Last night, BBC Two showed “The Challenger” – a film dramatisation of the public inquiry (the Rogers Commission) that investigated the causes of the catastrophic accident that befell the space shuttle Challenger. The film has the title Feynman and the Challenger in the US.
It was riveting. Amidst the political manoeuvering, and the attempts by NASA officials to mislead the inquiry at the time, Richard Feynman ploughed a course that uncovered the true cause of the disaster. He was played in this dramatisation by William Hurt, who delivered a completely believable portrait of Feynman, culminating in the scene where Feynman destroys the testimony of the NASA officials with a glass of iced water. I remember seeing the actual event on TV at the time, and thinking how extraordinary it was.
The dramatisation was based on Feynman’s experience on the Rogers Commission, as documented in his book What Do You Care What Other People Think? As wikipedia has it:
Feynman’s account reveals a disconnect between NASA‘s engineers and executives that was far more striking than he expected. His interviews of NASA’s high-ranking managers revealed startling misunderstandings of elementary concepts. For instance, NASA managers claimed that there was a 1 in 100,000 chance of a catastrophic failure aboard the shuttle, but Feynman discovered that NASA’s own engineers estimated the chance of a catastrophe at closer to 1 in 100. He concluded that the space shuttle reliability estimate by NASA management was fantastically unrealistic, and he was particularly angered that NASA used these figures to recruit Christa McAuliffe into the Teacher-in-Space program. He warned in his appendix to the commission’s report (which was included only after he threatened not to sign the report), “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”
That statement closed the film. It’s a film worth seeing.