Monday, February 1, 2016

Remembering the shuttle explosion 30 years on

On Jan 28, we passed the 30th anniversary of the Shuttle Challenger exploding 73 seconds after liftoff.  There was an orgy of remembrances as almost anyone who was alive "recalled" where they were and what they were doing when they found out.  An astonishing 17% of the USA public claims they saw it happen live—astonishing because the only network that showed it live was CNN and in 1986, they had nowhere near that sort of market penetration.  But this is really a minor quibble because once the shuttle blew up, the clip was shown endlessly for weeks.  So it is quite easy for someone to "remember" that they saw it live because they were probably only off by a few minutes.  (Here's the CNN footage I never saw—until Youtube.)

I was watching some pre-launch coverage on TV from my home in St. Paul, MN and fuming that I wasn't going to be able to see it live—we certainly didn't have CNN. It was ridiculously cold and I knew the weather pattern that had given us -25°F (-32°C) had pushed all the way down to Florida. When I heard it had gotten below freezing in Cape Canaveral the night before, I just assumed that everyone would have to good sense to wait until everything had properly warmed up.  There were freaking icicles hanging off the shuttle, for goodness sakes.  A youth spent trying to start cars with carburetors in sub-zero temps had taught me a LOT about the behavior of mechanical things in the cold. So I went to have breakfast figuring they would postpone the launch at least an hour.

I came back to the replays of the Shuttle blowing itself to bits. "You idiots," I screamed, and started a curse-laden rant that lasted nearly an hour. Then it dawned on me—the space program is a sun-belt activity. These people know nothing about cold. Besides, even I didn't know the explosion was cold-related. I had just jumped to that conclusion because it was so cold outside my house and had been for days.

Turns out my hunch was accurate. It was an O-ring that failed and it WAS cold-related. Moreover, the Morton-Thiokol engineers back in Utah were warning about that very issue when the launch went off. We weren't geniuses—we merely had experience with the cold. An easily avoided accident had killed the astronauts, traumatized a nation, and dealt the space program a nasty blow.

I had some seriously mixed feelings that day.  Of course, I was stunned to watch seven lives end in an ugly explosion.  On the other hand, I was putting the final touches on my first draft of Elegant Technology and had just spent five years immersing myself in the sad facts of USA's deindustrialization.  Watching a bunch of greenmailers and other economic pirates systematically destroy the muscle and sinews of the USA economy had been a profoundly depressing experience.  This was especially true because I was having a difficult time finding anyone else to believe how serious it had gotten.  So there was this small voice inside of me that went, "YES!  NOW they will understand that it was a huge mistake to turn the USA economy over to the pirates—and their academic whores who were making excuses for why only good could come from deindustrialization.  If a disaster caused by industrial carelessness in rocket science didn't demonstrate the dangers of giving control of an industrial-based society to devout industrial saboteurs, what, pray tell, would?"

It would be difficult to be more wrong.  Little changed—in fact it would get much worse.  Thirty years later, the USA is a country where it is almost impossible anymore to imagine building something so complex as the shuttle.  Listening to the proud-to-be-ignorant folks running for president, it is almost impossible to imagine them passing the science tests we used to get in seventh grade.  The USA as a shining example of Enlightenment thinking is GONE.

Perhaps the saddest outcome of the shuttle disaster was that the engineers who tried to warn NASA that it was FAR too cold to launch basically had their professional lives destroyed.  There's a nasty price to pay for suppressing genius and boy, are we paying it.  What follows are tributes to the engineers who tried hardest to stop the shuttle disaster.  We should remember them as victims of Institutional stupidity—as much as the shuttle crew who died that day.

Remembering Roger Boisjoly: He Tried To Stop Shuttle Challenger Launch

HOWARD BERKES, February 7, 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 January 27, 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 too 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."

Armed with the data that described that possibility, Boisjoly and his colleagues argued persistently and vigorously for hours. At first, Thiokol managers agreed with them and formally recommended a launch delay. But NASA officials on a conference call challenged that recommendation.

"I am appalled," said NASA's George Hardy, according to Boisjoly and our other source in the room. "I am appalled by your recommendation."

Another shuttle program manager, Lawrence Mulloy, didn't hide his disdain. "My God, Thiokol," he said. "When do you want me to launch — next April?"

These words and this debate were not known publicly until our interviews with Boisjoly and his colleague. They told us that the NASA pressure caused Thiokol managers to "put their management hats on," as one source told us. They overruled Boisjoly and the other engineers and told NASA to go ahead and launch.

"We thought that if the seals failed the shuttle would never get off the launch pad," Boisjoly told Zwerdling. So, when Challenger lifted off without incident, he and the others watching television screens at Thiokol's Utah plant were relieved.

"And when we were one minute into the launch a friend turned to me and said, 'Oh God. We made it. We made it!'" Boisjoly continued. "Then, a few seconds later, the shuttle blew up. And we all knew exactly what happened."

Until NPR's story, the special commission investigating the Challenger tragedy hadn't even interviewed all the engineers involved in the pre-launch debate.

The explosion of Challenger and the deaths of its crew, including Teacher-in Space Christa McAuliffe, traumatized the nation and left Boisjoly disabled by severe headaches, steeped in depression and unable to sleep. When I visited him at his Utah home in April of 1987, he was thin, tearful and tense. He huddled in the corner of a couch, his arms tightly folded on his chest. But he was ready to speak publicly.

"I'm very angry that nobody listened," Boisjoly told me. And he asked himself, he said, if he could have done anything different. But then a flash of certainty returned.

"We were talking to the right people," he said. "We were talking to the people who had the power to stop that launch."

