By Olivia Burgess
The Double-Edged Sword
I recently gave a Brown Bag talk on the Challenger space shuttle disaster, the events surrounding it, and its use as a case study for engineering education and communication. There was so much to cover that I couldn’t go into much detail on one of the most remembered and revered figures of the case study: engineer-turned-whistleblower Roger Boisjoly. To fill in those gaps, I’m dedicating this blog to Boisjoly.
About 73 seconds after the space shuttle Challenger launched on January 28, 1986, it exploded, killing all seven astronauts inside while viewers across the country–including school age children watching in their classrooms–witnessed the disaster on live TV.
According to the Rogers Commission, which investigated the disaster, the O-ring seal on Challenger’s solid rocket booster failed after becoming brittle due to cold temperatures. The Rogers Commission concluded that Morton Thiokol, the company contracted to build the solid rocket boosters, had ignored warnings about issues with O-Rings, and that NASA managers also failed to take the appropriate steps to ensure a safe flight.
The day before the launch, however, five engineers, including Boisjoly, grew concerned by the unexpectedly low temperatures on the day of the launch. There had been previous evidence that O-rings might fail to properly work in low temperatures, and Florida was experiencing record-setting lows. At a teleconference between Thiokol and NASA the night before the launch, Boisjoly and other Thiokol engineers recommended that the launch be delayed.
This was not the first time Boisjoly expressed passionate concern about O-ring safety. In the National Archives Catalog online, you can find an interoffice memo from Boisjoly to Vice President of Engineering Bob Lund written six months prior to the Challenger disaster. In the memo, Boisjoly expresses grave concern about O-ring erosion, including the prescient warning that failure could result in “a catastrophe of the highest order–loss of human life.”
Unfortunately, Boisjoly’s presentation and the appeals of the other engineers failed to convince NASA managers not to launch, partly because shuttles had successfully flown before. Damaged O-rings had become “acceptable risk.” Even if the primary O-ring failed, there was a secondary O-ring that had–up to that point–provided a safety net in case the primary O-ring did fail. If flights had been successful before, was there really a need to stall on this one?
Boisjoly felt confident in his argument but defeated when it came to effecting any change. As he says in his own words describing his attempt to convince his audience:
I then grabbed the photographic evidence showing the hot gas blow-by and placed it on the table and, somewhat angered, admonished them to look and not ignore what the photos were telling us, namely, that low temperature indeed caused more hot gas blow-by in the joints. I too received the same cold stares as Arnie with looks as if to say, “Go away and don’t bother us with the facts.” At that moment I felt totally helpless and felt that further argument was fruitless, so I, too, stopped pressing my case.
Some of my students smartly question why Boisjoly didn’t do more. Why didn’t he continue to demand a change? Why didn’t he make any attempts to contact the astronauts or the news media and warn everyone of this impending danger? Hindsight makes these actions sound not only reasonable but necessary. However, at the teleconference, it was standard practice for engineers to express dissenting opinions, to argue over data, and then accept the decision of the team or the managers. He didn’t know the shuttle would explode and lives would be lost.
Boisjoly came into the limelight after testifying at the Rogers Commission hearings. He called the decision-making process the night before “unethical” and spoke out against the managers’ behavior. As you can imagine, this made it difficult for Boisjoly to remain at Thiokol, and he eventually resigned. The Challenger launch remained a key part of the rest of his career, and he traveled the country giving lectures on engineering ethics. For his integrity in speaking out against his employer, he was awarded the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Prize for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility.
My students are unlikely to end up in a late-night teleconference weighing the risks of a space shuttle launch, but they may be in situations where their decisions help or hinder, in either small or significant ways, the communities where they work. Boisjoly is a figure worth remembering for these future engineers for the priority he put on protecting human life and maintaining ethical standards in engineering.