How Conflict Made All the Difference to the Rogers Commission

Last Updated Jan 14, 2008 3:15 AM EST

Not only did NASA have a 225-page report to look to for recommendations after 1986's Challenger disaster, they could look at the workings of the investigating Rogers Commission, itself.

The 14-member commission, set up by the Reagan administration just days after the Challenger disaster, was comprised of a diverse group of former astronauts, military men, lawyers, government officials and even a prominent theoretical physicist.

Despite personality conflicts and some uncomfortable ties to government agencies (agencies that might be made to look bad depending on the commission's findings) the report and its presentation to the American public was largely a success. Findings were released just over four months after the commission was formed, and though some feel that the report went a little too easy on NASA management, the findings have withstood ensuing scrutiny.

Professor Feynman, the agitator of the group, showed a fair amount of disdain for the process and a distrust of his fellow commission members, whom he felt had an interest in protecting the reputation of NASA. Yet through his dogged determination to have his voice heard and through some concessions from the rest of the commission, he was able to convince the commission and the press, through an iconic demonstration using a piece of an o-ring, a clamp and a glass of ice-water, that it was the cold weather and its effect on the o-rings caused the destruction of the shuttle and that poor communication and conflict avoidance brought about the disaster.

In the end, Feynman felt the commission's report was watered down, however, and threatened to take his name off, unless he could write in his own personal findings, which, by way of a compromise, were included as an addendum.

The way the commission was set up, its mandate to hear and consider testimony from engineers involved in the design of the solid rocket boosters, its diverse membership, and its access to the press helped inconvenient findings like those of Professor Feynman reach the people who needed to hear them. If only this type of access, clear and insistent communication, and finally belief, even if somewhat begrudging, in the expertise of team members had been a part of the culture at NASA and Morton Thiokol.