Left Coast / Right Coast: Hubris causes many bad decisions

I was watching a Netflix series about the Challenger disaster in 1986 and it made me think of the old saying "Pride goeth before a fall." Hubris causes many to make bad decisions.
Mike Gold living the dream in the Pacific Northwest. Photo credit: Nancy Gold.

Mike Gold, a retired entrepreneur "living the dream in the Pacific Northwest."

I was watching a Netflix series about the Challenger disaster in 1986 and it made me think of the old saying "Pride goeth before a fall."

In other words, hubris causes many people to make bad decisions.

If you recall, they launched the space shuttle on a particularly cold morning for Florida. The “O-rings” that held the sections of the booster rocket together were made of a particular material that contracted in cold weather. It turned out they leaked rocket fuel below 53 degrees F. That morning it was about 38 degrees at launch time. The rings leaked, allowing the solid rocket fuel to escape from the booster – which caused a fatal explosion of the entire spacecraft, killing all seven astronauts. 

The report issued by the Federal Commission showed that the rocket manufacture, Morton Thiokol, knew of this flaw. The evening before that launch, Morton Thiokol had recommended they not launch. But pressure from NASA senior executives resulted in them changing their recommendation and the launch proceeded. Their overconfidence cost lives.

Several years later, the redesigned booster rockets allowed NASA to resume the space shuttle launches and they successfully re-started the program until about 2011 – when the last remaining Space Shuttle was retired.

This incident made me think about some of humankind’s great failures and their causes.

The NASA management pushed hard on maintaining a very tight schedule for all the space shuttle launches. There were dozens of satellites that had to be put in orbit, including the ones that allow our GPS equipped phones to function – enabling us to locate ourselves within a meter or so on the surface of the earth. 

In other words, even though Morton Thiokol knew of the problem, the desire to successfully put satellites into orbit over-rode the prudence that should have been followed.

In 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated upon re-entry to earth. An extensive report confirmed that a piece of insulating foam that came loose during launch made a hole in the shuttle's left wing causing the craft to disintegrate. 

Since it was well known that pieces of foam often came loose during shuttle launches, the report concluded that NASA's organizational structure "was responsible for achieving safe, timely launches and acceptable costs, which are often conflicting goals."

Many of us remember the Exxon Valdez running aground, spilling upwards of 750,000 barrels of oil into Prince William Sound. Exxon wound up paying almost $1 billion in damages to aid the cleanup. No specific fault was assigned to the spill – but one wonders in the middle of the night – with the Captain asleep – if whoever was in charge might have had one too many nightcaps while on the graveyard shift.

Probably some reasonably smart people were behind most great bank robberies. I say smart because to plan and execute such an event would require precise planning and execution and a high degree of confidence. Willie Sutton was a famous bank robber who said he robbed banks because “that’s where the money is.”  

What was not smart was the fact that modern forensics and the fact that any “caper” today that involves multiple people – will leave electronic footprints that are much easier to follow than in the pre-computer age. That’s also true for something as “simple” as a neighborhood “stickem up” where security cameras and cell phones of people on the street seem to always provide key information that leads to an arrest. Over confidence leads to the quick arrest of most bank robbers.

If you look at the history of wars (which have been waged since mankind first established itself on our planet), it always seems as if someone in a position of power decides that some neighboring country or tribe has offended the initiator somehow. And the clear strategy to do is to overcome that country/tribe in retribution. Then to strip the conquered entity of its riches. In other words, economic gains are almost always part of the objective. Too bad the conqueror usually fails to comprehend exactly what is being started and is overconfident in his abilities. 

Hitler thought Germany was powerful enough to conquer the world – with some help from Japan and Italy. Turns out not only Italy and Japan disappointed him, but so did most of his generals. As the Russians closed in on Berlin, Hitler, “safe” in his bunker committed suicide just a day before the Russians seized the German Chancellery. 

So one can conclude that hubris is an over-powering way of thinking about things that has a fatal flaw. The flaw being one’s appetites are often too big for one’s stomach/abilities.

As for me, I’m satisfied with my station in life. I have no ambition to take over “za worlt."


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