In class last week we were talking about what it means to live our lives in an age of science by looking at everyday ways in which assumptions about science and technology become part of the "common sense" background to "what everyone knows." It's this background against which new information and events are absorbed, deflected, or judged. We looked at the famous "Duck and Cover" educational video from 1951 (featuring an animated "Bert the turtle") that taught baby boomer kids what to do in case an atomic bomb exploded nearby, and viewed a recent smartphone ad that deftly illustrated a theory of technological determinism in 30 seconds. And we also looked at myths from the Challenger disaster that linger on 25 years later (related post here).
All three of these artifacts are instances of manipulating the perceptions of those on the receiving end, but the sky-high costs of the conventional wisdom relating to the Challenger disaster is one that reverberates most portentously. This was brought home to me once again in the news that Roger Boisjoly, one of the Morton Thiokol engineers who had argued against launching Challenger, had died last January. I had met Mr. Boisjoly in July of 2000, when I brought him out to OU to speak to our NSF REU on Human-Technology Interaction, as part of the Ethics Workshops I designed for the engineering, computer science, and social science undergrads with whom we were working. Mr. Boisjoly's story was well-known to me as someone teaching topics in science and technology studies. But his work on the Shuttle as an engineer intersected with my regular-person life as well, and was also a factor in why the ethical aspects of the space program (engineering and otherwise) was something that I spent time exploring.
Growing up in southern California in the 1960s, we kids came by a "not a big deal" attitude toward the space program because it was embedded in the regional culture. We were used to playing outside and watching vapor trails cut across the blue expanse above us, and hearing window-rattling sonic booms that suddenly split the air, as test pilots hurtled far above the ground somewhere off in the distance. NASA missions would splash down in the Pacific ("our" ocean), and when the space shuttle program was being tested and then deployed, landings often occurred at Edwards Air Force Base. Of course one could play at space at Disneyland, with Rocket to the Moon (although most of us kids loved Tomorrowland best for Autopia, where we could finally take the wheel and cruise the open road: independently conquering terrestrial space at high speed was what we really wanted to do). And swooping and soaring and radiating "Googie" (space age) architecture was everywhere, in the coffee shops where we had breakfast on vacation, at the gas stations where our parents fueled up, and at the places where we went to for fun like bowling alleys and movie theaters. Theatrical architecture entertwined with the space program in a more somber form as well: within swimming distance off the shore at Long Beach were artificial islands (which were actually oil rig sites, elaborately concealed behind structures that looked like hotels with waterfalls and palm trees and colored lighting at night), which commemorated the deaths of the Apollo 1 astronauts -- Gus Grissom, Edward Chaffee and Ed White -- who had been killed when a fire broke out in the command module during a launch pad test in 1967.
Most of us had relatives and/or neighbors who worked in the aerospace industry at places like Rockwell, JPL, and TRW (one-third of the nation's aerospace engineers worked in southern California by the 1980s, and the industry employed a total of a half-million people). In my family it was my grandfather on my mother's side, Robert B. Barnes, an antsy high school dropout from small-town Ohio who was gifted at working with machines (he was a race car driver in the 1920s). He ended up in LA, becoming an employee at Menasco in Burbank in 1940. That's a picture of him from Menasco's annual report in 1946, which featured his story of rising from a lathe operator (.95/hr pre-war) to a position as an "experimental machinist" (1.90/hr), and about how he had been rewarded by "a committee made up of his fellow workers and management representatives" for a "suggestion he submitted for improving the handling of one of the parts of a landing gear." It was Menasco, in fact, that would later be the company that designed the landing gear that made it possible for the Shuttle to touch down on the ground upon re-entry. A small part of my grandfather's mind and hands had gone into the eventual developments that allowed each Shuttle journey to regain physical contact with home.
Aerospace engineering was not simply about rockets to the moon, of course; we knew as well that such efforts were directly entangled with the much larger defense industry -- after all, that was what had made southern California's economic sonic boom possible during World War II. Tied into the cold war arms race, the duck-and-cover drills we practiced in elementary school were also part of the space program: missile technology could deliver thermonuclear weapons to our doorstep as well as power spaceships to escape the earth's gravitational pull. If somehow this fact escaped notice, Harvard-trained mathematician and singer-songwriter Tom Lehrer broke it down for everyone on the 1965 song, "Wernher von Braun" from his album That Was the Year that Was: "'Once the rockets are up / Who care's where they come down? / That's not my department', says Wernher von Braun" (Lehrer was a staple on Dr. Demento's locally-produced KMET radio show, which began in 1971 and was a Sunday evening ritual). Selling the moon through feel-good media p.r. didn't obscure the fact that the ride to get there was propelled by "establishment" logic that also fueled an increasingly unpopular war in Indochina -- and anger at the establishment was increasingly on display at such historic events as the 1970 student riots in Isla Vista at UC Santa Barbara.
What was it like to be an engineer during such turbulent decades, when pressures converged from multiple sources, and with such high stakes in play? How had the engineering profession, the political, defense, and media establishments, and American society adapted in the aftermath?
Was Challenger tied to Apollo 1 and could it happen again? It was questions like these in addition to Challenger itself that we put to Mr. Boisjoly, who answered as many as we could manage to ask, with patience and candor and an intense desire to convey to the students how hard it is to maintain personal integrity within organizations in which accountability is diffused and complexity impairs clarity. In the end, just as it was necessary for such high-risk endeavors as the space program to engineer redundant safeguards into critical hardware and software components, so did we need redundant social practices that ensured that ethical decision-making would not encounter catastrophic failures. It was in working this through in conversation with Mr. Boisjoly that it became clearer to me that the Challenger failures were not due to proximate causes alone (what was or was not said or done in the night before the launch, or even in the years of working on the o-rings), but they had deeper roots that stretched back to the emergent years of the cold war itself. In the end, we were all implicated in Challenger's failed mission.
In overseeing his visit and meeting with Mr. Boisjoly in those few days he was here at OU, there was no escaping the overwhelming sadness that he carried with him. He spoke softly for such a large man, and carried himself in a way that displaced as little space as possible. It was hard not to feel that each time he went over his presentations about the Challenger events that he was re-living them, the pain and anguish and frustration and anger right there: about the horrifying outcome, about what he saw as the betrayal of his management colleagues to insist that the criteria be shifted to the contractors proving it was unsafe to fly rather than the onus being on management to prove that it was safe to fly, and about how he could no longer work as an engineer after he was seen as being a traitor to his colleagues for bringing files to light that had been kept from investigators (whistle-blowing). He said, however, that reaching out to the next generation was the best way of having the world make sense again.
Mr. Boisjoly was in occasional contact by email, and a few years later I was thinking of finding a way to bring him back to campus, but then the Columbia disaster occurred in 2003. I knew I could barely imagine what that must have been like for him; although he had been dubious about whether NASA had truly absorbed the lessons of Challenger, there was always the possibility that the costs that had been paid by all involved would result in such an event never happening again. And now that possible future was lost forever. I wanted to write to him, but I never found the right words, and was too worried about intruding and causing harm. Perhaps what I've written here is some small substitute for what I should have been able to manage then. I hope that now that Mr. Boisjoly has "slipped the surly bonds of earth" that he is at last at peace.