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Richard Feynman, The Challenger Investigation, And One of History’s Greatest Speeches

The future doesn’t belong to the faint hearted. It belongs to the brave.

On January 28th 1986 the Space Shuttle Challenger disintegrated shortly after blastoff.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, President Ronald Regan’s address to the nation could be one of the best pieces of communication in the wake of a disaster. Nancy Duarte, author of slide:ology: The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations, calls it “one of the most well-crafted pieces of communication I’ve ever witnessed.”

In his book Great Speeches, Michel Eidenmuller described the situation:

In addressing the American people on an event of national scope, Reagan would play the role of national eulogist. In that role, he would need to imbue the event with life-affirming meaning, praise the deceased, and manage a gamut of emotions accompanying this unforeseen and yet unaccounted-for disaster. As national eulogist, Reagan would have to offer redemptive hope to his audiences, and particularly to those most directly affected by the disaster.

President Regan formed a special commission, The Rogers Commission, to investigate the incident. The investigation was led by William Rogers.

A key member of the Rogers Commission was Richard Feynman. Not only did Feynman discover what lead to the disaster, but he ensured the reasons were brought to light despite the pressure placed on him to acquiesce by the Commission.

Chairman Rogers and the other commissioners didn’t want to include Feynman’s thoughts because they believed his findings would be too damaging to NASA. In fact, Rogers threatened to throw them out of the final report.

Feynman, for his part, sent an angry letter to Rogers threatening not to sign the report as a matter of conscience. In the end they agreed to include a toned down version of Feynman’s critique of NASA in an appendix to the report.

Feynman’s conclusion:

If a reasonable launch schedule is to be maintained, engineering often cannot be done fast enough to keep up with the expectations of originally conservative certification criteria designed to guarantee a very safe vehicle. In these situations, subtly, and often with apparently logical arguments, the criteria are altered so that flights may still be certified in time. They therefore fly in a relatively unsafe condition, with a chance of failure of the order of a percent (it is difficult to be more accurate).

Official management, on the other hand, claims to believe the probability of failure is a thousand times less. One reason for this may be an attempt to assure the government of NASA perfection and success in order to ensure the supply of funds. The other may be that they sincerely believed it to be true, demonstrating an almost incredible lack of communication between themselves and their working engineers.

In any event this has had very unfortunate consequences, the most serious of which is to encourage ordinary citizens to fly in such a dangerous machine, as if it had attained the safety of an ordinary airliner. The astronauts, like test pilots, should know their risks, and we honor them for their courage. Who can doubt that McAuliffe was equally a person of great courage, who was closer to an awareness of the true risk than NASA management would have us believe?

Let us make recommendations to ensure that NASA officials deal in a world of reality in understanding technological weaknesses and imperfections well enough to be actively trying to eliminate them. They must live in reality in comparing the costs and utility of the Shuttle to other methods of entering space. And they must be realistic in making contracts, in estimating costs, and the difficulty of the projects. Only realistic flight schedules should be proposed, schedules that have a reasonable chance of being met. If in this way the government would not support them, then so be it. NASA owes it to the citizens from whom it asks support to be frank, honest, and informative, so that these citizens can make the wisest decisions for the use of their limited resources.

For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.

(h/t Kottke and Duarte)