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.

This entry was posted in In Memoriam, People/Culture by Jack Fisher. Bookmark the permalink.

About Jack Fisher

Jack was a systems engineer at Hughes from 1961 to 1992. He contributed to various programs including Surveyor, Pioneer Venus, Galileo, Intelsat VI and innumerable proposals. He was the manager of of the Spacecraft Systems Engineering Lab until his retirement. Upon retirement Jack taught systems engineering at a number of national and international venues.

1 thought on “Netflix Challenger Documentary

  1. HI Steve

    The damn shuttle killed the aeronautical satellite as well.
    I was in Geneva with Capt Dorian and the US team when we got the Russian block on our side and got approval to set aside VHF frequencies for aeronautical communication. The French delagation quit and then I got a surprise.

    Hughes called and said- come home NASA pulled the plug
    The french agreed to ride on the shuttle and your program is DEAD
    and it was

    20 years later Pan American set up a meeting in DC to celebrate our valient attempt. I was very pleased that the Aging Frank White was well enough to attend.
    The next week I got a call from comsat. they said in essence– you were right we were wrong.
    so much for history

    Roland Boucher

Comments are closed.