On this date in 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded on ascent, only 73 seconds after lifting off the ground at 11:38a.m., after being hit by the biggest wind shear an orbiter had recorded. Two space shuttle astronauts celebrated birthdays that day.
John M. Fabian was born in 1939 and flew two shuttle missions, the first of which was Challenger’s second flight. He was in the 1978 astronaut class with Dick Scobee, Ellison Onuzuka, Judy Resnick, and Ronald McNair, who were aboard Challenger for the ill-fated flight STS-51-L. Scobee made the mission’s last transmission: “Roger, go at throttle up.”
David C. Hilmers was born in Clinton, Iowa, in 1950. His first flight was Atlantis’s first. His second flight was aboard Discovery on the return-to-flight mission following the Challenger accident. He flew a second time on each Atlantis and Discovery, then retired and went to medical school. Hilmers was in the 1980 astronaut class with Michael J. Smith, the pilot aboard Challenger’s last flight.
On January 28, 1986, seven astronauts lost their lives, their cabin plummeting intact into the ocean. Five are mentioned above; the others were two civilian payload specialists on their first flight, teacher Christa McAuliffe and engineer Greg Jarvis, both on their first flight. We, like many others, watched the event replayed on television that day.
Today marks the first anniversary of the Challenger accident since whistleblower Roger Boisjoly died at age 73. We met Roger when he visited campus to donate his papers and other workplace artifacts to Leatherby Libraries, a collection we wrote about for Air & Space Magazine last year. One of the artifacts that Roger often showed was an O-ring, cut to the length used in a shuttle’s solid rocket booster (SRB). Morton Thiokol, Roger’s employer, built solid rocket boosters, and the O-ring was the cause of the accident above Florida’s Coast that cold January morning.
Of course, it wasn’t merely the O-ring itself, for most catastrophes are the result of a series of small problems. In this case, the O-ring and the cold temperatures the night before and at the time of launch (rows of tiny icicles hung from the railings of the tower that morning) were the fatal combination. But even the fact that Challenger launched on that brisk, frosty Monday, when school children around the country watched the event in their classrooms, was the result of four separate delays, seemingly minor mishaps, a cascade of otherwise innocuous occurrences. The previous mission’s delays had pushed STS-51L from a launch date of January 22 to January 24, and then bad weather at a Transatlantic Abort Landing site moved the launch date to January 25. The launch was delayed another day because of a weather report that predicted unacceptable conditions that never materialized. Then, the launch was scrubbed on January 27, which was a warmer, beautiful day, when a screw in the hatch couldn’t be removed and a dead battery in the drill that could fix it was replaced with another dead battery and another and so on.
Engineer Roger Boisjoly (pronounced boh-zhoh-lay, like the wine) seemed to us a very private man (he didn’t even want us to use a picture of him for his guest post), someone who felt, for the rest of his life, great responsibility for what happened to Challenger’s crew as the space shuttle reached nine nautical miles into the sky and had traversed just seven nautical miles east of the launch pad, still in view of the crew’s family, the press adjacent on the lawn outside the News Center, and Florida school children watching the first launch with a school teacher aboard. Roger Boisjoly felt this burden of responsibility because, in July 1985, he had written a memo expressing concern that O-rings could fail on ascent.
Roger had seen that, on a shuttle flight roughly a year before Challenger’s last, one of the two O-rings in a seal in the SRB had completely burned through and the second had been damaged. The O-rings didn’t seal the joint the way they had been designed to do. Instead, as the pressure changed in the SRB joint, the O-rings moved around briefly before sealing. Exhaust seeped through during this brief time a gap occurred, and that’s what damaged the O-rings that Roger saw. When the O-rings were exposed to low temperatures, that made them less flexible, increasing the time before the rings sealed and the chances that hot exhaust would damage the rubber rings. He knew that if the second O-ring had also burned through, a catastrophic accident would have been just seconds away.
So Roger sent a memo up the chain at Morton Thiokol. Then he sent another memo and another, and he wasn’t the only one concerned. When Roger pressed the issue with his superiors, a task force was set up, but nothing was done. On the day before its scheduled liftoff, when Challenger was go-for-launch for its tenth flight, Roger and other engineers convinced Morton Thiokol managers to recommend delaying the flight, and the managers arranged for a conference call with NASA fifteen hours before the scheduled launch. The engineers agreed on a no-launch recommendation, and NASA wouldn’t launch if a contractor explicitly stated that it wasn’t safe.
During the call, NASA wanted to know the exact temperature required for a safe launch, and the engineers presented data based on what they could grab from their offices. Roger remembered one manager being told to take off his engineering hat and put on his management hat. After a break during the phone conference, four Morton Thiokol managers backed off their recommendation and told NASA that their information wasn’t conclusive. With explicit objections to launch abated, NASA proceeded as planned. Roger worried that failure of the SRBs would occur immediately after ignition, before the shuttle even cleared the launch tower. When he got home, he told his wife he’d just been in a meeting where they’d decided to launch the next day and kill the astronauts.
Even years later, Roger wondered what he might have done. He didn’t want to watch the launch, but a colleague convinced him. He remembered the moment of relief he felt when the shuttle didn’t blow up on the launch pad but actually began its flight, a moment in which he, in hindsight, had let his guard down and let himself believe that they had, in his words, “dodged a bullet.” He wondered whether he should have tried to call the president directly. Two other whistleblowers who have been guest bloggers for Lofty Ambitions remain convinced that none of them could have done more and that, surely, Roger couldn’t have delayed the launch with a phone call and probably couldn’t have even reached the president directly or in time.
By 1987, Roger Boisjoly was actively advocating for workplace ethics. That’s the context in which we met him in 2010. As we remember the Challenger accident today and Roger Boisjoly’s death on January 6 of this year, we remember, too, that life went on for Roger and for us and that it’s our responsibility to recognize opportunities to make the world a better place.
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