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On January 28, 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after its launch, killing six astronauts and one school-teacher before the eyes of millions of spectators nationwide. In a tragic instant, NASA’s succession of successful space missions crumbled into disastrous public mistrust in the face of this devastation. To investigate the cause of the atrocious accident and recommend steps for preventing such tragedies in the future, the government assembled a commission, chaired by Secretary of State William P. Rogers and consisting of politicians, astronauts, military men, and one scientist. That scientist was Richard Feynman, known as "The Great Explainer," a celebrated champion of scientific culturegraphic novel herodefender of integrity, and holder of the key to science.

As a no-bullshit science crusader, Feynman flew all over the country to NASA engineers who had become unsettled by how propaganda had eclipsed care and safety in the shuttle program. The report he published made the Commission so uncomfortable and NASA so embarrassed that it was almost suppressed. Feynman fought hard for its survival and in the end it was relegated to an appendix.

At the live press conference the Commission held to answer questions about the disaster, Feynman did his iconic tabletop experiment with one of the shuttle’s O-rings and a cup of ice water to dramatically demonstrate how those crucial gaskets had failed because managers dismissed engineers’ warning that it was too cold outside for the launch. 

Feynman’s historic report can be found in the excellent The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman, which also gave us Feynman’s timeless wisdom on the meaning of life, the universal responsibility of scientiststhe role of scientific culture in modern society, andgood, evil, and the Zen of science

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