As we remember the Challenger disaster, let’s not forget the engineers who tried to convince NASA not to send up the Space Shuttle on a cold morning thirty years ago. Armed with data, models, and perseverance, a group of Morton Thiokol engineers implored their managers and NASA officials to cancel the launch. It was too cold, they argued, and there was a very real danger that the O-rings around the joints of the booster rockets would not seal properly. This, sadly, is exactly what happened.
A few weeks after the disaster, two of these engineers were interviewed by NPR under conditions of anonymity. One, Roger Boisjoly, who died in 2012, told NPR’s Daniel Zwerdling in 1986, “I fought like Hell to stop that launch. I’m so torn up inside I can hardly talk about it, even now.”
Although well-respected by his peers before the disaster, Boisjoly became a pariah for his cooperation with the presidential commission investigating the disaster. He testified and provided internal documents, including the memo that he had submitted six months before the explosion in which he warned of the possible seal failure and that “the result could be a catastrophe of the highest order, loss of human life.” Boisjoly was forced out of space work and his colleagues shunned him. He suffered from depression and moody behavior. As a sort of therapy, Boisjoly began lecturing at engineering schools around the world on ethical decision making, corporate ethics, and trusting data. The experience helped him feel that he had made an impact on the students and it restored some of his lost self-esteem.
Another Morton Thiokol engineer has recently come out from under the protection of anonymity to speak about his experiences. The night before the launch, Bob Ebeling told his wife that the shuttle was going to blow up. Ebeling joined Boisjoly in that confidential NPR interview after the launch, both despondent and tearful as they recounted how they argued with their vice presidents and NASA for hours. “NASA ruled the launch,” the eighty-nine-year-old Ebeling told NPR last month. “They had their mind set on going up and proving to the world they were right and they knew what they were doing. But they didn’t.”
Ebeling didn’t experience the kind of atonement that came to Boisjoly. In fact, his faith has been deeply shaken by what he sees as his failure to convince NASA. He believes that “God picked a loser” and that he should have done more to stop the launch.
Without diminishing the impact of the Challenger disaster on the families of those lost, the fate of Boisjoly and Ebeling also merits attention. One man sought restitution by bringing his expertise in science and ethics to a younger generation of engineers. Given the investigating commission’s conclusion that there was a flaw in NASA’s decision-making processes, it would seem that Boisjoly’s efforts were well directed. Ebeling, on the other hand, describes the past thirty years as full of unrelieved guilt with his peace of mind constantly eroded by “what if” scenarios.
Why did the NASA engineers think it was so important for Challenger to launch that morning? They wanted to show that the space program could attain a regular launch schedule and that NASA could demonstrate reliability—they weren't even willing to postpone the launch. The space program also served, as Ned O’Gorman has argued, an ideological function. As O’Gorman put it in describing Ronald Reagan’s speech to the nation on the night of the disaster, “Reagan framed the shocking and manifest character of the Challenger disaster as a normal product of political freedom.”
Further, as O’Gorman notes, the Challenger incident opened up the space program to new possibilities of commercialization. Today, successful entrepreneurs vie with the government in the race to space. The traditional goals of exploration, conquering new frontiers, and advancing science have been overtaken by the ambitions of Elon Musk, Richard Branson, and Jeff Bezos, all of whom say they want to make space accessible to private citizens. Even if space travel is privatized and made open to the public, risks remain high and there will be new, unanticipated ethical responsibilities for those who put people in rockets. Part of that responsibility would seem to be the study of the history of the space program and the experience of Roger Boisjoly and Bob Ebeling.
It is fairly certain that neither Boisjoly nor Ebeling were naive enough to believe that Morton Thiokol and NASA operated as democracies. But they probably did believe that the expertise and experience for which they had been hired would be respectfully considered when it came time to assess the conditions of the launch and the viability of the equipment. After all, Morton Thiokol was the manufacturer of the component parts that failed and its engineers might be expected to know how their products would react under a given set of conditions. Yet when Boisjoly and Ebeling spoke truth to power, they found that their representation of objective risk was misconstrued by NASA managers as merely a case of subjective risk. Armed as they were with data and models, Boisjoly and Ebeling probably weren't quite prepared for being accused of “going with their gut”—and of learning where the pragmatism of science must give way before the exigencies of bureaucracy.
Leann Davis Alspaugh is managing editor of The Hedgehog Review.