“You have to
ask yourself the John-common-sense question. Why would you ever launch a rocket
in a thunderstorm?” asked Wayne Hale, 32-year veteran of human spaceflight at
NASA. Hale described “launch fever” at the SAIC/Safety and Mission Assurance (SMA)
Speaker Forum, and how to recognize and defeat it, by sharing tales from his
will sometimes be apparent and sometimes sneak up on you,” Hale said. He
defines this professional ailment as the decisions made when the desire to
execute the mission now replaces good
judgment. It’s encountered on the day—or even days—before a mission.
Launch fever exists
for all levels of personnel, but is most often found lurking in the rafters of
the organization chart. These aren’t decisions made weeks, months or years
before an operation. They are the impulsive choices executed under the pressure
of schedule, cost, politics and management.
Hale expounded on
launch fever using non-examples and examples—first speaking of the Apollo 8 mission.
In an existential contest between the USA and the Soviet Union, the agency made
a bold decision to send three crew members into lunar orbit.
“Apollo 8 was a
pretty gutsy call,” Hale said. Frank Borman, Apollo 8 commander, even compared
the odds of the mission to that of “surviving a combat tour in Vietnam.”
“Others said it
was a 50/50 chance of making it back,” Hale said. “That’s pretty risky. I don’t
think we would accept that level of risk today.”
decided on this many months before the flight. There was time to talk, evaluate
and debate. “So, that was not a launch fever situation,” Hale said.
The decision to
put crew on the first shuttle flight (STS-1, Columbia) was another risky move. “At the beginning of the program,
someone calculated that the probability of losing crew on STS-1 was eight in a
million,” Hale said. “I'm not sure where they got those numbers. Eight in a
million sounds pretty safe to me.”
Columbia launches April 12, 1981, heralding the start of the Space Shuttle Program. Image Credit: NASA
a different story.
The actual probability
of loss of vehicle and crew was more like one in nine. Some called STS-1 the
riskiest flight ever. “We were lucky, not necessarily smart. But the gamble
paid off,” Hale said.
NASA made these
decisions years–not days or hours—before launch. Again, not launch fever.
So what is launch fever?
On Jan. 28, 1986,
the STS-51-L Space Shuttle Program mission with the orbiter Challenger prepared for liftoff. The
forecast was a bitter 26 degrees Fahrenheit in Florida that morning. Water
leaks formed icicles on the launch pad.
“Based on that
visual, would you have wanted to launch a rocket?” Hale asked. Wide eyes and
shaking heads in the audience answered his question.
Icicles forming at the base of Challenger. Image Credit: NBC
was strong to get this mission on the road. They had scrubbed launching the day
before, and there were already 13 other instances of flight delays in the
the issue of temperature the night before and how it might impact the mission. They
discussed the field joint seals, which had previously shown problems. A redesign
was already in the works.
Late Jan. 27,
1986, the Solid Rocket Booster program manager and the joint seal supply
company, Thiokol, held an eight-hour-long
teleconference about the issues raised. Earlier analyses showed no link with
temperature and failure of the joint seals. “But, on this particular night, the
engineers saw a correlation with temperature. The colder it was, the more
likely it was to have problems,” Hale said.
After hours of debate
and consideration, the manager finally uttered those fatal words: “I found
their conclusion without basis, and I challenge its logic.”
He continued, “My
God, Thiokol, do you want me to wait
to launch until April? Take off your engineering hat and put on your management
Thiokol went offline to deliberate and came
back about an hour later, announcing, “We’re good to go.” The Challenger launch schedule stayed on
track for the following morning.
“Now, did that
mean they understood the engineers’ concerns and had alleviated those concerns?
A lot of people on the teleconference down in Florida thought that’s what it
meant,” Hale said.
The freezing morning
broke, and project managers polled each station—all reporting “GO for launch.”
No one uttered a word about the events of the night before.
“Would any hint
of ambiguity have caused senior leaders to delay the launch?” Hale asked. “We
will never know. That’s launch fever, folks.” On the 10th anniversary of the Challenger accident, NASA administrator
Daniel Goldin said, “The best way to honor the memories of the crew of the Challenger, and of all the men and women
who have given their lives to explore the frontiers of air and space, is to
continue their bold tradition of exploration and innovation. I've said many
times that safety is the highest priority at today's NASA. We will not waver
from that commitment.”
The STS-51L crew lost just 73 seconds after liftoff at an altitude of 46,000 feet. Image Credit: NASA
So how do we
avoid risky decisions that could end up costing more than just the loss of
property? Hale discussed lessons learned through a series of bullet points while
offering seasoned advice.
- Flight rules, or any other safety rule,
should be followed on launch day without exception.
rules are debated, discussed and negotiated by large teams of experts and should
stand the test of time. “Real-time changes do not allow for adequate review,” Hale
- Management personnel are typically
unfamiliar with the background for constraints because they have too much on
their mind. A person that’s in charge of the rule understands the nuances, the
background and the potential consequences. They are the people who must be
- Operational personnel who are “not in
the loop” of a decision made by inappropriate management personnel may not get
the word, and that could result in some really
bad decisions being made.
Hale’s sage advice
on avoiding launch fever is to be aware of your own process on launch day, and
know your own bias. “When you have worked for years, months or weeks on a
mission, you’re really interested in seeing it happen—particularly if there’s
been a delay. You have to treat each day as its own. Forget the fact that there
have been delays. You have to make your decision based on the facts of that
day,” Hale said. “If there are red flags, stop the play. Involve as many people
as you can. You’ve got to be ready to take the time to do the job right.”
launch fever can be as simple as three steps: communication; doing your
homework; and, if it doesn’t feel right, saying something.
“Boy those icicles on the launch pad
look real bad—maybe we should wait to launch.”
Don’t be afraid
of the consequences or intimidated by authority figures. “Though … that’s a
little tougher,” Hale said.
safety culture fostered at NASA’s centers only works when every voice is heard.
Overlooking safety to meet mission deadlines is the breeding ground for launch
fever. Remember these lessons as the agency moves forward—especially with
NASA’s Artemis program and its five-year plan to go forward to the Moon.
Hale left the
audience with this profound morsel of guidance. “The future of humanity is in
your hands. Don’t screw it up.”