Boisjoly testified before the Challenger Commission and filed unsuccessful lawsuits against Thiokol and NASA. He continued to suffer and was ostracized by some of his colleagues. One said he'd drop his kids on Boisjoly's doorstep if they all lost their jobs, according to his wife Roberta.

"He took it very hard," she recalls. "He had always been held in such high esteem and it hurt so bad when they wouldn't listen to him."

A therapist recommended speaking out even more and for close to three decades, Boisjoly traveled to engineering schools around the world, speaking about ethical decision-making and sticking with data. "This is what I was meant to do," he told Roberta, "to have impact on young people's lives."

Boisjoly continued to respond to emails and letters from engineering students right up until his sudden death in his sleep last month in St. George, Utah. He was diagnosed with cancer two weeks before.

"He always stood by his work," Roberta recalls, her voice breaking. "He lived an honorable and ethical life. And he was at peace when he died." more

30 Years After Explosion, Challenger Engineer Still Blames Himself

HOWARD BERKES January 28, 2016

Thirty years ago, as the nation mourned the loss of seven astronauts on the space shuttle Challenger, Bob Ebeling was steeped in his own deep grief.

The night before the launch, Ebeling and four other engineers at NASA contractor Morton Thiokol had tried to stop the launch. Their managers and NASA overruled them.

That night, he told his wife, Darlene, "It's going to blow up."

When Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff, Ebeling and his colleagues sat stunned in a conference room at Thiokol's headquarters outside Brigham City, Utah. They watched the spacecraft explode on a giant television screen and they knew exactly what had happened.

Three weeks later, Ebeling and another engineer separately and anonymously detailed to NPR the first account of that contentious pre-launch meeting. Both were despondent and in tears as they described hours of data review and arguments. The data showed that the rubber seals on the shuttle's booster rockets wouldn't seal properly in cold temperatures and this would be the coldest launch ever.

Ebeling, now 89, decided to let NPR identify him this time, on the 30th anniversary of the Challenger explosion.

"I was one of the few that was really close to the situation," Ebeling recalls. "Had they listened to me and wait[ed] for a weather change, it might have been a completely different outcome."

We spoke in the same house, kitchen and living room that we spoke in 30 years ago, when Ebeling didn't want his name used or his voice recorded. He was afraid he would lose his job.

"I think the truth has to come out," he says about the decision to speak privately then.

"NASA ruled the launch," he explains. "They had their mind set on going up and proving to the world they were right and they knew what they were doing. But they didn't."

A presidential commission found flaws in the space agency's decision-making process. But it's still not clear why NASA was so anxious to launch without delay.

The space shuttle program had an ambitious launch schedule that year and NASA wanted to show it could launch regularly and reliably. President Ronald Reagan was also set to deliver the State of the Union address that evening and reportedly planned to tout the Challenger launch.

Whatever the reason, Ebeling says it didn't justify the risk.

"There was more than enough [NASA officials and Thiokol managers] there to say, 'Hey, let's give it another day or two,' " Ebeling recalls. "But no one did."

Ebeling retired soon after Challenger. He suffered deep depression and has never been able to lift the burden of guilt. In 1986, as he watched that haunting image again on a television screen, he said, "I could have done more. I should have done more."

He says the same thing today, sitting in a big easy chair in the same living room, his eyes watery and his face grave. The data he and his fellow engineers presented, and their persistent and sometimes angry arguments, weren't enough to sway Thiokol managers and NASA officials. Ebeling concludes he was inadequate. He didn't argue the data well enough.

A religious man, this is something he has prayed about for the past 30 years.

"I think that was one of the mistakes that God made," Ebeling says softly. "He shouldn't have picked me for the job. But next time I talk to him, I'm gonna ask him, 'Why me. You picked a loser.' "

I reminded him of something his late colleague and friend Roger Boisjoly once told me. Boisjoly was the other Thiokol engineer who spoke anonymously with NPR 30 years ago. He came to believe that he and Ebeling and their colleagues did all they could.

"We were talking to the right people," Boisjoly told me. "We were talking to the people who had the power to stop that launch."

"Maybe," Ebeling says with a weak wave as I leave. "Maybe Roger's right." more


  1. Very thought provoking. Everything except the official Rogers Commission Report about the disaster (cover-up) and Richard Feynman’s Appendix F to that report (about his “Personal observations on the reliability of the Shuttle”)

    After being reminded about all of this I spend a couple of hours watching a few old Feynman YouTube videos and cried until I had to move on: (a couple minutes into this 11-minute video Feynman is interviewed by PBS Jim Lehrer about the disaster) (1973 PBS Nova Interview of Richard Feynman) (my favorite from Richard Feynman about the Manhattan Project)

  2. Oh my goodness...and then there is this one (Feynman really was something!)

    1. Thanks for the links. Been a Feynman fan ever since I saw his "The Pleasure of Finding Things Out" because that is easily my favorite thing.

  3. This is a link to the best video I know of...of Richard Feynman explaining the Challenger Disaster and the O-rings controversy:

    (From the PBS News Hour interview with Jim Lehrer in June 1986)

    How this could remain a controversy with anybody in any way completely baffles me. What am I missing?

  4. I was one of the very small percentage who did see the explosion LIVE. I was on my way to lunch during an EMT Refresher Class, saw it rise above the trees out my windshield and pulled to the side of the road to watch. It is a day I will never forget, being a huge fan of the Space Program, living about 30 miles from the launch pad, and having numerous friends & neighbors who worked at KSC. We were glued to our TVs for weeks, trying to figure out how something this bad could happen to NASA. Living it daily, reading most every word printed on the subject and while the M-T hearings were on live TV in our living rooms we watched...We still visit KSC about once every 2 years and still watch nearly every launch from our front yard or streamed on the internet...people have forgotten...the launches are not even on local TV anymore...The Price is Right is more important. But Elon Musk is our new hero.