With the 25th anniversary of the explosion of Challenger on January 28, we welcome two guest bloggers today: Richard C. Cook, author of Challenger Revealed, and Allan J. McDonald, author of Truth, Lies, and O-rings.
The Challenger disaster looms vividly in the memories of our generation. Doug had just attended a mechanical engineering lecture at the University of Illinois when a fellow student coming out of the cafeteria asked if he’d heard about Challenger. Anna was working on Knox College‘s literary journal in the publications office. From the adjacent Carl Sandburg Lounge, she heard students gathering in front of the television. We watched the video tape and listened to the broadcast for hours that day.
Given the place of this event in the history of our own lives, we’re interested to hear from the whistleblowers like Richard Cook, a retired government analyst who now resides in Roanoke, Virginia. He worked as a policy analyst from 1977 to 2007, spending time with the U.S. Civil Service Commission, the Food and Drug Administration, the Carter White House, NASA, and the U.S. Treasury Department. He is a lifelong student of meditation, operated an organic farm, and has a new book, We Hold These Truths: The Hope of Monetary Reform.
LESSONS OF TRAGEDY AND TRIUMPH FROM CHALLENGER
January 28, 2011, marks the 25th anniversary of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. A little more than a minute after Challenger was launched at the Kennedy Space Center on that cold winter morning, the Shuttle broke to pieces when an O-ring joint in one of the solid rocket boosters (SRBs) failed due to a burn-through. The seven Challenger astronauts died, with some possibly surviving until the crew cabin struck the ocean surface after plummeting 60,000 feet.
It was arguably the greatest tragedy of the space age. NASA and the booster contractor, Morton Thiokol, knew the O-ring joint was flawed. A redesign had been decided on, though flights were to continue while the repair was being implemented.
The night before the launch, engineers from Morton Thiokol argued vociferously that liftoff should be postponed, because they feared unusually cold temperatures would subject the O-rings to hardening and possible failure. Personnel from Rockwell, the orbiter contractor, had their own fears with respect to formation of ice on the launch tower that could crash down on the orbiter when the main engines ignited.
The Thiokol engineers who predicted a rocket failure were overruled by their own management, acting under pressure from NASA. Even though NASA knew the day of the mishap what had caused it, a cover-up began.
But whistleblowers spoke up. In my own case, I had been working in the NASA Comptroller’s office as the lead resource analyst for the SRBs. When a Presidential Commission was formed to investigate the disaster, I testified, after leaking some of the O-ring papers to the New York Times, on NASA’s past knowledge of O-ring problems.
With support from some Commission members, the Thiokol witnesses—most notably Al McDonald (see guest post today above) and Roger Boisjoly (see earlier guest post here)—also made known their opposition to the launch. In June 1986, the Commission duly reported on the technical cause of the launch failure.
But presidential commissions are also created to deflect political repercussions. What they did not report was the likely pressure coming from the White House to get the shuttle into orbit so that the Teacher in Space, Christa McAuliffe, would be aloft when President Ronald Reagan gave his state of the union speech that night.
When I wrote my book Challenger Revealed, I proved to my own satisfaction by using information from an interview I conducted of a key eyewitness, that President Reagan himself was likely involved in the faulty launch decision. But I am not a conspiracy theorist, and even though the White House knew that NASA was concerned about the possible effects of the cold weather, there was no evidence they knew the Thiokol engineers opposed the launch for SRB problems that had never been mentioned outside NASA or the Department of Defense.
But there was more to it than that. The Shuttle design had been compromised by decisions to make the vehicle an orbital platform for military missions. Challenger Revealed shows how much of the schedule pressure driving launch decisions in 1985-1986 came from use of the Shuttle for space weapons research under the Reagan administration’s Star Wars program. All this activity was—at least to my mind—illegal in terms of NASA’s 1958 charter for the peaceful exploration of space.
The Challenger disaster was a preventable accident. But the time to point the finger and find fault is long past. Today in 2011 the Shuttle program itself is becoming history. By the time I finished my book in 2006, after working on it on and off for twenty years, I was personally ready to forgive, allow the healing process to take over, and move on. I remain in that frame of mind today. I hope others, too, recognize that everyone did the best we could with the information we had available and the pressures that were brought to bear.
Through such forgiveness and healing we honor the seven Challenger crew members: Commander Dick Scobee; Pilot Michael Smith; Mission Specialists Judy Resnick, Scott McNair, and Ellison Onizuka; and Payload Specialists Gregory Jarvis and Christa McAuliffe. The lives of these seven highly accomplished and courageous human beings were lost due to some extremely short-sighted and mundane human failings. Though they risked their lives and lost them, I have no doubt they live on in many ways.
Their achievements and what they risked for their values have been a major part of my own adult life and education. Thus for me, recollections of the Challenger disaster have not been something to shrink from. There is much to learn from both triumph and tragedy and many transformative ways to view their meaning. I wish for all such an open-minded attitude of learning and exploration.