January 30, 2018 Zimmerman/Batchelor podcast

Please consider donating to Behind the Black, by giving either a one-time contribution or a regular subscription, as outlined in the tip jar below. Your support will allow me to continue covering science and culture as I have for the past twenty years, independent and free from any outside influence.


Regular readers can support Behind The Black with a contribution via paypal:

Or with a subscription with regular donations from your Paypal or credit card account:


If Paypal doesn't work for you, you can support Behind The Black directly by sending your donation by check, payable to Robert Zimmerman, to
Behind The Black
c/o Robert Zimmerman
P.O.Box 1262
Cortaro, AZ 85652

Embedded below the fold in two parts. Long discussion in part one on the Apollo 1, Challenger, and Columbia failures, and how NASA responded for each.



  • France's keating

    I am trying to find out the name of the book on Vietnam fake news that was on your show Jan 30, 2019. I love your show and listen each night . Thank you!!!

  • France’s Keating: I suspect what you are referring to is a different John Batchelor podcast, one in which I am not the guest. You should go to his podcast website and search there.

  • wayne

    “Welcome to the Roger B. Chaffee Planetarium”
    (newly updated in 2015)
    Grand Rapids, Michigan

  • Edward

    On the Challenger O-ring problem, NASA understood that the material reduced its elasticity with colder temperatures but had been reassured by experts that it would still do the job at the lowest launch temperature specified by the Shuttle requirements document. Further adding to the confusion about the O-rings was that the blow-by damage had been seen on a launch that took place at 73 F, making it seem as though temperature was not the problem but that something else, such as assembling the sections together, was the problem. It seemed possible that the O-rings were sometimes being pinched during the process of sliding the joints together.

    What was lacking, however, was a proper presentation of the available data. After the accident, someone created a chart that compared the extent of O-ring damage to temperature. The chart showed that below a certain temperature, damage always occurred, and as the temperature decreased, the damage got worse and worse. The chart showed clearly that launching at low temperatures was dangerous.

    Had Morton-Thiokol and NASA had that chart before the launch, no one would have recommended launch. Bad press due to launch delays had nothing to do with the launch decision. The NASA manager on the infamous conference call had said to his people that he would not go against the Thiokol recommendation, meaning that he would delay launch if the Thiokol experts that NASA relied upon recommended against launch. But instead, they recommended launch.

    A major problem was that everyone had this same data, but they had to create their own version of this chart in their own heads, and that proved difficult. It was like imagining the chart when all you could do is look at a spreadsheet of the data. This is why data presentation is so important. What seems to be independent of temperature, because the problem happens at such a wide temperature range, suddenly reveals that temperature is vital, once the data is visualized properly. This chart is the one chart that Roger Boisjoly needed, but did not have, in order to convince everyone that he was right about the problem.

    To add further to the overall problem, the requirement was that the Shuttle be able to launch at a certain air temperature (my recollection is that the temperature was 29F), but the metal around the O-rings had been soaking at a much lower temperature overnight. To make matters worse, one side of the SRBs faced the External Tank, which had been chilled with cryogenic liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. These factors meant that the metal and the O-rings were at an even lower temperature than the data suggested — lower than the experts had said that the O-rings would still do the job.

    Another major problem was that only ten months earlier Boisjoly had written a report explaining why it was acceptable to launch at the cold temperature. Now he confused everyone by insisting that it was not. Confusing the issue was that he presented the same data and charts to explain his new position. He was unable to explain why he changed his position, because he was wearing his management hat when he wrote the earlier report; he made it seem safe to launch under dangerous conditions, because he (1) felt pressure to say that the Shuttle met the temperature requirements at launch and (2) thought those dangerous temperature conditions would never happen again.

    And now you know why the news reports misled everyone as to the nature of the problem. To explain it properly bores virtually every audience and takes more time or column space than news organizations are willing to commit to their reports. Thus they report misleading quick statements, such as: Thiokol put on their management hats (Boisjoly had not been convincing that evening); NASA asked, in sarcastic exasperation, if Thiokol thought they had to wait until April to launch (this was not related specifically to launch the next morning but to a more overall discussion of the O-rings); waivers were used to hide problems (a lie, waivers highlight problems, because they require NASA review and approval); and that everyone should have realized that the O-rings would fail at the launch temperature (I earlier explained the temperature independence suggested by the tabulated data).

    The abbreviated version of events continues to propagate throughout the general population and continues to affect our culture. For an excellent analysis of the topic, I recommend “The Challenger Launch Decision” by Diane Vaughan.

    Richard Feynman’s own book, “What Do You Care What Other People Think?,” which has a discussion of the poor investigative process of the Rogers Commission (apparently the standard Washington political investigative process), explains why his own demonstration of an O-ring in ice water was misleading. Due to the flawed process, Feynman did not have enough time, on that commission, to drill down to find what the real problem was, so he, too, was misled into believing that it was as simple as cold temperatures reducing the elasticity of the O-ring material.

  • Richard Malcolm

    A great show – as always.

    I would niggle a little with John Batchelor’s assertion (around the 6:00 mark) that Apollo was really John F Kennedy’s program, and that there doubts if the Johnson Administration was even interested in Apollo.

    In fact, if anything, the evidence is ample that it was really the reverse. We now know from released Kennedy tapes and minutes that JFK was not terribly interested in space; what he wanted was a way to grab a realistic PR “win” over the Soviets. Credit to JFK for still taking the bold challenge that got Apollo its initial approval. But even during the Kennedy Administration, Lyndon Johnson was very arguably the greatest driving force for the space program. And after Kennedy’s death, Johnson dutifully worked (despite many distractions and deteriorating popularity) to ensure that Apollo funding levels remained at their very high levels – levels they needed to beat the December 31, 1969 deadline. “Control of space means control of the world,” Johnson declared. And he never wavered from that.

    I’m no fan of LBJ. His presidency was in many ways a disaster. But those of us who advocate for space need to give him credit for his indispensable role in seeing Apollo through to the finish line.

  • Cotour

    An observation:

    I listened to your spot on the John Batchelor show last night, always very informative and interesting, and I hear you promoting the site and thanking people for their generous contributions. But I never hear you invite people to go to the site and participate in the many varied and interesting conversations that ensue. (Besides the subject matter itself, isn’t the ensuing conversations what its about?) I think you are under selling BTB here.

    Just a suggestion that may bring more eyeballs and contributions your way.

  • Cotour: Thank you for the suggestion. As you might have noticed, I plug the comment section in my fund-raising announcement at the top of the page. On Batchelor there isn’t time to go into that kind of detail.

  • Cotour

    Respectfully: Your very creative, try to work it in, one sentence. Maybe once in a while sacrifice your comments on fund raising for an interesting subject / discussion plug comment? Your funding problems may have a much simpler solution and may well become self solving by driving more eyeballs through pointing out this point. Many people want to express their opinions besides just reading about space and technology.

    And you do not mention that you also post very politically timely and leading edge subject matter and IT can develop into an interesting discourse. The Batchelor show is heard by millions, I am not aware of how many eyeballs are seeing your fund raising announcement. Numbers is numbers.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *