Challenger and Complexity

“The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.’”
–Ronald Reagan


The last week of January is a time when those of us in the human spaceflight business pause to reflect on our colleagues who made the ultimate sacrifice in pushing the boundaries of space exploration.  The Apollo 1 pad fire in 1967, the Challenger accident in 1986, and the loss of Columbia in 2003 all happened roughly during this week in their respective years.  Yesterday morning, the team and I stood outside during the missing man flyover, each of us in our private thoughts on where we were on those occasions.  In particular, this year marks the 25th anniversary of the Challenger accident.  Some of us were early in our careers with NASA in 1986.  The accident left a lasting impression on many us, where we vowed never to let it happen again.  Some of us joined shortly after and were quickly indoctrinated into the same mindset.  Yet despite the best of efforts and intentions, it happened again.

In the course of thinking strategically for the future of mission operations, the team raised and discussed the topic of complexity on numerous occasions in recent days.  Yes, human spaceflight is a complex endeavor – that’s why it’s called “rocket science”, with that air of difficulty implying that only the best and brightest can rise to meet the challenge.  Until now, human spaceflight was solely in the domain of the Government.  Tomorrow, we may see commercial companies providing routine access to low earth orbit for far less in cost than that provided by Government-owned systems.  This is a tough business – will the commercial efforts succeed?

Deep in my heart, I feel that complexity is in part a natural order of things, and in part a consequence of what we do to ourselves.  The Challenger accident is an example of both.  The accident was as much a result of operating outside the tested conditions (in this case, cold temperatures) as it was a result of the complex decision-making systems and organizations intended to provide rigor and thoroughness, but led to an unintended consequence – the stifling of sound engineering recommendations.  The imposed complexities inherent in Government-owned human spaceflight systems were a part of the business then, as they are now.  As the team considered this point, we asked the question: are the imposed complexities really needed?

From the inside as we are, these are hard questions to answer.  Over 50 years we’ve built a methodology, an approach, a culture, to human spaceflight operations to meet the challenges we’ve faced over the years – technical, budgetary, workforce, and political.  Perhaps all that is needed to move forward is a commitment to reduce and eliminate imposed complexity.  Perhaps an outsider’s view of what is inherent complexity and what is imposed is necessary to bring clarity.  Perhaps waiting until one or more commercial space companies successfully send cargo and crew to low earth orbit, and back home safely again, is the proof of unnecessary imposed complexity that some require.  Personally, I’m in the first camp, and it is my challenge to the team to question, identify, and find ways to get rid of imposed complexity in our quest to make human spaceflight successful.

It’s the least we can do for the legacy of Challenger, Apollo 1, and Columbia.


Text © Joe Williams 2011

Photo courtesy of NASA


Challenger and Complexity