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Challenger Catastrophe

March 11, 1986

I have directed the launching of pioneering liquid-fueled rockets in Southern California and have a strong feeling of participation in the Challenger inquiries. I have found that astronautical safety is achieved along exponential trial-and-error curves that never reach perfection. I, myself, have been seriously injured by a liquid-fueled rocket motor explosion and firmly agree that defects in the shuttle hardware and launch command procedures need correction.

However, conditions for launchings do not involve all "white" or all "black" circumstances. Informed judgment is required. During pre-launching periods I have often been forced to make quick decisions about urgent schedules and contingent defects. If I had adopted an extreme safety policy (which would have involved unlimited time delays and funding beyond our means) our three rocket explosions would not have occurred but also none of the 12 successful launchings that I directed would have taken place, and as a result high-reliability equipment that was vital for the safety of our early manned orbital rocket flights would never have been invented.

Like all pioneering, the space business is a high-risk occupation and there will be more accidents. We should soon abandon accusations and finger-pointing, make corrections, give more authority to scientists and engineers and get on with the space program, for (like it or not) the human race is committed to expand the horizons of our knowledge and occupancy throughout the solar system.

EDMUND V. SAWYER

Napa

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