Could twitter have saved the lives of seven astronauts?


When the space shuttle Challenger launched on the morning of 28 January 1986, Roger Boisjoly couldn’t muster the fortitude to watch the launch of the shuttle, as its engines ignited on the launch pad. Moments later, the crew was lifted through the sky to their deaths. Boisjoly and some of his colleagues had spent the preceding night petitioning and pleading, in vain, to avert this tragedy.

Boisjoly was an engineer working for Utah-based NASA contractor Morton Thiokol, who worked on the design of the solid rocket boosters for the space shuttle program. (Morton Thiokol received a $800 million in contracts for their work on the shuttle program, equivalent to a value of almost $1.5 billion today.) Boisjoly and his colleagues were terrified about the prospect of a disaster on this particular launch, because of the weather forecast for Cape Canaveral. The cold temperature triggered events resulting in the loss of the entire vehicle in the timespan of a couple heartbeats.

The explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986.

The explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986.

Is Boisjoly complicit in the deaths of the shuttle crew? Not at all – he was a true hero. He did everything he could, ultimately sacrificing his own career.

This disaster may be blamed on those who failed to heed the specific and detailed warnings offered by Boisjoly over the year preceding the avoidable tragedy. However, this might not be what you will read in the Rogers Commission report issued in the wake of the disaster.

The Challenger disaster occurred because of a failure of leaders who did not think that public knowledge would, or could, have any bearing on the life-or-death decisions happening in NASA headquarters.

A lot has changed since 1986. The veil that separates the public from governmental and industrial organizations has been partially lifted, through the distributed access to information through social media. When the public has access to technical information about government operations, then the mechanisms of accountability may change.

In the media environment of 2013, is it possible that Boisjoly could have prevented a disaster like the loss of the Challenger? Could Twitter have saved the lives of the Challenger astronauts?

Imagine these tweets, if they came out 24 hours before a predictably fatal shuttle launch:

Why was Boisjoly so fearful that shuttle was going to blow up? One component of the design of the solid rocket boosters was an O-ring that would become predictably unsafe when launching in cold temperatures. The forecast on that fatal morning was for conditions colder than any previous launch — below freezing — and below the temperature threshold that Boisjoly knew was required for safe performance of the elastic component of the O-ring seal. (If you’re older than 40, then I would bet that you must remember hearing a lot about the O-ring.)

Three weeks after the disaster, in an interview with NPR, Boisjoly reflected:

I fought like Hell to stop that launch. I’m so torn up inside I can hardly talk about it, even now.

One year later, in a subsequent interview, he explained how close he could have been to stopping the launch, if he could have been more convincing:

We were talking to the people who had the power to stop that launch.

Is it possible that the people — the taxpaying public — could have been the ones with that power? I don’t know the answer, but it’s an interesting question. If Boisjoly was an active twitter user, with followers who were fellow engineers able to evaluate and validate his claims, wouldn’t they have amplified his concerns on twitter and other social media? Wouldn’t it be possible that, in just an eight hour period, that a warning presaging the explosion of the Challenger would be retweeted so many times that the mass media and perhaps even NASA would have to take notice?

Wouldn’t aggregator sites like The Huffington Post and Drudge pick up a tweet like Boisjoly’s warning, if it got retweeted several thousand times?

Wouldn’t the decision-makers at NASA have to include very public warnings about a disaster in their calculation about whether to greenlight or delay a launch? Don’t you think they’d get even more anxious about the repercussions of overlooking the engineers’ concerns?

Wouldn’t the risk of an disaster, after warnings by an engineer who worked on the project, alter the cost/benefit calculus in the minds of the people who would have been able to delay the shuttle launch? Even if they didn’t believe the claims of Boisjoly and his colleagues, then maybe they would choose to delay the launch anyway, if engineers using social media were claiming it would explode? Just maybe?

Social media has altered the power relationships among large agencies, the media, and the public. Individuals with substantial issues may have their voices heard, worldwide, over a very short period of time. It is possible that information sharing on social media could have prevented the loss of the Challenger?

Even though Boisjoly was, obviously and without any doubt, in the right, he was shuffled out of the industry because he dared to challenge authority in order to save lives. He should have been lauded as a hero, but I only heard of his heroics when I read his obituary last year in the LA Times.

If Boisjoly was successful in his bid to delay the launch using a rogue social media campaign, he still would have been blackballed by the industry as a whistleblower. If such a plea would have been successful, then none of us would ever have known for certain if his actions prevented a tragedy. All of us, including the lost crew of the Challenger, would be able to live with that uncertainty.

Richard Feynman was a member of the Rogers Commission investigating the loss of the Challenger. He issued personal observations as an appendix to the official report, and it’s not surprising that they deal with technical details with accurate conversational aplomb, while also cutting to the heart of the matter:

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.

The crew of mission STS-51L: Francis R. Scobee, Michael J. Smith, Judith A. Resnik, Ellison S. Onizuka, Ronald E. McNair, Gregory B. Jarvis and Sharon Christa McAuliffe.  Image from NASA

The crew of mission STS-51L: Francis R. Scobee, Michael J. Smith, Judith A. Resnik, Ellison S. Onizuka, Ronald E. McNair, Gregory B. Jarvis and Sharon Christa McAuliffe. Image from NASA