By Hamish Johnston
The BBC and the Open University have teamed up to produce two television programmes about Richard Feynman – the Nobel-prize-winning scientist who died 25 years ago.
Outside of the physics community, Feynman is probably best known for his diligent and outspoken role in the investigation into the causes of the Challenger disaster.
Like many of my generation, I can remember exactly where I was when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after take-off on 28 January 1986: it was a snowy Tuesday in Guelph, Ontario, and for some reason I was still at home at 11.39 a.m. when the accident occurred.
I say accident, but the Rogers Commission that investigated the crash reported that design faults and communication failures were partly to blame for the disaster – which claimed the lives of all seven crew members on-board Challenger.
Feynman was a member of the commission, and during a televised hearing he famously immersed an O-ring in a glass of ice water to show how it would fail in the extremely cold temperatures experienced on launch day. This failure was linked directly to the explosion and this demonstration is one of the enduring images of the Challenger legacy.
Feynman was not the first to realize that the low-temperature failure of an O-ring was the likely cause of the explosion. The Morton Thiokol engineers responsible for the booster rocket were apparently aware of the problem and had recommended against a launch that morning – but they were reputedly overruled by their superiors.
While Feynman’s ice-water demonstration may have been pure theatre, he was so concerned about how NASA dealt with the risks of spaceflight that he insisted on writing his own independent addendum to the Rogers report. In it, he accuses senior NASA management of either being unaware – or of ignoring – the engineers’ concerns about safety.
The Challenger is the title of a “factual drama” about Feynman’s role in the Rogers Commission that will be broadcast on Monday 18 March at 9.00 p.m. on BBC2. Produced in partnership with the UK’s Open University, the programme stars William Hurt as Feynman. Then later this year the BBC will broadcast a documentary about Feynman’s life.
Feynman is one of only a handful of physicists whose lives have been the subject of hagiography. In Feynman’s case, his bongo playing, nude sunbathing and other more risqué behaviour are all seen as part of his maverick genius. It will be interesting to see if this creeps into either programme.