How the inimitable professor solved the mystery of the Challenger explosion.

feynman.jpg Richard Feynman speaks as part of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident.  Credit: Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Quick, name one person from the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident, the independent committee appointed by President Ronald Reagan to investigate the probable cause of the disaster and to submit recommendations on how to move forward with the space-shuttle program.

If you can remember any of the commission’s members—and the group included such famous high-flyers as Neil Armstrong, Chuck Yeager and Sally Ride—then you probably remember the only member with no ties to aeronautics, NASA or Washington: Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist Richard Feynman. The science legend’s inimitable panache during the hearings made him an instant public persona, thanks to just a little bit of rubber and some ice water. 

The explosion of the Challenger on January 28, 1986, is probably the definitive “Where were you when…?” moment of the 1980s. I remember huddling in front of the TV in Ms. Schroeder’s first-grade class, eating popcorn with my classmates as we watched the launch. It seems many Americans were glued to their TVs that day.

Richard Feynman also happened to see the Challenger disaster on TV, but aside from the tragic loss of life, he “didn’t give it much thought.” But, after he reluctantly joined the commission—largely because of his immodesty combined with his wife’s boast that he was the only person who could reason what went wrong—it was all he could think about during a period of time he referred to as a “six month suicide.”

In Feynman’s account, he’s hardly the hard-boiled gumshoe the Senate was looking for. Feynman comes off more like the Chevy Chase-character Fletch, only with a Brooklyn accent, slightly dulled by California living. He was quick with a quip, while ignoring superiors; uninhibited, while always partially out of place with the rest of the commission; and picking up clues, while he bent over to tie his shoelaces. He even arrived late for the Commission’s first gathering when he misinterpreted the address of its location, hearing Eighth Avenue instead of H Avenue, as any native New Yorker may be prone to do.

Aside from his other idiosyncratic mannerisms, Feynman was an anecdotal machine: He always sat up front chatting with his limo driver while being ushered around Washington D.C., and he jabbered constantly with the press while the other committee members quietly hustled out of meetings. He also managed to piss off the committee’s executive director, Alton G. Keel Jr., during their first official meeting. Feynman never did figure out what he said to offend Keel. Classic Feynman.

But Feynman’s half-a-year involvement on the commission will forever boil down to a single iconic moment: His explanation of the malfunction that led to the shuttle’s explosion.

On the January morning the shuttle took off, it was 13° C (24°F) cooler than at any previous launch. Feynman hypothesized that the sub-freezing temperature dulled the expansion of the rubber O-rings in the rocket’s joints, which, in effect, behaved like creaky knees in winter. The bespectacled professor cut through the highbrow technicalities, giving a single, grade-school demonstration to the assembled members of the press: He simply dipped a rubber ring into ice water, illustrating its slow expansion due to rigidity and its likelihood as the probable cause of a fuel leak. 

While he managing not to alienate NASA engineers, whose work he respected, Feynman’s quick and analytical mind uncovered numerous faults with the space program and the Washington bureaucracy. Many in Washington resented and ignored his dressing down of NASA’s management.  As Feynman put it: “In science, you learn a kind of standard integrity and honesty,” not commonly found in Washington.

Feynman’s witty and highly-edited personal report of the Challenger tragedy was relegated to an appendix of the Commission’s main assessment, but has since come to be revered as a excellent model for risk management.

“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,” Feynman wrote. “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.”

Originally published January 27, 2006

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