Whistle Blowers & Heroes
Last month Robert Boisjoly died at age 73 from cancer. You may not be familiar with the name but if you have an interest in the Challenger disaster or are familiar with the hearings and investigation then you might recognize his face.
He and other engineers had been warning about cold launches for a year up to the fateful day but their technical concerns about o-rings were ignored by management and by the management folks at NASA. Political pressure won the day not safety and engineering. But what of the whistle blowers?
In 2003 after the Columbia disaster, the LA Times interviewed many of the key players at NASA and Morton Thiokol (the subcontractor responsible for making the solid rocket boosters). Many engineers and other folks spoke up. The interviews give you an idea of what has happened for these folks whose concerns were overridden.
Boisjoly, who has spent the last 17 years as a forensic engineer and a lecturer on engineering ethics, said NASA attempted to blackball him from the industry after the Challenger explosion.
Allan J. McDonald, who was Thiokol’s program manager for the solid rocket motor, also had his career damaged by the Challenger accident. He was the most senior Thiokol engineer to argue against the launch, and he became the most important critic of the accident afterward. He paid dearly for the stand he took.
When pressed by NASA the night before liftoff to sign a written recommendation approving the launch, he refused. He now says that was the smartest thing he ever did. Even after the telephone conference had ended and Kilminster had overruled his engineers, McDonald continued to argue face-to-face with Mulloy at Cape Canaveral, Fla.
“I told them I wouldn’t want to be the one to stand before a board of inquiry and explain why I launched the shuttle outside its qualified limits. I just got a blank look,” said McDonald, who is now retired in Ogden, Utah.
McDonald took the lead role in disclosing the inside story of the accident to a panel of White House investigators, who said they were being kept in the dark by NASA.
As a result, his career suffered for a long time, he said. “As soon as I broke ranks,” he said, “the company set me aside.”
And how about the management folks who did not break ranks?
Kilminster had overruled five of his own engineers when they argued on a telephone conference call the night before the launch that the conditions were unsafe. The subfreezing temperatures at Cape Canaveral, the engineers told Kilminster, could cause a failure in the O-rings that protect the joints of Thiokol’s solid rocket motors, which could lead to an explosion. The concerns were also rejected by NASA manager Lawrence Mulloy, who was in charge of the solid rocket boosters and was listening in on the debate.
Kilminster and Mulloy had argued that the engineers lacked the data to prove their point.
As matters turned out, the engineers were right.
Ever since then, Kilminster, 69, now retired and living in the woods near Missoula, Mont., has spent difficult days rethinking that decision. “Was there something there I should have picked up on, something that should have been obvious?” he asks himself. Terrible mistakes were made in the Challenger mission, Kilminster acknowledged. “I have a clear conscience,” he added, “but the fact remains seven wonderful people lost their lives, and that will be with me for the rest of my life.”
Like many of the other players in the Challenger accident, Kilminster left the space program; he found solace in helping to design the explosive devices that inflate automobile air bags. “Early reports came back from highway patrol officers that people were walking away from accidents they might have perished in if not for the air bags,” he said.
Good to know Kilminster had a clear conscience. Usually when you lack data you err on the side of safety, especially as it pertains to people’s lives. Sounds like Kilminster tried to atone for his sins though in his career choice. Certainly doesn’t sound like he’s wracked with guilt though or suffering as a result. And Mulloy?
He moved to Washington, D.C., where he became a self-described Beltway bandit, a consultant to NASA and other federal agencies. He said he made a lot of money trading on his connections in the space program, and he eventually retired near Nashville.
But Mulloy still struggles to explain how the accident happened.
“You can’t build perfect machines any more than you can get perfect humans to operate them,” he added. “The political types didn’t understand that. You are dealing with people who are not perfect. We weren’t ignoring the problem, but we underestimated the risk.”
Underestimated the risk? That’s the understatement of the century. Unfortunately we can see a trend here, successful careers for those whose arrogance allowed the unnecessary waste of precious human lives. Blacklisting for those who dared speak up about the risk (even when they were proved correct) And how about those engineers who so bravely spoke up in 1986, what were they up to after the 2003 Challenger accident?
One morning this spring, 82-year-old George Bower drove four hours to meet a reporter to talk about his fear that the Challenger problems were never fixed.
“I have thought about that joint design ever since the accident,” said Bower, a retired tooling engineer at a Sante Fe Springs machine shop that did work on the solid rocket motor casings. “We were told to put a Band-Aid on the problem, and that’s just what we did. But who is going to listen to some little voice like mine when millions of dollars are involved?” Other engineers say that the redesigned joint is probably the safest part of the shuttle system.
An 82 year old drives four hours to make sure a reporter hears his concerns for safety.
“It is unconscionable, after the Challenger accident, that it would happen again,” McDonald said. “I was appalled.”
Indeed. And for our hero? Well I don’t personally believe in an afterlife. But I hope he had a peaceful passing with all his friends and family. His integrity and that of his fellow engineers and others who risked their careers and raised their voices is a stronger tribute to the engineering profession than all the profit margins of the world.