Re: Physics Says...
"NASA were serially guilty of putting PR first, and it cost Astronauts' lives."
Often quoted as fact, but actually wrong. Yes, Feynman got it wrong. He was a good physicist. That doesn't make him a good investigator of organizational problems.
Description of Normalization of Deviance
"Social normalization of deviance means that people within the organization become so much accustomed to a deviant behavior that they don't consider it as deviant, despite the fact that they far exceed their own rules for the elementary safety". People grow more accustom to the deviant behavior the more it occurs . To people outside of the organization, the activities seem deviant; however, people within the organization do not recognize the deviance because it is seem as a normal occurrence. In hindsight, people within the organization realize that their seemingly normal behavior was deviant.
The Challenger Launch Decision
Diane Vaughan developed her theory of the normalization of deviance in The Challenger Launch Decision. She details how, during the developmental phase of the Space Shuttle Program, the normalization of deviance resulted in a dangerous design flaw in the design of the spacecraft. The group that was assessing the joints on the solid rocket boosters conducted analysis to find the "limits and capabilities of joint performance. Each time, evidence initially interpreted as a deviation from expected performance was reinterpreted as within the bounds of acceptable risk". The acceptance of this risk led to the Challenger exploding on the morning of January 28, 1986.
Morton-Thiokol was contracted by NASA to manufacture the Solid Rocket Boosters (SRB) that were used in the Space Shuttle Program. In 1981, a problem with the putty that was used to seal the O-rings on the SRBs was discovered. When the putty was added to the boosters, bubbles formed. During take-off, the gases from inside of the SRB would go through the bubbles resulting in a "localized high temperature jet which was drilling a hole right into the O-ring". Morton-Thiokol changed the putty and the method of putty application and considered it fixed. The engineers knew that the putty erosion could still occur, but with a very low probability of a catastrophic disaster. NASA determined that the erosion of the putty was an acceptable risk of flight. NASA and Morton-Thiokol characterized the erosion as an anomaly that was to be expected since the SRBs were such a new technology. Subsequent test flights showed putty erosion that was deemed acceptable by NASA and Morton-Thiokol even though the joint actually "deviated from expected performance".
NASA and Morton-Thiokol suffered from the normalization of deviance when assessing the safety of the SRBs. Diane Vaughan states, "As [NASA and Morton-Thiokol] recurrently observed the problem with no consequence they got to the point that flying with the flaw was normal and acceptable". On January 28, 1986, the normalization of deviance within the two organizations contributed to the loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger and the seven astronauts on board.