Sunday, August 12, 2007

Surely your'e joking, Mr Conant

Draft 3

The Space Shuttle Challenger was destroyed because of an O-ring defect, claimed super-physicist Richard Feynman. Though the shuttle commission didn't agree that the cause was definitely the O-ring, it did concede the possibility and pointed to the joint where that gasket was located as the source of the problem.

The commission also made a brief comment that sabotage was not an issue.

This comes up because I have just read John and Mary Gribbins' account of Feynman's role in the Challenger investigation in their book Richard Feynman, a life in science (Dutton, 1997). The British couple, who have co-written many popular science books, handily pieced together their account from various sources, tossing many accolades toward Feynman for his alertness and brilliance in solving that puzzle, as he had solved so many other puzzles.

But as a journalist somewhat familiar with intelligence and security agency trickery, another possibility jumps off the page: Feynman was being led around by the nose with planted evidence and a craftily helpful general. One cannot be sure whether or not the Nobel laureate was willingly being manipulated. Though a brilliant physicist, at this point Feynmann was suffering the ravages of intestinal cancer and was on his last legs.

Shortly after accepting the call to serve on the panel, Feynman went over to Morton Thiokol where he quickly discovered a report mentioning the O-ring flaw (just like that!). Once in Washington, Feynman was prevented by Chairman William Rogers from doing independent research, but with the help of the NASA chief and the exceptionally helpful general he managed to skirt that proviso, though his preparation barely counts as research.

Feynmann's now famous demonstration of how the O-ring lacked sufficient elasticity when exposed to cold was reported by the Washington Post and New York Times as some sort of breakthrough. Yet, the inquiry was still in its early stages. Whatever happened to Feynmann's vaunted love for the scientific method? Yes, he loved to play the performer. But why perform when the research had only barely begun?

Also, what about the chain of evidence? Can we really be sure that the bit of rubber provided by NASA was the real deal rather than a defective piece in some spook switcheroo? Can you imagine that a security operation wasn't monitoring every move and breath uttered by every commissioner? If you can, you don't know Washington security-politik.

Of course the propaganda value of Feynman's ploy was overwhelming, and the administration no longer had to worry about the political impact from the fears of sabotage that had been current at the time.

Certainly Feynman was terribly ill. But he was alert enough in his reports and public appearances to make it substantially likely that he realized he had done no real science but rather had misled the public and press into thinking a solution had been verified before anyone could possibly be sure.

The commission continued its "work" and eventually issued a report that included an appendix by Feynman. Obviously both the CIA and FBI would have been all over that case long before Reagan suddenly appointed the panel, apparently in response to press reports that NASA employees were in fear of their lives about what they knew. So what was the view of those agencies? The commission seems to have glided over those federal inquiries.

It's quite plausible that the Challenger commission was required to reach a conclusion ordained by the security system. Perhaps security chiefs feared looking bad or -- a darker possibility -- perhaps Soviet moles (remember the Walker spy ring and Aldrich Ames?) were being protected.

Here is one of the reasons sabotage was suspected: Challenger was set to deploy the last satellite needed for activation of a classified three-satellite military communications system. Other satellites intended for this system had been orbited during previous Challenger missions but several had become disabled. News accounts of the time said that a number of military satellite launches had gone awry, though I can now find no reference to that story on the net.

I'm not one of those who think that Gorbachev meant to rein in the KGB. The politburo chose him, I think, because he had the friendly used car-salesman persona more acceptable to the West than did his Oriental potentate predecessors, Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko.

Be that as it may. I well recall a news story of the era that reported that NASA had -- before the arrival of congressional investigators -- buried under tons of concrete in deep pits nearly all the physical evidence recovered after laborious undersea operations. You probably won't find that story via Google.

On the day after the disaster (or maybe that night), NASA held a teleconference session with journalists from around the nation. One guy had the audacity to ask whether sabotage was a possibility. His connection went dead and the NASA person acted as though he hadn't heard the question -- which he may not have. That didn't happen to any other questioner, none of whom brought up that already taboo subject.

Yes all this may be so, but why Feynman?

One cannot help but wonder whether a chit was being called in for a youthful indiscretion.

Feynman was a pet of J. Robert Oppenheimer, head of the Manhattan Project. Later, the whiz kid made light of his propensity for breaking into safes, rather than bothering with red tape, in order to provide Oppenheimer with secured documents. Recent scholarship makes a strong case for Oppenheimer having been a crypto-communist before being called to lead A-bomb research.

Though liberal scientists still believe Oppenheimer got a bum rap for what they see as his principled resistance to development of the H-bomb, more jaundiced eyes wonder whether a communist conspiracy was in action to thwart development of the super. (Let it be known: I detest nukes and totally agree with James B. Conant's principled opposition to development of the super, though I see that such a program became inevitable.)

The Venona files tend to indicate that Soviet intrigue in Washington was, if anything, worse than anything Joe McCarthy could have imagined, and also tend to substantiate Whittaker Chambers' general claims, though not all his details. (Do you suppose the NSA is not still holding back much that is in those files?) George Kennan, in his memoir, averred that the communist conspiracy in Washington had, McCarthy notwithstanding, been quite bad.

At the time MIT graduate Feynman went to Los Alamos from Princeton University, communism was the "in thing" among young Jewish intellectuals as well as generally among those youths who considered themselves knowledgeable atheists. Sorry if you don't like that. True anyway. Think of physicist Theodore Hall, who changed his name from Holtzberg to avoid anti-semitic bias. The Harvard whiz kid, who joined the Manhattan Project as an 18-year-old, was identified as a Soviet agent in Venona files released in the 1990s. Before his death, Hall admitted having been a Soviet sympathizer willing to assist Stalin's A-bomb aims.

Then there was Michael Straight, who used his progressive magazine New Republic to thump McCarthy, while concealing the fact that he had been one of those reds in the State Department that McCarthy was targeting. Straight had joined the communists along with Kim Philby and others while students at Cambridge and had gone onto become an NKVD operative in the State Department -- though he served in World War II as a bomber pilot. President Nixon appointed Straight, a scion of the wealthy Whitney family, as a cultural czar at the National Endowment of the Arts, despite his having secretly confessed to having been a communist spy.

Most kids grow out of such conceits. But, once compromised, how does one escape control? An analagous situation would be that of a young drug dealer forced to do dirty work every now and then for the DEA or some other federal agency. Blackmail may easily have been at work in Feynman's case. Not that he is likely to have cared about himself. But his son, just embarking on a career in science, would have been a worry.

Of course, when assessing motives we should take into account Feynman's idiosynchratic character.

The Gribbins recount the ultimate Feynman anecdote:

In 1981, a colleague, Brian Hatfield, happened upon a van decorated with Feynman diagrams that was parked at Caltech. Hatfield noticed the indices on the symbols were down, as in xi rather than up, as in xi. Knowing Feynman's casual disregard for such conventions, Hatfield immediately suspected that Feynman was the van's owner.

Peeking in a window, Hatfield spotted a bale of hay. That clinched it! Had to be Feynman.

[A previous draft of this post misspelled Feynman.]

No comments: