Today is the 33rd anniversary of the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger shortly after liftoff from the Kennedy Space Center. It’s an event many Americans remember well, both because we saw it unfold live and because of the revelations of massive mismanagement that came later.
If you’re interested in some good old fashioned technical analysis of what doomed the Challenger crew, as well as the human factors that made an easily preventable tragedy a certainty, Episode 8 of Causality with John Chidgey provides outstanding insights into what went wrong.
There is also an extremely detailed 28 minute YouTube video called Inside Space Shuttle Challenger STS-51L During the Accident (Investigation and Analysis) that’s well worth watching. The channel is called Earth Station Alpha, and while I’m always leery of recommending people and views I’m not completely familiar with from YouTube, the video is a good one and seems to stick to well established facts.
And now for a slight tangent, but one I feel is in fact directly related to what happened in the sky over Florida 33 years ago. It is about knowledge, authority, peer pressure, and the ability to live with a clear conscience.
The lesson of Challenger is to never let anyone tell you you’re wrong if you have done your homework and know for certain that you’re right. Equally, the lesson is that you should never shut anyone down until you’ve done your own homework and made certain that they are not in fact correct, particularly when they are pointing out something that can lead to an undesired outcome.
Early in my daughter’s school career, an adult authority figure told her something that was incorrect, and I could tell from the look on my little daughter’s face when it happened that she knew they were wrong and was confused as to why someone she was supposed to trust would insist on something that was false. I waited until later when we were alone and told her to remember that feeling and trust it whenever people said or did things that were out of line with her understanding of the situation.
Whether lives are on the line and the stakes are insanely high or it’s just a matter of principal and doing what’s right, people all have their own motivations and no one should be inherently trusted to make the correct decisions just because they’re the right ones.
Far from turning my daughter into a rebel, this revelation has helped her to view information critically instead, and while she is positive and helpful and productive in school, she knows that she always has the right to determine for herself when she feels that something is wrong and she should stand up for herself. I will always accept and support her beliefs and decisions so long as she has considered them carefully and made a good faith effort to think and do the right thing.
It isn’t about casting aspersions on people and making a decision to dislike them, it’s about being willing to analyze all data critically and trust yourself once you have done so. You can like and trust someone and still decide that they are very wrong about something and that you’re not compelled to act according to their determinations.
It is our responsibility to give our young people the confidence to go against anyone, even adults, when they are certain it is the right thing to do. Obviously this directly applies to their own personal safety in the world, but also later to their roles in society and the workplace. Many good and smart people tell us to do things that turn out in retrospect to be really bad ideas, and not all people are good and smart to begin with.