The engineer who tried to stop the Challenger Shuttle launch

Roger Boisjoly died last month, at the age of 73. You've probably never heard of him.  Like many engineers, he worked in relative obscurity, doing the sort of things that seldom make the news.

In July, 1985, while working at Morton Thiokol, he wrote a memo to his bosses concerning the faulty design of the Space Shuttle's solid rocket boosters that, if left unaddressed, could lead to a catastrophic failure during launch.

He was apparently ignored.

Following several more memos, a task force was set up, but was given no power, resources, or management support.  In late 1985, Boisjoly warned his managers that if the problem was not fixed, there was a distinct chance that a shuttle mission would end in disaster.

When the Space Shuttle Challenger STS-51L mission was confirmed for January 28, 1986, Boisjoly and his colleagues tried to stop the flight. Morton Thiokol managers agreed that the issue was serious enough to recommend delaying the flight.  Yet, after NASA pushed-back, the Morton Thiokol managers caved in, and made no objections to launching the Challenger.

The visual of what happened on that mission is seared into the memories of anyone old enough to remember it.  The O-rings on the solid rocket booster failed at launch.  At 59 seconds after launch, hot gasses pierced the shell of the booster, burning into the Shuttle's external hydrogen tank.  At 73 seconds, the Challenger disintegrated.

Roger Boisjoly, and his co-workers, knew exactly what happened.

Ronald Reagan ordered a presidential commission to look into the disaster.  Boisjoly was called as a witness, to give his opinion on how and why the O-rings failed.  Boisjoly found himself shunned by his coworkers, and resigned from Morton Thiokol.

He was subsequently diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). A letter written by him about this is published at fairwhistleblower.ca.  It makes compelling reading.

Boisjoly was awarded the Prize for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, for his integrity leading up to and following the Challenger disaster.

In a world with many fake heros, Roger Boisjoly was a genuine one.

New York Times: Roger Boisjoly, 73, Dies; Warned of Shuttle Danger

Wikipedia: Roger Boisjoly

Challenger: The Untold Story (a documentary movie)

 

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Comment by Roger Davies on February 17, 2012 at 11:28am

While I only carry an AAS degree, you know, not really an engineer, I do have much aerospace experience. When I first heard "them" talking about the O-rings on the boosters I thought, "No, I must have heard them wrong. Only an idiot would put a RUBBER O-ring on something that gets so hot!". These things are reusable, right? How about a stainless steel bellows type seal?

Oh, that's right, I'm not an engineer. What could I possibly know about this?

Kind of like the walk-way in the mall that collapsed a number of years ago. Wouldn't want to look at the possible dynamic loads.

Oh, that's right, I'm not an engineer. What could I possibly know about this?

Comment by Alyssa Sittig on February 10, 2012 at 9:47am

Wow! What an interesting story.

Comment by Jack Gilbert on February 8, 2012 at 9:39am

  Richard Feynman spoke of this in one his books. Richard was on the commission to study the shuttle disaster. He mentioned the engineers at Thiokal steering him to a problem with the O-rings. He was the one that dipped the o-ring in ice water during his presentation before Congress.

 

   Feynman stopped just short of accusing the Regan administration of pressuring NASA to launch the shuttle. The rumor is that Regan wanted to talk with the school teacher in space during his State of the Union address. The engineers at Thiokal did not know how the cold weather was going to effect this known problem with the o-rings. I guess now we know.

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