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They do, in short, what people in Hollywood thrillers always do. But Vaughan argues that the O-ring problem was really just a symptom.But what made Apollo 13 unusual was that the dominant emotion was not anger but bafflement–bafflement that so much could go wrong for so little apparent reason. The cause of the accident was the culture of NASA, she says, and that culture led to a series of decisions about the Challenger which very much followed the contours of a normal accident. In the technological age, there is a ritual to disaster.When planes crash or chemical plants explode, each piece of physical evidence-of twisted metal or fractured concrete- becomes a kind of fetish object, painstakingly located, mapped, tagged, and analyzed, with findings submitted to boards of inquiry that then probe and interview and soberly draw conclusions.For these revisionists, high-technology accidents may not have clear causes at all.
In real accidents, people rant and rave and hunt down the culprit. I., its explosion was caused by a single, catastrophic malfunction: the so-called O-rings that were supposed to prevent hot gases from leaking out of the rocket boosters didn’t do their job.
“Dear friends,” the mission commander, Captain Frederick H.
Hauck, said, addressing the seven dead Challenger astronauts, “your loss has meant that we could confidently begin anew.” The ritual was complete. But what if the assumptions that underlie our disaster rituals aren’t true?
There was no one to blame, no dark secret to un-earth, no recourse but to re-create an entire system in place of one that had inexplicably failed. The heart of the question is how NASA chose to evaluate the problems it had been having with the rocket boosters’ O-rings.
In the end, the normal accident was the more terrifying one. These are the thin rubber bands that run around the lips of each of the rocket’s four segments, and each O-ring was meant to work like the rubber seal on the top of a bottle of preserves, making the fit between each part of the rocket snug and airtight.
But from as far back as 1981, on one shuttle flight after another, the O-rings had shown increasing problems.