Thirty-six years ago this month, our nation mourned the loss of seven astronauts on the Space Shuttle
Challenger as millions watched the rocket disintegrate on live television and the painful slow return
to earth of the command module until it impacted in the ocean near Cape Canaveral. President
Reagan immediately formed a Commission of brilliant and talented people to investigate the cause
but the engineers at Morton Thiokol (MT) who built the rocket already knew the answer and it was
not complicated: it was an unusually cold morning and they pleaded with NASA and their MT senior
management team to scrub the launch: because in such cold conditions the rubber O-rings on the
rocket motors would not seal properly, likely causing hot fuel gases to leak and explode. But MT
management and NASA overruled them because the launch had already been scrubbed three times
in preceding days and they felt under pressure to get the mission underway. Seventy-three seconds
into flight the Shuttle exploded.
The following explains why I have selected Roger Boisjoly and his engineering team at Morton
Thiokol as my heroes of the month.
The day before the launch there was a teleconference involving Roger and his team who were without
question the most knowledgeable people in the program regarding the design and performance of the
O-rings. Roger was the principal engineer and team leader. On the other end of the call were senior
management people from MT and NASA. The team explained that from their calculations the O-rings
would not properly seal if the ambient temperature was below 53 degrees (not usually a problem in
Florida) but a problem then because the launch temperature the next day was projected to be 26
degrees. NASA protocols required all shuttle subcontractors to sign off before each launch. Lawrence
Malloy at NASA was clearly angered by the team’s recommendation and the Morton Thiokol
executives on the call requested a private caucus with their engineers. Once again the engineers, led
by Roger Boisjoly, pleaded to delay the launch. MT management then excluded them from the vote
and overruled their advice. MT management then rejoined the conference call and advised NASA that
their data was inconclusive and they withdrew objection to the launch.
Considered disloyal by Morton Thiokol management for his courageous stand, Boisjoly was banned
by MT from participation on MT’s in-house Challenger investigation team and also prohibited from
taking an active role with his engineering team in re-designing the O-rings. Six months later, he
requested a leave of absence and never returned to the company and never worked as an engineer
again. But his story does not end there.
The Presidential Commission relied heavily upon his job file and his testimony. The Commission’s
investigation established that Boisjoly had written a memo in July 1985 to his superiors concerning
what he felt was a design flaw in the O-rings that could lead to a catastrophic event during launch of
the Space Shuttle. The memo followed his investigation of a solid rocket booster from an earlier
shuttle flight when one of two O-rings failed and the other was partially damaged. If the second
O-ring had failed, the earlier flight would have almost certainly exploded shortly after liftoff. He
determined that the cause was the cold ambient air temperature which hardened the rings and prevented them from sealing. The memo was written six months before the Challenger loss but it was
not given the attention it deserved. (For a detailed discussion of his memo and its significance, there
is an excellent summary as part of his bio on Wikipedia.) In his testimony to the Commission,
Boisjoly stated that Morton Thiokol management had on that fateful day in 1986 fostered “an
unethical decision-making forum resulting from intense customer intimidation.” Not surprisingly, The
Commission found significant leadership failures at both Morton Thiokol and NASA separate and
apart from the technical problems with the O-rings which caused the disaster.
Two years later, after working through the emotional and financial harm caused, Boisjoly found
redemption as a lecturer at engineering schools on ethical decision-making. In 1988, he received
national recognition by his peers as the recipient of The American Association for Advancement in
Science Prize given for his contribution to Scientific Freedom and Responsibility.
Roger passed away at the age of 73 in 2012. While it is impossible to attribute Roger’s death at such
an early age specifically to what was done to him by his employer, he certainly paid a huge emotional
and professional price for trying to save the lives of the Challenger crew. For that valiant effort, he
is my hero of the month as the leader of a great team of engineers at Morton Thiokol who did their
best and stood their ground under intense pressure. Courage is often defined in what someone does
in a split second or in one day of a long and distinguished career: “often referred to as defining
moments in our lives”. Roger was the son of a mill worker in Lowell, Massachusetts and exemplified
the legendary integrity of New Englanders, on the “defining moment” in his life.