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When Encountering Launch Fever

Christie Reiser |
July 30, 2019

“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 NASA tenure.

“Launch fever 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.”

But NASA 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

Hindsight told 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

The pressure 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 previous months.

Engineers raised 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 hat.”

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.

Those flight 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 said.

  • 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 involved.
  • 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.”  

Defeating 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.

The exceptional 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.”

Wayne Hale presents at the SAIC/SMA Speaker Forum. Image Credit: Christie Reiser
Wayne Hale presents at the SAIC/SMA Speaker Forum. Image Credit: Christie Reiser
The prime crew of Apollo 8. From left: James A. Lovell Jr., command module pilot; William A. Anders, lunar module pilot; and Frank Borman, commander. Image Credit: NASA
The prime crew of Apollo 8. From left: James A. Lovell Jr., command module pilot; William A. Anders, lunar module pilot; and Frank Borman, commander. Image Credit: NASA