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Whistle blower in ‘Challenger’ disaster donates personal papers to Leatherby Libraries

May 11, 2010

The engineer who detected flaws with the O-Rings that caused the 1985 Challenger disaster, has donated his personal papers to the Leatherby Libraries. The gift will be formally accepted at a 5:30 p.m. dedication ceremony Thursday, May 13, in the Malloy Performance Portico, third floor, Leatherby Libraries.

Roger M. Boisjoly worked as a technical troubleshooter for Morton Thiokol, the manufacturer of the solid rocket boosters used in the Space Shuttle program. He raised vigorous objections to the launch the day before the shuttle lifted off but Morton Thiokol management overruled his “no launch” decision. The shuttle exploded as Boisjoly had feared and the entire crew was killed. A letter he wrote warning of the faulty O-Rings can be seen here in the National Archives Digital Vaults.

Despite professional recriminations, Boisjoly testified before the Presidential Commission investigating the disaster and was instrumental in exposing technical shortcomings in the program. For his tenacity and honesty Boisjoly was awarded the Prize for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility by the America Association for the Advancement of Science.

In retirement Boisjoly has been a frequent lecturer on scientific ethics and has participated in several panels held at Chapman University. The event is free and open to the public, but reservations are requested and can be made by calling 714-532-7742.

One Comment leave one →
  1. August 18, 2010 12:00 pm

    Let me explain my take on the disaster.

    On January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger disintegrated at 11:39AM. The crew cabin flew free of the conflagration and fell toward the earth. The initial forces on the crew were in the area of twelve to twenty times the force of gravity. These forces are not sufficient to cause death and unlikely to even cause injury. There are oxygen tanks available on the backs of the seats. These tanks are turned off during flight and have to be manually turned on. Three of four in the command section were turned on. Analysis of the amount of air used is within the bounds of what individuals would breathe during the fall to earth. The crew cabin fell to earth for two minutes and forty-five seconds. There is no clear conclusion to the question of whether or not these astronauts were conscious up to the point of impact. If they were conscious what they would have been thinking is also a matter upon which there is no clear conclusion. The crew cabin struck the ocean at two hundred and eight miles per hour. This is equivalent to over two hundred times the force of gravity.

    January 27th, 1986: That evening there was a telecon meeting between Morton Thiokol, Marshal Space Flight Center and Kennedy Space Center.

    The four engineers from Morton Thiokol recommended canceling the launch because the temperature at the pad was too low. They noted that previous launches at low temperatures had coincided with damage to the o-rings protecting the joints in the rockets from the contractions and movements of the launch and flight. It was pointed out that if an o-ring failed hot gas would be expelled from the resulting hole in the rocket.

    NASA placed pressure on the company to launch. Morton Thiokol cleverly developed a new way to make decisions removing the engineers from the process and disregarding their report.

    It should be emphasized that the men who made the decision to launch were not bad men. They were upstanding members of the community with wives and family. They had legitimate concerns about their jobs and futures. Morton Thiokol was pursuing a new contract with the government for a one billion dollar contract for missiles. NASA was trying to get a launch done while under considerable pressure from the White House to get the thing up on schedule.

    It is of course also to be noted that while these upstanding members were under severe pressure to make a difficult decision, it was not quite as serious a situation as falling for two minutes and forty five seconds at two hundred and eight miles per hour into the surface of the ocean less than a day later.

    No one who advocated that the Challenger be launched over the objections of the engineers lost their jobs, were demoted or punished.

    Morton Thiokol was liable under its contract with NASA for a ten million dollar penalty in the event of such a failure but was also liable for all damages that resulted from such a failure. NASA in a brilliant move released them from liability for the damages if they would immediately pay the ten million dollar penalty. (Losses from the Challenger disaster are minimally two billion dollars.) However, upon later consideration concluded that Morton Thiokol should not pay the ten million immediately but should take it out of later profits. However, there is no indication that any such money has been paid.

    Morton Thiokol won the missile contract they were seeking and also continued to build the rockets for the shuttle, although there were able to charge a higher price.

    The CEO was later quoted, which he said was taken out of context, as saying that the Challenger disaster had cost the company less than ten cents per share of stock.

    Roger M. Boisjoly and Allan J. McDonald, the engineers who was principally responsible for raising concerns about the launch and were willing to discuss what had happened in the discussions between Morton Thiokol and NASA were shunned by colleagues and demoted.

    Let us review.

    No one who sent these astronauts to their deaths were fired, demoted or otherwise punished.

    The company that built the malfunctioning units and whose officers had sent the astronauts to their deaths were rewarded with further contracts and improved profits.

    Those that warned of the danger were demoted and shunned by their colleagues.

    Their warnings had no effect. They might very well have smiled, said the shuttle rockets were the epitome of engineering perfection, and asked to be assigned to a new and promising project.

    So, let us place ourselves in the position of McDonald or Boisjoly. You can object to the launch and save no one. Even if you directly participate in the decision to launch giving every possible assurance of safety when you know nothing of the kind, you will not be punished.

    Goodness, this is not like your usual example in ethics is it? In the classical decision making example in the standard textbooks, you have an ethical decision which if you make you will lose your job, your income and have your future seriously damaged.

    This is a real one.

    You no matter what your training or experience can give an opinion based on hard evidence to your company of imminent danger based on your product and not only do they not care, neither does the consumer. When death occurs it is you that is penalized even with full national news focus on the subject and a commission of inquiry asking you whether or not you have been retaliated against. Your superiors chew you out using expletives and when found out claim they never even raised their voices. But nothing will happen to them. You rocked the boat. The company knows what you do not. They will not be penalized. You were right but you were right in the wrong way. You’re just not a team player. You don’t have the right attitude. Killing, maiming, destroying the prospects and impairing the future of your nation are not serious problems. The worst moral failing you can have is not playing well with others.

    The worst thing about this little piece of history is what it says about the standards of morals and ethics at the highest level of government, media and industry. The story held to was that this was an unfortunate accident. Most people still believe that.

    http://www.onlineethics.org/CMS/profpractice/ppessays/thiokolshuttle.aspx

    http://history.msfc.nasa.gov/book/chptnine.pdf

    http://www.jstor.org/pss/4165304

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