Watching the inquiry into the space-shuttle disaster unfold last week, it was clear to me that much public turmoil lies ahead. Enough has been developed in press leaks and testimony taken by the Rogers commission to ensure that. There is, of course, a certain say-it-ain't-so-Joe sentiment holding us back from making a judgment that seems to grow more obvious every day, a sentiment that I expect works as a stronger restraint on premature conclusions than any fidelity to principles of judicial fairness does. So let us stipulate at once that (a)nobody wants to discover the worst about the management decisions that led to the terrible accident and (b)the worst has not yet been established beyond a reasonable doubt. By "worst," I mean a knowingly reckless decision to launch and artful and dissembling testimony and other steps to prevent the full scope of such recklessness from coming out.
But these prospects seem to be on just about everybody's mind right now, and it seems to me that there are a handful of guidelines that can help us deal with the conflicting, turbulent feelings and the arguments and revelations and defenses that lie ahead. The first requires all of us nonscientist laymen to get rid of the crippling combination of insecurity and romanticism that we characteristically bring to debates involving anything more technologically complicated than a mortar and pestle.
It is true that perhaps more than at any time in history a majority of human beings wander around completely lacking even the most elementary comprehension of how or why the paraphernalia of their daily lives work. Another age would have settled for interpreting it all as magic or miracle, but we look at the stuff coming over television and the way we communicate via satellite and computer, at the speed at which we travel and the marvel of the microwave-baked potato in ignorant but accepting reverence for their inventors. And for this reason I think a lot of us have been a little too complaisant and forgiving concerning the technological quarrels that preceded the launching of the foredoomed shuttle.
"These things have always been dangerous," you will hear people say. Or: "This was bound to happen sooner or later. The risk is built in." The layman's assumption here is that you almost can't get into conversation about particular risks or good or bad judgment, since the whole thing is so mysterious and risky by definition. A second line of argument has been that we should not get so exercised about evidence that warnings were issued from lower down, since NASA people and similar presiders over modern wonders of technology probably get dozens of such warnings all the time and must choose among them as to which is serious. And how are we to know . . . etc.
But I think we are all equipped to make judgments in these matters and that the nonscientists among us shouldn't be so self-effacing. The manned space vehicles were made to work, not to explode, and their explosion isn't a random thing, something that is simply bound by the odds to occur eventually. And I also think that anyone who has worked for more than 20 minutes in a bureaucracy of any kind -- business, professional, military or governmental -- will know how to recognize the difference between serious and unserious warnings. You don't have to be able to spout off on laws of thermodynamics for that, and this is the first thing to remember: A reasonable assessment of what went wrong is within the grasp of each of us.
Next, I think it is important to listen carefully to the testimony not just in technological terms, but in terms of its ringing true. I know this will sound unprofessional and unsystematic. It is both. But it is also the way we all make our most important and usually successful decisions every day. We determine the merit and nature of what we are hearing or are being asked to believe by its plausibility, and this we can measure only against our own experience in other situations and with other people. To me there has been something too carefully constructed, too clipped, too reluctant to add a single extra word in the testimony of those who were responsible for the launch. I am alternately put in mind during some of the testimony of the early Watergate holders-back and of a child who will answer when confronted with evidence he can no longer deny: "But you didn't ask me that." Quickly I add: I don't accuse the witnesses either of Watergate-type crimes or of kiddishness. I only say that to the normal listener, the testimony of a number of them has a ring of something funny to it, something not quite right.
The touchstone here is ordinary experience, yours and mine. We don't know at what temperature an O-ring ceases to function, but we do know how people who are taking warnings seriously react. On this basis, I have a great deal of trouble conjuring up a situation in which there was as much dispute as there appears to have been, up to the last minute, about the safety of the launch and yet in which the essential outline of the danger was not communicated to or understood by those with the power to delay. I am at least as troubled as Commissioner William Rogers professed to be by the way in which some of the most alarming information needed to be elicited over time, as distinct from having been offered immediately by the many people privy to it. Again, I stress that conclusions cannot yet be reached either way. But we don't need to be shy or scientifically insecure in saying that common, age-old human experience justifies our skepticism about much that has been said so far.
The one thing I don't think we need to hold back on is our enthusiasm for getting an absolutely straight answer, no matter how shattering it might be, especially to those children who, many feel, have already had an overdose of shock and disillusion. Christa McAuliffe, beakers in hand, could have taught them no more valuable lesson than the lessons that are bound to ensue from an inquiry that is honest and painfully unsparing.