COVID-19: Lessons from the Challenger Disaster

(This was originally posted on LinkenIn on March 25, 2020.)

As the ill-fated launch for the Space Shuttle Challenger approached, design engineers from Thiokol recommended postponing the launch due to the effects of the cold weather on the O-rings which acted to isolate hot gases from the rest of the craft.  Under intense schedule pressure from NASA, Thiokol managers told their lead engineer something which will live in infamy,

“Take off your engineer hat and put your management hat on.”

That brings us to the current desire by the President and some of his most ardent supporters to have America “open up” by Easter. Their worries about the stock market, unemployment and other aspects of our economic life are truly legitimate. On the flip side, many public health professionals believe that our social distancing and other practices will need to stay in place long after that.

The question is how we determine the balance between the recommendations of public health professionals who advocate continued vigilance and economists and politicians who want to head back towards life as usual.

This is really a risk management exercise. We are balancing two risks:

  •  The economic risk of continuing the current measures additional weeks or months until public health professionals are confident that they can be relaxed, versus,
  • The health risk to the nation created by ending our response too early.

History shows – in the Challenger disaster and many other occasions – that when we let short term economics or public perception drive what should be technical decisions, we get into trouble. As the late famed physicist Richard Feynman said about the Challenger, “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”

The virus doesn’t care about the economy, it only cares about how it replicates itself.

We should heed Dr. Feynman’s advice here. The virus doesn’t care about the economy, it only cares about how it replicates itself. We can’t fool it with rhetoric. But we can slow it down with continued precautions. The President needs to take a step back and heed the advice of the professionals, not the managers.

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