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.
I try to plan ahead. I try to anticipate failure. Why, you might ask, when one power terminal goes down will the whole tractor beam not work? Because there are seven for a reason. While a single power terminal going down will stop the beam from working, it also stops you from having a surge that blows up your whole death star. Plus the admirals decided keeping all the coffee machines running was more important than powering the tractor beam in case “just one” of the power terminals went down.
So where was I? Oh right. Power terminal failure. I anticipated a whole lot of things. A surge in the system means you don’t bring all seven of them down at once because they’re designed to fail individually. Because if they all surged your Death Star would just turn into a giant exploding fireball in space. I planned for a lot of things when designing this terminal system:
- Max service life of the terminal and all its sub components
- Regular maintenance and inspections
- Ease of operating the terminal so no failures would be based on operator error
- Redundant systems in case of a power surge
You know what I didn’t anticipate?
5. Sneaky f@#$ing old man committing sabotage
That’s right. I sort of figure that’s someone else’s job. I even have these handy sensor readings so that if some nimrod is paying attention they’ll immediately see the power loss.
But if no one’s paying attention to that? And then the guys you hire to make sure no one’s taking advantage of my easy three step system to shut down a power terminal?
Hey! Idiots! You see that old guy in the robe? You see how he’s not wearing a badge? Maybe you should, like, stop him from messing with my power terminal. Because it really pisses me off when the admirals call me in all like, “hey, your power terminal failed and the ship got away.” And I’m like, “well actually it didn’t fail. Genius in robes over there shut it down like it’s supposed to be shut down for maintenance and none of the folks watching the screen noticed it wasn’t due for a maintenance procedure. Probably too busy thinking about how they never get blamed for sh@# anyways so why even bother watching the monitors.” I’m just saying.
Despite being only an engineer (and not having any other honorifics after my title like lead or supervisor or chief) I keep getting the short end of the stick and having to train people. You know, it’s never official, like “Hey FrauTech, we’re bringing in this new guy Bobby and we need you train him…” It’s more like “Bobby’s working on the xyz project and will probably have some questions for you.” Then your boss goes AWOL for a couple weeks and sure enough you are hand holding Bobby through every aspect of his new project. (Photo credit creative commons).
Don’t get me wrong, I realize the importance of training. And getting to occasionally teach an intern a thing or two has been a very rewarding part of my job. But Bobby is senior to me. And the sneaky way that I’m asked to train him almost seems like if my boss knew that he straight up asked me he’d be asking me for something above and beyond my normal duties and would have to, you know, actually reward that later. So instead it’s done in an underhanded way.
And I’ll admit, I wasn’t particular fond of Bobby to begin with. People in power just ate him up. Tall, thin, sort of quiet and makes an effort to get along with everyone. But I know the backstory. That he’d agreed to take on a certain project (that many people weren’t interested in) and as a result was given a higher level title that maybe his experience was only borderline for. But now that some of those people who made that agreement with him are gone, and others have apparently forgotten, he’s trying to weasel his way into my group. So fine. No one can blame a guy for trying to get off a project he didn’t like (and no one else did). I knew I needed to try to get over my bias, learn to like this guy.
So I’m trying to get him up to speed on a pretty complex first task my boss had given him that required briefing him on three years of history with this program. I’d tell him things and notice that he wasn’t writing many of those things down. I’d emphasize its importance, repeat it even, and pause to give him a chance to write it down. Nope. So when he sent out his first draft and it had plenty of mistakes I was disappointed. Sure there were a few things he wouldn’t have known. But many others were things I’d told him. Some even that I’d put in writing in an email to him. Not a good first start.
Georgetown University recently released a report on the average pay and average unemployment of various college majors. This article recently complained about these surveys focusing too much on pay of college majors. Since this is something I talk about a lot (articles touting fantastic engineering pay or that invent a shortage of engineers that isn’t really there) I find the reaction very interesting. Some bits I agree with:
We get it, Georgetown, English majors are poor. But instead of accepting that people like teachers and journalists get paid shitty salaries, how about re-evaluating why we give those professions the shaft?
