Near the end of his life, when his career seemed to have sunk into obscurity, F. Scott Fitzgerald said of his great rival and erstwhile friend Ernest Hemingway, then at the peak of his fame as a novelist: "Ernest speaks with the authority of success. I speak with the authority of failure. We can never sit across the same table again."
Fitzgerald's "the authority of failure" is a great phrase that applies to much more than the relative attitudes of two major American writers. In a way, it addresses a traditional American state of mind.
Whether out of innate optimism, myth-making or other factors real or imaginary, Americans historically have been conditioned to success. They have never really learned to accept failure, as their reaction to numerous national disasters has demonstrated. Their tendency in such calamities as Pearl Harbor and Vietnam has been to search for scapegoats. Much like the ancient Greeks, who conveniently blamed inexplicable but inexorable events on the deus ex machina, a force beyond human control, Americans have often sought explanations for a disaster at hand in sinister, conspiratorial forces beyond their control. Thus, Roosevelt did it, or the media did it, or unknown traitors did it.
Seldom acknowledged openly are national failures that stem from causes spread across the entire society. That's why the Rogers Commission report on the Challenger space shuttle disaster is so praiseworthy. In its low-key, straightforward, matter-of-fact style, the report stands as a model of realism. It doesn't shrink from assessing the widest blame in the clearest language and does so with no trace of scapegoating or defensive apologia.
If you knew nothing about the space shuttle tragedy and what it symbolized to the country, the following simple declarative sentences in the report, under the perfect heading "an accident rooted in history," immediately and convincingly would establish the seeds of that disaster:
"The space shuttle's solid-rocket booster problem began with the faulty design of its joint and increased as both NASA and contractor management first failed to recognize it as a problem, then failed to fix it and finally treated it as an acceptable flight risk.
"Morton Thiokol Inc., the contractor, did not accept the implication of tests early in the program that the design had a serious and unanticipated flaw. NASA did not accept the judgment of its engineers that the design was unacceptable, and as the joint problems grew in number and severity, NASA minimized them in management briefings and reports.
"Thiokol's stated position was that, 'The condition is not desirable but is acceptable' . . . . NASA and Thiokol accepted escalating risk apparently because 'they got away with it last time' . . . . "
The Rogers report, maintaining that same sober statement-of-fact tone, depicts a more pervasive set of internal and external problems that affected overworked and overconfident space agency personnel and their civilian counterparts, among them growing stresses, strains, pressures and financial constraints.
Not all of these problems can be laid solely at the feet of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and/or its contractors. National policies about space and national attitudes about success also played a part. Together, they contributed to the virtually inevitable outcome of a shattering disaster in space that dealt not only NASA but also the nation a terrible psychic blow.
Most impressive about this dispassionate official judgment is the devastating yet not destructive way the panel has drawn its conclusions. It permits room for the nation to come to terms with, accept and correct this tragedy.
Here, other than offering a general endorsement of the need for continued strong support for the space program, the commission wisely refrains from prescribing specific remedies on how best to achieve that national goal. But one person with experience in space and political life had a reaction worth citing. Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio), first American to orbit Earth, instantly spoke about the need for changed attitudes.
"The mind-set of a few people in key positions at NASA has gone from an optimistic and super-safety conscious 'can-do' attitude when I was in the program to an arrogant 'can't-fail' attitude on the day the Challenger exploded," he said.
Not only NASA needs to change its attitude. Americans, too, need to understand that, in such national endeavors, risks are always present and that the rewards of success are often purchased only through failure.