PE Warned of Space Shuttle Disaster
Roger Boisjoly, the engineer who warned of a possible O-ring failure that could lead to the destruction of the space shuttle Challenger, died on January 6 in Utah, according to the New York Times.
Nearly a decade after the disaster, Boisjoly shared his story with NSPE. Below is the complete article from the August 1995 issue of Engineering Times.
PE Perseveres, 10 Years After Challenger Explosion
By Molly Galvin
As filmgoers pack Apollo 13 and marvel at the story about a disaster that almost was, Roger Boisjoly tells the story of the disaster that NASA failed to avoid. For 10 years, the professional engineer has been living with the aftermath of the Challenger space shuttle explosion and the events that ended his aerospace career. He has managed not only to find the lessons in that loss but also to carve new opportunities from it.
As a lead engineer for Morton Thiokol, a NASA contractor that helped develop the Challenger’s solid rocket booster, Boisjoly in effect predicted the disaster before it occurred. He correctly noted that the critical O-ring seals in the booster could fail in the low temperatures expected on Challenger’s launch day. But company management repeatedly ignored Boisjoly’s and other engineers’ warnings.
His story of managers putting profit over safety and, ultimately, human life, is as chilling today as it was 10 years ago. The day before the launch, a teleconference was held with NASA officials and Morton Thiokol management. After NASA officials expressed disappointment with Thiokol engineers’ recommendation to cancel the launch, the company’s senior managers overruled that decision. “Take off your engineer’s hat and put on your manager’s hat,” a Thiokol senior manager told the vice president of engineering.
The next day, the world watched the disastrous consequences. “I had made up my mind not to watch the launch,” says Boisjoly, but ended up watching at a colleague’s urging. At first, it looked like the launch might make it. “I whispered to him that we had just dodged a bullet,” he says. “Sixty seconds into the flight [my colleague] whispered back that he had completed a prayer of thanks. Thirteen seconds later, we all saw the horror of destruction as the vehicle exploded.”
Boisjoly’s life would never be the same. A few days later, he was assigned to a failure investigation team with several other engineers. “What I saw there made me sick all over again, because NASA was definitely engaged in a massive cover-up attempt.” Officials were trying to hide the fact that the 31 degree F temperature at launch had any effect on the explosion, he says. And he learned some other disturbing news. “NASA’s initial quick [statement] that [the astronauts] died instantly was simply not true,” Boisjoly says. “The astronauts...were alive when they hit the water in excess of 200 miles an hour.”
For Boisjoly, the nightmare only grew worse as a presidential commission investigated the circumstances surrounding the explosion. “I submitted quite a few documents that clearly showed this was a preventable event. It was a disaster waiting to happen, caused by people who simply wouldn’t listen.” The investigation went from strictly an examination of technical aspects to a grilling of managerial decisions. “[Thiokol managers] were extremely angry when I turned in my documentation and that anger increased as I continued to testify,” says Boisjoly. During testimony at a committee hearing, he publicly refuted a manager’s assertion that Thiokol engineers weren’t unanimous in recommending that the launch be canceled. “When I finished they were so damn mad that I think if they had guns they would have shot me on the spot,” he says.
While his career at Morton Thiokol seemed to be over, he stuck it out for about six months. “I was in a world of hurt. I was blaming myself for not having done more,” he says. Meanwhile, managers isolated him in his position and “made life a living hell on a day-to-day basis.” Eventually he took sick leave because he was experiencing double vision, mood swings, and lots of anger—all of the signs leading up to a stroke or heart attack.
He told Thiokol he wasn’t returning. Boisjoly had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and learned that he qualified for two years of long-term disability. “I filed several lawsuits against Thiokol, which turned out to be an exercise in total futility,” he says. “I think [the court system was] afraid of what they’d find.” The suits never even made it to the discovery process, he says. Boisjoly decided not to pursue the lawsuits further. “I tried to get on with my life,” he says.
He threw himself into studying for his engineering licensure exam. The long hours he spent studying were a catharsis for healing, he says. In the meantime, he was asked to speak about his experience some 60 times, which he said also helped the healing process. His goal was to do consulting work. “I took the licensure exams because I was absolutely sure that an industry blackball would be instituted against me, especially because of my public brand as a whistle-blower. I was right.”
After he earned his PE license, he started getting more speaking engagements and landed a couple of consulting jobs. “I still didn’t have a great deal of jobs, but I got enough to give me a taste of forensic engineering work.” He was invited to join the NSPE-affiliated National Academy of Forensic Engineers. “I liked to do [forensic work] because the adversarial setting in the courtroom is really not that much different from what I experienced in the 27 years I spent in the aerospace industry.”
Although Boisjoly sometimes misses the excitement of work in the aerospace industry, he says he loves his new career, a combination of forensic engineering work, consulting, and speaking about engineering ethics. He makes his home in Utah, where he was named the 1994 Engineer of the Year by the Utah Society of Professional Engineers and the Utah Engineers Council.
Speaking publicly about the disaster was difficult at first, but he finds it fulfilling now. “It’s changed a lot of lives. It’s a wonderful high to know that you’re making a difference.” Despite the tragedy, Boisjoly has learned to value the lessons Challenger taught. “We [engineers] did all the right things. We informed our customers. The only thing that went wrong is that we had a customer that was hell-bent on launching regardless of the facts,” he says.
He makes it a point to urge all engineers to get licensed, if only for their own protection. Even industry engineers must protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public, he points out. “In industry, the public are the customers. Now picture the scenario of me having a PE license when this happened, and me taking the code of ethics and shoving it up their noses and saying `Look! This is what the code says, this is what I’m obligated to do.’ That’s a powerful threat, especially if my colleagues also have PE licenses.”
Sometimes, after they hear all the hardships he endured on the way, students in Boisjoly’s audiences will ask why he went public with what he knew. “Because I like to sleep peacefully at night,” he answers. “My conscience would have eaten me alive if I had not stepped up and fought for stopping that launch.” He urges all engineers to act responsibly no matter what the consequences. “I believe in the philosophy that you need to tell people what they need to know, not what they want to hear. [Engineers] have got to stand up and fight for what they know is right.”