Totally get it. Agree teachers and journalists should be paid more. So should cops and firefighters. But why are teachers paid so poorly despite a job requiring a bachelor’s degree? State governments are able to, much like corporations, keep wages artificially low. What about journalists? Is it because it doesn’t require a specific degree and a lot of students graduating college have dreams of going into journalism? But the author seems to think there’s only two options here:
A future of unhappy robots is pretty bleak. It’s well-documented that a good salary alone can’t make you happy. That’s doubly true if the job isn’t suited to your talents. Doing away with arts or humanities, whether in kindergarten or college, gives credence to those horrible parents in movies who crow that “singing doesn’t put food on the table” before their kid turns out to be Lauryn Hill.
You know what? I did give up my first love of music in order to find something with a paycheck in it. I knew there tons of musicians and very few jobs in it. Unfortunately, I thought pursuing my “passion” in a liberal arts degree would be different. It wasn’t.
I’m an engineer. I love it. I think the problem is too many people think they can only be happy writing or painting or something. But really now that I’m in the working world I can find I can be happy doing a lot of different things. But a solid career (like engineering) provides a stable middle class lifestyle. Which when you’ve spent four years and potentially spent tens of thousands of dollars is kind of nice.
I don’t think we should tell everyone to go be an engineer. If you read my blog at all you know I constantly complain about the fact that first corporations and now the media are perpetuating this STEM shortage myth. Now I really enjoyed my liberal arts education. I wish it was valued and taught alongside job-specific education as a means of enriching society. But I do think it’s pretty foolish to tell your kid to major in their passion and let them believe a college degree, any degree, is the key to a middle class lifestyle when that’s no longer true. Many college bound students don’t really understand this. We don’t teach economics as well as we should in high school and many will come from households where parents are doing okay with no degree or with unrelated degrees. It’s hard for them to grasp the fact that the world has changed. That simply staying in middle class is a new struggle.
In the end we need people to do everything. We need engineers, scientists, even business majors. Just maybe not as many liberal arts graduates as we’ve had. Or at least make sure we’ve been honest with them about their possible pay and employment just like the survey does a good job of doing. Just today there’s a story on NPR about how law schools might be inflating the employment and pay data to lure in new students. I think a bit of honesty, as well as the truth about how important a satisfying income can be to one’s hopes and dreams, is essential. Not to mention there are many happy engineers, accountants, doctors, etc. And accusing people in those professions of not being creative enough is really short sighted.
I’ve been asked to do something that was difficult for me this week. To go against my better judgment. My career is at a critical juncture now. It’s sort of like I can see the great ocean of opportunity ahead before me (like in the photo via creative commons). The conventional advice would say that you never say no to opportunity. So of course I didn’t say no. When someone up in your chain of command (or even someone else’s) asks you to do something you don’t say no.
But I didn’t like that there was already a set of expectations. This idea that I should already be responsible for work before it’s even been assigned to me goes against my working pattern. I’m a pretty hierarchical person. When someone becomes my boss, even if they were my friend and confidante before, I find that I naturally begin to put some space along with deference to their position over me. If my boss hasn’t specifically asked me to do something, and in fact has resisted my attempts to get information or get involved on the project, I generally defer to that direction even if it is implicit.
It’s natural to take on increased responsibilities. But when those responsibilities are sort of a whole level above you and when you’re not even be asked, just told that the powers that be are disappointed you didn’t already take on these tasks, well it can be deflating. You see I’ve been through all this at Mega Corp many times before.
It’s pretty difficult for me to be excited to play the game when I’ve had the ball scooped up from me so many times before. Certain folks I’ve worked for have been like a demented Lucy. Every time I ask for the next step. Every time I ask them to put me in the game. Being put on the bench, or worse, getting ignored or sometimes even humiliated, really removes your motivation to play the game again.
But I have to. So I didn’t say no. However I suspect my reaction was still unwelcome. Too much of the “thou dost protest too much” kind. And I need to work on that. Try to be brave and confident going forward. Will it be different this time? Will I watch them trip me again? I have no way of knowing but if I’ve tried and tried so many times in the past and been undaunted then by failures, so why am I afraid now?