Today, we have two guest bloggers, both of whom were whistleblowers after the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after launch. The 25th anniversary of this disaster is next Friday, January 28. Both our guest bloggers—Allan J. McDonald and Richard C. Cook—will appear at Chapman University on Monday, January 24, at 2-5pm in Sandhu Conference Center to discuss the tragedy itself and what we can learn from it.
Allan J. McDonald is the author of Truth, Lies, and O-rings: Inside the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster. He was the Director of the Space Shuttle Solid Rocket Motor Project at the time of the Challenger accident and led the redesign of the solid rocket motors as Vice President of Engineering for Space Operations. He has presented more than eighty technical papers, earned an Honorary Doctorate of Engineering at Montana State University, and is on the Board of Directors at Orbital Technologies Corporation in Madison, Wisconsin. He retired from ATK Thiokol Propulsion in 2001, after forty-two years with the company.
We’ve posted Richard Cook’s guest blog today as well; click here to read that.
TRUTH, LIES, AND THE STATE OF THE U.S. SPACE PROGRAM
I initially wrote most of the material for Truth, Lies, and O-rings: Inside the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster some twenty years ago as if it were an engineering report augmented with sworn testimony from the hearings of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident and the congressional hearings on the results of the Challenger accident investigation. After the first closed executive hearing of the Presidential Commission, I decided I needed to document everything I knew, everything I heard, and much of what was reported in the press and news media concerning the accident and the investigations. When I first revealed to the Presidential Commission that Morton Thiokol initially recommended not to launch the Challenger because of the cold temperatures, right after NASA had just told the commission that Morton Thiokol only recommended to launch, Chairman William Rogers said to me, “Would you please come down here and repeat what you’ve just said, because if I just heard what I think I heard, then this may be in litigation for years to come.” I took his words to heart, because I knew who would be in the hot seat for any litigation to follow: me.
Some NASA officials at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, and several members of Morton Thiokol senior management were in collusion and were clearly trying to cover up this bad decision to launch, and I had just pulled the cork out of the bottle. When I was demoted by my company for telling the truth to the Presidential Commission, I decided at that time that I needed to document everything to protect myself from any litigation or any further retribution against me from NASA or the company.
I was assigned to lead the nearly impossible task of effectively redesigning the solid rocket boosters (SRBs). Only later did I learn that several members of Congress threatened to ban Morton Thiokol from receiving any NASA contracts if the company didn’t reinstate me to a position equivalent to the one that I had before my testimony before the Presidential Commission. Otherwise, my company would never have given me this critical assignment.
Truth, Lies and O-rings is the only book that has ever been published by an individual directly involved in the Challenger launch decision and who, then and now, is resolved to tell the truth about this great national tragedy, about the effort to return the Space Shuttle to safe flight once again, and about the warnings that went unheeded in the return-to-flight of the Space Shuttle in 1988 that led to the loss of the Columbia and her crew in February 2003, almost fifteen years later.
The Challenger accident was the major news story of the year in 1986 and captured the nation’s—and the world’s—attention. This was the first time that astronauts were killed in their journey to space in a long history of successful space flights starting with the launch of Yuri Gagarin by the Soviet Union in April 1961, some twenty-five years earlier. The Soviets had lost a cosmonaut in April 1967 when the parachute attached to the space capsule failed to properly deploy prior to touchdown in Russia. Three other cosmonauts were lost in June 1971 when their shirtsleeve oxygen system depressurized on their return to Earth; with no emergency oxygen system available, they suffocated. The U.S. space program had suffered the loss of three Apollo astronauts—Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee, and Ed White—in an electrical fire in their oxygen-filled Apollo capsule during a routine checkout of the capsule on the launch pad in January 1967, but the United States had never lost any astronauts on their way to or home from space.
The U.S. space program had been successful in landing a dozen astronauts on the Moon and returning them home safely since Neil Armstrong first stepped on the Moon in July 1969. The miraculous rescue of the Apollo 13 astronauts on their way to the Moon was such an extraordinary feat that it appeared that NASA could never fail or certainly could do no wrong. The Challenger exploding on January 28, 1986, in front of a grandstand filled with the astronauts’ families was so shocking that it took several years for this nation to recover from it, and NASA never did recover from its badly tarnished image.