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Mon February 6, 2012
Remembering Roger Boisjoly: He Tried To Stop Shuttle Challenger Launch
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."
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
In January 1986, when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded, five engineers on the ground knew exactly what happened and why. In fact, they had tried to stop the launch the night before. They argued that freezing temperatures at launch time could cause catastrophic failure in the shuttle's booster rockets. Well, this weekend, we learned that one of those engineers has died. His name was Roger Boisjoly, and he marshaled the data that might have stopped the Challenger launch.
NPR's Howard Berkes has this remembrance.
HOWARD BERKES, BYLINE: Bulky, bald and tall, Roger Boisjoly was an imposing figure, especially when armed with data. Six months before the Challenger tragedy, he predicted in a memo a catastrophe of the highest order - loss of human life - if space shuttle contractor Morton Thiokol didn't act. Boisjoly was a Thiokol engineer, and three weeks after the explosion, he sat tearful in a hotel room in Alabama. Don't use my name or voice, he told NPR's Danny Zwerdling, who began his story this way.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
DANNY ZWERDLING, BYLINE: A Morton Thiokol engineer sits before me, his eyes getting red with tears. I fought like hell to stop that launch, he says. I'm so torn up inside I can hardly talk about it, even now.
BERKES: Boisjoly detailed the most frustrating experience of his life. He and his fellow engineers used their data to argue that launching in cold weather was dangerous. Cold caused the rubber O-rings that sealed the joints in the shuttle's booster rockets to stiffen and fail to seal. The Challenger launch would be the coldest ever. Zwerdling reported Boisjoly's words.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
ZWERDLING: We all knew what the implication was without actually coming out and saying it. We all knew if the seals failed, the shuttle would blow up.
BERKES: The NASA officials on a conference call didn't want to hear it. The shuttle program managers were desperate to prove they could launch reliably. When do you want me to launch, one of them said, next April? A year later, Boisjoly suffered from disabling headaches. He moved boulders off his lawn all day so he'd be exhausted enough to sleep at night. And he huddled in the corner of a couch, thin and tearful, his arms folded tight, ready to speak out.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ROGER BOISJOLY: Why was the Challenger launched? Why was there a change in attitude from NASA's standpoint to get that flight up? I mean, we were put in the position of proving that it was not safe to launch. That was totally unheard of before this flight. We were always being put in the position as a contractor of proving that it was safe to launch.
BERKES: Boisjoly testified before the Challenger Commission investigating the tragedy. He spoke openly in interviews. And he unsuccessfully sued Thiokol and NASA. But he never got a good answer to his question. NASA's decision to overrule the engineers, despite their data, and their vigorous and persistent arguments, was never fully explained.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
BOISJOLY: I have flashes still, wondered if I could have done anything different, but we were talking to the right people. We were talking to the people who had the authority. We were talking to people that had the power to stop the launch.
BERKES: A therapist told Boisjoly to go out and talk about that night. And he did, for nearly three decades, to engineering students around the globe. He had a simple message: Make ethical decisions and stick to your data. His wife, Roberta, says he found relief and redemption in that work. This is what he was meant to do, he told her. Roger Boisjoly answered emails and letters from engineering students right up until his death in Utah last month at age 73. He had just been diagnosed with cancer, his widow says, and he died at peace. Howard Berkes, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.