Netflix Challenger Documentary

Steven D. Dorfman

As head of HCI I was involved in a pitched battle between NASA and Arianne for a contract to launch 10 future Hughes spacecraft. It was important for NASA to win to demonstrate their ability to serve the commercial market. We were skeptical when the government shut down all US Expendable Launch Vehicle launches of commercial satellites but we were pressured to accept the government position. NASA and Arianne both had very aggressive (and government subsidized} bids of about $30M per launch. In the heat of the competition NASA added the sweetener of permitting Hughes employees to fly on two of our launches as Payload Specialists though it soon became clear that they wouldn’t let us have much to do with our payloads. Frankly it was a marketing ploy that couldn’t be matched by Arianne. 

After we selected the Shuttle to launch our satellites (for other reasons) we decided to accept the NASA offer knowing that it would be a thrill for many at HSC to be in space despite the danger and a good morale booster for a dedicated workforce. We decided to post the opportunity and soon had 600 applicants! We narrowed it down to 10 and then selected a prime and backup for the two missions. Greg Jarvis as prime for the first mission and Bill Butterworth backup. After a schedule was posted for Greg’s flight NASA said they would like to bump him to a future flight in order to enable Senator Jake Garn to fly on the next Shuttle mission. I protested strongly but they wanted to placate an important source of funding for NASA so Greg was moved to another flight where the same thing happened for Representative Bill Nelson. That is how Greg wound up on the Challenger flight.

I was devastated after the explosion. Sometimes you make the right decision but you have the wrong outcome. This was such a case.

Later on, the government reversed the decision they had imposed on us and instead of all launches being on Shuttle… no commercial launches would be on Shuttle! And they unilaterally canceled our contract causing us to have several years of scrambling for ELVs. We ultimately sued the government for breach of contract and many years later won a $300M settlement.

The excellent Netflix documentary brought back all these memories and reminded me how badly NASA had screwed up and caused Greg’s death. It was painful but motivated me to share my thoughts.

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