as I have made my plans
accordingly.

Challenger: Jerald Mason: Take off your engineering hat and put on your
management hat. Lawrence B. Mulloy: My God, Thiokol, when do you want
me to launch? Next April?

Recognizing the tension between the people who know whats going on at
the micro level (the engineers, the people dealing with customers, the faculty)
and those who have to make macro decisions (the managers, the department
heads, the deans), what can be done to expedite the decision-making process to
balance between over-caution and tragedy?