Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster

In 1988, I had the opportunity to meet Roger Boisjoly, the Morton Thiokol engineer who tried to stop the launch of Challenger on January 28, 1986. I was in engineering graduate school at NC State at the time, and Roger spoke to an engineering group in Raleigh.

Roger told me he had been in a video conference the night before the launch. He argued passionately to delay the launch, as the forecasted low temperatures would make the O-rings in the solid rocket booster too brittle to handle launch stresses safely. NASA management and government officials finally agreed to delay the launch.

When Roger arrived at work the next morning to find coworkers watching the pending launch on television, he walked to his office, put his head on his desk and cried. He was not positive that Challenger would explode, but he knew NASA was taking an unacceptable risk with seven lives and a billion dollar piece of machinery.

After the explosion, Morton Thiokol attempted to silence Roger by transferring him to a position with no duties and an empty office. There was not sufficient whistle blower protection for him to speak out. After a year of boredom and internal strife, he resigned from Morton Thiokol. He has spoken publicly about Challenger, lessons learned, and ethics in general ever since then.

I was fortunate to know many of our country's pioneering aerospace engineers when I was at NC State. These men were instrumental in our country's development of rockets, orbiters, and the space shuttle. They also believed in honesty, humility, and protection of citizens' safety. I can only hope that today's aerospace engineering leaders feel the same way.


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