Antioch Law Journal

Article Title



Just over one minute into flight, the space shuttle "Challenger" exploded into a raging fireball killing all seven crew members on January 28, 1986. The ensuing investigations, both the one conducted by the President's Commission, chaired by former Secretary of State William Rogers, and the ones conducted by the press, made it clear that the solid rocket booster had severe preexisting problems that were exaggerated by the subfreezing temperatures at Cape Canaveral on the morning of the fatal launch. Moreover, engineers at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and at the booster manufacturer, Morton Thiokol, had expressed concerns about the launch--concerns which never got to the attention of those who made the final decision to launch. NASA, through the sixties and seventies, had been a model of enlightened management. Employees at all levels were encouraged to speak up and propose solutions to technical problems. A rather low level engineer came up with the umbrella idea which saved the Sky Lab project. Yet, even in an organization with a strong history of open communication, time, size, bureaucratic turf, external pressures, and cowardice ensured that key information did not get to those who could avert disaster. Congress voted to protect whistleblowers to facilitate communication of key information to those who can avert disaster. The disaster can take the form of theft of public funds, contract overcharging, or inadequate inspection of meat. It is a disaster when a public official is indicted for graft; it is a disaster when inadequate embassy security allows a terrorist to plant a bomb; it is a disaster when tainted drugs make it to the market. And it is surely a disaster when a NASA spacecraft explodes.