This post was originally published on February 29th, 2012 on my personal blog.
I recently finished reading a very good book What Do You Care What Other People Think? — a collection of essays and letters written by Richard Feynman. Below are quotes I personally found interesting and thought provoking.
[doubting Descartes] was a reaction I learned from my father: Have no respect whatsoever for authority; forget who said it and instead look what he starts with, where he ends up, and ask yourself, “Is it reasonable?”
So Warsaw is not very heavy and dull, as one hears Moscow is. On the other hand, you meet at every turn that kind of dull stupid backwardness characteristic of government — you know, like the fact that change for $20 isn’t available when you want to get your card renewed at the US Immigration Office downtown…
The real question of government versus private enterprise is argued on too philosophical and abstract a basis. Theoretically, planning may be good. But nobody has ever figured out the cause of government stupidity — and until they do (and find the cure), all ideal plans will fall into quicksand.
When I heard the investigation would be in Washington, my immediate reaction was not to do it: I have a principle of not going anywhere near Washington or having anything to do with government, so my immediate reaction was — how am I gonna get out of this?
When I see a congressman giving his opinion on something, I always wonder if it represents his real opinion or if it represents an opinion that he’s designed in order to be elected. It seems to be a central problem for politicians. So I often wonder: what is the relation of integrity to working in the government?
I invented a theory which I have discussed with a considerable number of people, and many people have explained to me why it’s wrong. But I don’t remember their explanations, so I cannot resist telling you what I think led to this lack of communication in NASA.
When NASA was trying to go to the moon, there was a great deal of enthusiasm: it was a goal everyone was anxious to achieve. They didn’t know if they could do it, but they were all working together.
I have this idea because I worked at Los Alamos, and I experienced the tension and the pressure of everybody working together to make the atomic bomb. When somebody’s having a problem — say, with the detonator — everybody knows that it’s a big problem, they’re thinking of ways to beat it, they’re making suggestions, and when they hear about the solution they’re excited, because that means their work is now useful: if the detonator didn’t work, the bomb wouldn’t work.
I figured the same thing had gone on at NASA in the early days: if the space suit didn’t work, they couldn’t go to the moon. So everybody’s interested in everybody else’s problems.
But then, when the moon project was over, NASA had all these people together: there’s a big organization in Houston and a big organization in Huntsville, not to mention at Kennedy, in Florida. You don’t want to fire people and send them out in the street when you’re done with a big project, so the problem is, what to do?
You have to convince Congress that there exists a project that only NASA can do. In order to do so, it is necessary — at least it was apparently necessary in this case — to exaggerate: to exaggerate how economical the shuttle would be, to exaggerate how often it could fly, to exaggerate how safe it would be, to exaggerate the big scientific facts that would be discovered. “The shuttle can make so-and-so many flights and it’ll cost such-and-such; we went to the moon, so we can do it!”
Meanwhile, I would guess, the engineers at the bottom are saying, “No, no! We can’t make that many flights. If we had to make that many flights, it would mean such-and-such!” And, “No, we can’t do it for that amount of money, because that would mean we’d have to do thus-and-so!”
Well, the guys who are trying to get Congress to okay their projects don’t want to hear such talk. It’s better if they don’t hear, so they can be more “honest” — they don’t want to be in the position of lying to Congress! So pretty soon the attitudes begin to change: information from the bottom which is disagreeable — “We’re having a problem with the seals; we should fix it before we fly again” — is suppressed by big cheeses and middle managers who say, “If you tell me about the seals problems, we’ll have to ground the shuttle and fix it.” Or, “No, no, keep on flying, because otherwise, it’ll look bad,” or “Don’t tell me; I don’t want to hear about it.”
Maybe they don’t say explicitly “Don’t tell me,” but they discourage communication, which amounts to the same thing. It’s not a question of what has been written down, or who should tell what to whom; it’s a question of whether, when you do tell somebody about some problem, they’re delighted to hear about it and they say “Tell me more” and “Have you tried such-and-such?” or they say “Well, see what you can do about it” — which is a completely different atmosphere. If you try once or twice to communicate and get pushed back, pretty soon you decide, “To hell with it.”
So that’s my theory: because of the exaggeration at the top being inconsistent with the reality at the bottom, communication got slowed up and ultimately jammed. That’s how it’s possible that the higher-ups didn’t know.