MoonRising, Chapter 1
NASA had been bitten before by Hubris.
Apollo 1, with Grissom, White and Chaffee had dashed cold water on that, for a generation. And again, the agency had grown complacent with the feeling that they’d had similar problems and nothing bad had happened.
But Challenger was different. With Challenger, NASA tasted Original Sin, and in conjunction with the Office of the President of the United States, covered it up. The agency, which had begun to find a direction after Apollo, and a mission and a narrative that would let it expand in an progression to the Moon, and then Mars, never really found its identity again,and top management, and enough middle managers who knew the secret lost their innocence, and lost their nerve, and were forever after hampered in their actions and decisions by the knowledge of their guilt and complicency in the crime and the cover-up. For NASA on that morning, had launched against the warnings of their engineers, at the personal request of the President, and when it exploded, he asked them to deny he had asked, and cover up that he had asked. And the phone logs of the President of the United States, and the phone logs of the NASA administrator mysteriously disappeared on that day and have never been found.
For the President, the beloved, the elegant, the respected Ronald Reagan was to have given his State of the Union speech that night, and the first Teacher-in-space, Christa McAuliffe was to have been launched and cheerily given the first of many LIVE-from Space lessons to school children across the nation, kicking off President Reagan’s championing of both space exploration and support of education. And he had called the NASA Administrator to get his assurance that the shuttle would launch so he could include that in his triumphant State-of-the-Union Speech.
And the Administrator had called his lieutenants to get their assurance that it would launch, and so on down to launch control.
And instead of launch control being asked if it was safe to launch, and when did they think it would be safe to launch, the message launch control got was: I need to have your assurance that you will launch today because your President is counting on it.
This wasn’t ‘quite’ an order to launch, nor is it ‘undue pressure’ to launch – not quite- but it wasn’t really a primary concern for the astronauts safety, either.
And when the disaster happened, they covered it up that any of those phone calls had ever happened. Guilty of the sin in the first place, and guilty of the cover-up in the second. The management at NASA was hamstrung ever after by their own guilt, and the narrative that wasn’t true anymore.