Monday, February 6, 2012

Remembering Roger Boisjoly: He tried to stop the Challenger launch

Engineer Roger Boisjoly examines a model of the O-Rings, used to bring the Space Shuttle into orbit, at a meeting of senior executives and academic representatives in Rye, New York in September 1991. AP

I had the opportunity to see Roger Boisjoly speak at M.I.T. back in January 1987. The event got almost no promotion; I found out only because I had friends in the Aero/Astro program (Course 16). The controversy over the Strategic Defense Initiative, a.k.a. “Star Wars”, had been raging for a couple of years, and space tech had become politicized. (Full disclosure: yours truly was in AFROTC.) My impression was that the Boisjoly talk was not entirely approved by the M.I.T. administration.

In any case, the lecture hall was packed. Boisjoly related the events that led to the fatal decision to launch in spite of clear evidence against it. Here’s a summary of that talk: Roger Boisjoly on the Challenger Disaster.

A few moments stand out in my memory. When the VP of engineering said, “We need to take off our Engineering hats and put on our Management hats”; when his friend, at T+60, said, “We just dodged a bullet” and said a prayer of thanks; when Boisjoly hung his head and wept for a little while.

All of this made a big impression on a young electrical engineer, about business ethics, the government, and defense contracting. If faced with a similar ethical test, I always hoped that I’d be as courageous as Boisjoly.

By Howard Berkes
6 February 2012

Roger Boisjoly was a booster rocket engineer at NASA contractor Morton Thiokol in Utah in January, 1986, when he and four colleagues became embroiled in the fatal decision to launch the Space Shuttle Challenger.

Boisjoly was also one of two confidential sources quoted by NPR three weeks later in the first detailed report about the Challenger launch decision, and the stiff resistance by Boisjoly and other Thiokol engineers.

The experience both haunted and inspired Boisjoly in the decades that followed.

We learned this weekend from this story in The New York Times that Boisjoly died last month in Utah at age 73.

Bulky, bald and tall, Boisjoly was an imposing figure, especially when armed with data. He found disturbing the data he reviewed about the booster rockets that would lift Challenger into space. Six months before the Challenger explosion, he predicted "a catastrophe of the highest order" involving "loss of human life" in a memo to managers at Thiokol.

The problem, Boisjoly wrote, was the elastic seals at the joints of the multi-stage booster rockets. They tended to stiffen and unseal in cold weather and NASA's ambitious shuttle launch schedule included winter lift-offs with risky temperatures, even in Florida.

On 27 January 1986, the forecast for the next morning at the Kennedy Space Center included a launch-time temperature as low as 30 degrees Fahrenheit. NASA had never launched in temperatures that cold and Boisjoly and his four colleagues at Thiokol headquarters in Utah concluded it would be too dangerous to launch.

Three weeks later, he told NPR's Daniel Zwerdling in an unrecorded and confidential interview, "I fought like Hell to stop that launch. I'm so torn up inside I can hardly talk about it, even now."

But Boisjoly did talk about it in a hotel room in Alabama, revealing for the first time the details of that effort to keep Challenger on the launch pad. He asked that he not be named but he agreed to be quoted anonymously. As he spoke with Zwerdling, a second engineer revealed the same details to me under the same conditions at his home in Brigham City, Utah.

Boisjoly's family agreed to release him from our pledge of confidentiality so that his efforts to get the truth out can be widely known.

"We all knew what the implication was without actually coming out and saying it," a tearful Boisjoly told Zwerdling in 1986. "We all knew if the seals failed the shuttle would blow up." […]

Remembering Roger Boisjoly: He Tried To Stop Shuttle Challenger Launch

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