The Challenger

If you’ve worked at a corporation, you’ve been to them. Meetings. Endless meetings. For almost all of my working life I was at IBM. Now that’s a big company. And we had meetings. It seems that I was always in a meeting. In 1986 I was a line manager in the computer design department. We were working on the next generation of midrange computers, to be called the AS/400. There was a lot to get done, and that took a lot of meetings. Meetings like the endless status meeting.

This Tuesday was no different than any other. One of my peer managers had a regularly scheduled status meeting right before lunch. There were only three or four of us managers in the meeting, and it was crushingly boring. “Tell me, Guy, how is your team doing on the floating point accumulator design.” “Terry, what’s the status on the problem with the ALU chip?” This would go on for almost an hour, with Harlan putting together a summary for the boss.

In 1986 there was no internet, barely any email, and nobody had a radio in their offices. If there was something important happening in the world, it could wait for the Nightly News at 5:30 that evening. When you’re working, you’re working. This Tuesday was different.

Usually the PA system at IBM was used for the occasional announcement of company news, the United Way collection drive, or the annual fire drill. This Tuesday was different.

Within minutes of the start of our weekly status update the PA came alive. “May I have your attention please.” “May I have your attention please.” They always said that twice, just to get your attention.

An announcement at 11:06 was unusual. All of the regular announcements, like the tornado drill, happened at the top of the hour. That got our attention. We immediately went into that position of listening to the ceiling talk, gazing somewhere into the distance, slightly above the horizon, even though you’re stuck in a windowless office with the doors closed.

By Kennedy Space Center [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Kennedy Space Center [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Those of us in that office had all come of age in the midst of the space race. We were all engineers, excited about science and the space program. That there was a Space Shuttle launch that morning was not  news to our group. That something could go wrong was nowhere near the realm of possibility. NASA didn’t fail.

That day NASA failed.

The words from the ceiling rolled right past me. I have no idea what the speaker said. Seven people we respected had just died. They left behind families, friends and co-workers just like us. My mind raced through possibilities. Terrorism wasn’t among the possibilities. An engineering failure was. I was an engineer. One of my own had failed somehow.

Not long before that day one of my engineering mistakes had been discovered. There had been reports of computer failures from Japan. Not failures, really, just inconveniences. Sometimes when turning on the System/38 it hiccuped and the operator had to turn it off and back on again. The problem cost maybe three minutes of someone’s time.

Not seven lives. Not billions of dollars. Not years of Space Shuttle redesign.

We sat in silence for several minutes, absorbing the announcement, trying to understand what it meant. We were engineers and understood what had happened. People died because of an engineering failure.

We sat in silence.

Until Harlan said “So, Terry, when will your team be ready to deliver the simulation files to Bill’s team?” Life goes on.

 

An announcement came over the PA system when I was in seventh grade, too. Right after lunch. In November of 1963.Grandpa Guy Havelick