Statistical Mistakes and the Challenger Disaster

After the Challenger exploded in 1986, killing all 7 astronauts aboard, an investigation into the cause was immediately launched. In the cold temperatures the night before the launch, the o-rings that seal off the fuel tanks from the rocket boosters became inflexible, so they did not seal properly, which led to the fuel tank explosion. NASA knew that there could be o-ring problems, but performed the analysis of their data incorrectly and ended up massively underestimating the risk associated with the cold temperatures. In this episode, we'll unpack the mistakes they made. We'll talk about how they excluded data points that they thought were irrelevant but which actually were critical to recognizing a fatal pattern.

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