Out of the ashes of failure

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 May, 2011, 12:00am


Dr Charles Pellerin knows all about failures and disasters on a colossal scale. As a former top Nasa scientist and official, the physicist still remembers the day in 1986 he walked into his office and was told the space shuttle Challenger had exploded, killing all seven astronauts inside. Later, he was put in charge of the Hubble space telescope, whose early malfunctions - though subsequently repaired - proved to be one of the most costly mistakes in the history of science.

Out of the ashes of the Challenger and the Hubble failure, Pellerin revamped the Nasa management that helped restore the reputation of the world's greatest space agency. Today, as a consultant and academic, he is spreading the message that technology without proper management could be a direct road to hell. Among his clients is China's space programme, which is aiming to put a man on the moon and beyond.

As the man responsible for the launch of the Hubble telescope in 1990, Pellerin admitted 'being in charge of the biggest screw-up in science'. The Hubble project at the time of the launch cost US$2 billion, and it would take another US$20 million to fix it.

As Pellerin explains it, Challenger and Hubble both suffered from deviant organisational cultures. He mounted a mission to fix the telescope, with help from some 20 scientists against a bureaucracy that had written the project off.

He recalls the day that Challenger launched.

'That morning I drove into the parking lot, I saw people I worked with standing by the elevator, they were waiting for me.

Then they said it: 'Charlie, Challenger has exploded.''

A live broadcast on CNN and in American schools immortalised the infamous space shuttle that exploded after only 73 seconds of flight. It disintegrated into the Atlantic Ocean, bringing its seven passengers, including teacher Christa McAuliffe, down with it.

For millions of Americans, this was a seminal moment that saw their space programme, once the country's pride and glory, fall into a billowing cloud of smoke. The symbolic significance of the deadly crash was immeasurable.

During the 1960s, the Soviet Union and the US entered into a race to put a man on the moon. The competing space programmes became a visualisation of the power struggle in a bipolar world. The US won the fight when Neil Armstrong first stepped out of Apollo 11 in 1969. It was seen as a victory for the US, one that was negated as the cold war dragged on, Vietnam was lost, Watergate blew the lid on politics and, as a final kick in the teeth, Challenger showed that even Nasa could not swoop in and restore the nation's faith.

As the director of astrophysics at Nasa, the effect of the crash on Pellerin was much more personal, 'I knew astronauts on there and I had more payloads, like satellites, on that shuttle than any other organisation. I was so worried, we had tried to do a low-cost job and I was scared that we had done it too cheaply and the payload had come loose and killed all these people.'

As it turned out, the accident was caused by a failure in the O-rings (a type of mechanical seal) that failed to properly seal a joint on the right solid-rocket booster due to the cold weather. As a result, hot gases and flame escaped, burning through the external fuel tank and causing the tank and the orbiter to disintegrate.

However, after carefully studying the report on the accident, a sudden technical failure was put into a larger context for Pellerin.

He saw that the report clearly outlined that it was known the O-rings were not up to standard.

'We launched in the face of overwhelming evidence that we shouldn't have,' he said.

'Test data showed leakage rates with these O-rings, we knew that the colder it got the more they leaked; they launched Challenger outside the design limits of the orbiter. Think about that, it's nuts, why would you do it?'

Pellerin blames a managerial fault rather than a scientific one. Engineers where working within a 'deteriorating social context, or the normalisation of deviance, where behaviour that is deviant in a larger sense became all right locally, so no one noticed it'.

What had occurred was a chain reaction.

'The pressure to launch meant that the flight-decision team required a much more persuasive technical argument to delay the launch than to continue towards it.'

At the time, Pellerin missed the importance of political pressures that pushed Nasa to launch a space shuttle that was not ready, a mistake that was to be repeated with the Hubble telescope, a US$2 billion project that could only produce fuzzy images because of a faulty mirror. It had an outer edge that was too flat by a depth of 4 microns, which scattered the light from objects being studied.

'It was unthinkable that we would screw up a mirror, but it was such a small thing that nobody paid attention to it. It was a careless mistake. It was manufactured perfectly but to the wrong prescription. It was the wrong shape.'

Pellerin realised that once again, immense pressure had caused a senseless mistake. The error was managerial and as the director of the programme, it was his responsibility to fix it.

Pellerin was approached by a group of 20 scientists that had figured out an innovative way to fix the problem using a system called Costar, a corrective optic that worked like eyeglasses to restore Hubble's vision. It placed small mirrors in front of the original Hubble instruments, improving their vision to the original design goals.

The servicing mission would cost US$20 million, a tall order for a project that Pellerin had been told to forget about. In order to achieve it he had to go against the mentality engrained in the Nasa bureaucracy.

'I went to the head of Nasa procurement and I said I needed the money. He said no, it would make people angry. I told him: 'Look I'm going to fix the Hubble telescope, anyone who complains, you send to me.''

This personal risk led to the 1993 servicing mission of Hubble, a break in organisational protocol that resulted in the telescope becoming hailed as one of the most important astronomical instruments in the world.

It has now been located in its low-earth orbit at 600 kilometres above the Earth's surface for 20 years and has continued to produce photographs with clarity and resolution unattainable by ground-based telescopes. It has revealed the age of the universe to be about 13 to 14 billion years, played a key role in the discovery of dark energy, and charted all the stages of the evolution of galaxies.

Pellerin was initially vilified for the 1990 launch. But for fixing Hubble, he was awarded Nasa's outstanding leadership medal.

He has now left Nasa and started a company that helps to improve the performance of technical teams, such as those working on China's space programme.

Pellerin is in Hong Kong for consulting work. He delivered a lecture at the Space Museum on his work at Nasa.


The year of the first space shuttle flight when Columbia lifted off on April 12. Since then there have been nearly 100 shuttle missions