Appendix F. For successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations.

Richard Feynman
Richard Feynman via

June 6th 1986. Six months after the disaster, the Report to the Presidential Commission was released about The Space Shuttle Challenger.

Just over twenty eight years ago, I, like fellow children and citizens around the world, had watched the recorded images from January 28th 1986. We were horrified to see one of the greatest technological wonders of the world break up shortly after launch and crash into the sea minutes later. The lives of Challenger’s seven crew were lost, amongst them the first ‘ordinary citizen’ and member of the teacher in space project, mother of two, Christa McAuliffe.

As part of the follow up audit and report, Richard Feynman’s personal statement was included as Appendix F. Personal observations on reliability of the Shuttle. You can read his full statement. Below are just his conclusions and valuable lessons learned.

“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.”

Richard Feynman, 1918 -1988

“The Challenger accident has frequently been used as a case study in the study of subjects such as engineering safety, the ethics of whistle-blowing, communications, group decision-making, and the dangers of groupthink. It is part of the required readings for engineers seeking a professional license in Canada and other countries.” [Wikipedia]

Feynman’s Appendix F: Personal Observations on Reliability of the Shuttle is well worth a read in full.

From a business management point of view, Lessons Learned are integral to all projects and there is no reason why they cannot apply across industries. But they are frequently forgotten or ignored, in a project’s desire to look only ahead and achieve future deliverables on time.

Lessons learned can make a hugely important contribution to positive change and shaping outcomes. Assessing what worked well and how it can be repeated, just as important as learning from what went wrong or what was missing.

Public relations efforts which ignore learning from the past, and which fail to acknowledge real issues and gloss over reality doom a project to failure through false expectation. Whether due to naivety, arrogance, or under leadership pressure, it can put a whole project in jeopardy and threaten its successful completion.  Both internal and external stakeholder management are put at unnecessary risk .

In the words of Richard Feynman, “For successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations.”

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