Roger Boisjoly: Ethics and the Challenger Disaster

Diamonds are precious and rare. Gold is precious and rare. Platinum is precious and rare. But more precious and rare are people with the integrity to stand up for what is right in the face of severely negative consequences. Roger Boisjoly is one of those people. In January of 1986, in the face of anger, contempt and the loss of his prestigious job as a mechanical engineer for Morton Thiokol, Boisjoly tried to stop the loss of the ill-fated Space Shuttle Challenger flight on the 28th of that month. This story actually starts a year before the attempted 10th mission of Challenger, STS-51-L. In January of 1985 Space Shuttle Discovery safely completed mission STS-51-C. To the American public, it seemed like the shuttle program was unfolding flawlessly. Up close it was an entirely different matter. At that time, NASA and Morton Thiokol knew that there were flaws in the shuttle design, but it was decided that the flaws were not sufficient enough to ground the shuttle. However, what Roger Boisjoly found after that flight shook him to the core.
The space shuttles’ engines, alone, were not enough to power the shuttle into orbit. In order to get into orbit the shuttle had to have some help. The help came in the form of SRBs or Solid Rocket Boosters. The rocket boosters connected to the shuttle and were the main propulsion for the shuttle, until the shuttle was in orbit. At that point, the boosters broke away as the shuttle continued on into space. NASA knew that in order for the space program to continue to get federal funding, the space program had to be cost effective and efficient. Towards that end the solid rocket boosters were made to be reusable on multiple flights. After the boosters were ejected from the shuttle, they were retrieved and examined to see if they functioned properly.
Morton Thiokol manufactured the motor segments of the SRBs. The SRBs were broken up into four segments to make transportation from Morton Thiokol’s Utah office to Kennedy Space Center in Florida possible by rail. The segments were then assembled once at Kennedy with three field joints. The field joints were sealed with rubber O-rings. The O-rings were there to seal the joint so that hot gasses did not burn through the joint and ignite the shuttle’s external tank. There were two O-rings per field joint so that if the primary ring failed the secondary ring would stop any burn through. Three days after the landing of Discovery, Boisjoly began to do his inspections of the SRBs. When he did, he could not believe what he saw. Boisjoly discovered that in one of the field joints a massive amount of superheated gasses burned through the primary O-ring and compromised the secondary O-ring. In his estimation, the Discovery mission was only about 10 seconds from disaster. Boisjoly knew immediately what caused the O-ring failure. It was the temperature. The launch of Discovery on January 24, 1985 was done under fairly cold conditions. The O-rings were 53 degrees at the time of the launch. In order for the O-rings to work they have to stretch and squeeze to completely seal the filed joint, but at cold temperatures the O-rings become hard and can’t stretch as much as they normally would. Boisjoly immediately knew that this is why the O-rings failed. He took pictures of the massive blow out of hot gasses to make sure he documented his findings. As the shuttle schedule continued, unchanged, Boisjoly and his colleagues continued to run tests to see how extensive the O-ring design flaw really was. It was found that the O-rings did not work as designed in temperatures as low as room temperature. In an April 1985 shuttle flight, O-ring failure nearly cost NASA the Space Shuttle Challenger, but luckily the flight completed its mission without incident. Boisjoly and his colleagues then decided to go to management of Morton Thiokol with their concerns for the safety of the shuttles and their crews, but were met with a shocking callousness. They were told that this information was too sensitive to release, so it was kept secret.
The following is a letter written by Roger Boisjoly to Robert Lund, Vice President of Engineering at Morton Thiokol, outlining how extremely perilous the situation concerning the O-ring flaw was.
“This letter is written to insure that management is fully aware of the seriousness of the current O-ring erosion problem in the SRM joints from an engineering standpoint.
The mistakenly accepted position on the joint problem was to fly without fear of failure and to run a series of design evaluations which would ultimately lead to a solution or at least a significant reduction of the erosion problem. This position is now drastically changed as a result of the SRM 16A nozzle joint erosion which eroded a secondary O-ring with the primary O-ring never sealing.
If the same scenario should occur in a field joint (and it could), then it is a jump ball as to the success or failure of the joint because the secondary O-ring cannot respond to the clevis opening rate and may not be capable of pressurization. The result would be a catastrophe of the highest order – loss of human life.
An unofficial team (a memo defining the team and its purpose was never published) with a leader was formed on 19 July 1985 and was tasked with solving the problem for both the short and long term. This unofficial team is essentially nonexistent at this time. In my opinion, the team must be officially given the responsibility and the authority to execute the work that needs to be done on a non-interference basis (full time assignment until completed.)
It is my honest and very real fear that if we do not take immediate action to dedicate a team to solve the problem with the field joint having the number one priority, then we stand in jeopardy of losing a flight along with all the launch pad facilities.
R. M. Boisjoly
Concurred by:
J. R. Kapp, Manager
Applied Mechanics”
This letter was written on July 31, 1985. Keep in mind that the launch of Space Shuttle Challenger would not be for another 6 months. In the months that followed, Boisjoly and his colleagues continued to sound the alarms that O-ring failure was not a question of if, it was a question of when and of how catastrophic would it be?
NASA had been under pressure for some time before January of 1986 because the government was considering cutting back on funds given to NASA unless they were able to fulfill an impossible launch schedule. The other problem NASA had was that interest in space flight was rapidly decreasing. NASA needed a shot in the arm and putting an ordinary citizen into space would be just that. President Ronald Reagan approved NASA’s “Teacher In Space” competition, which was won by Christa McAuliffe.
NASA had what they wanted. They had publicity. All of America would be watching “The Teacher in Space.” The original flight date was to be January 22, 1986, but due to a delay in the last space flight with Space Shuttle Columbia, which landed on January 18th, Challenger’s flight was postponed until January 24th. But still more problems arose, including weather issues both at Kennedy Space Center and also in the abort landing site in Dakar, Senegal. It seemed that January 27th would be the day as the weather was finally cooperating, but a stripped bolt was not allowing the close out crew to properly remove a closing fixture from the orbiter’s hatch. The batteries, in the drill needed to get the stripped bolt out, were dead. It took over 2 hours to get another drill, with fresh batteries, and drill out the bolt. By that time, strong crosswinds developed at the shuttle landing facility. That meant that if a problem developed and the flight had to be aborted, Challenger would not be able to return to site. Now January 27th was out.
NASA was getting impatient for many reasons, but the two that worried them the most seemed to be the idea that the public saw them as disorganized and unable to carry out their incredibly ambitious flight schedule. Number two, teacher, Christa McAuliffe, was to carry out a lesson from the shuttle on day 4 of the flight. The lesson would be beamed to classrooms throughout the United States. If the flight launched on January 28th, then day 4 would be on Friday, January 31st. However, if the flight was delayed one more day, the lesson would be given on Saturday, February 1st. That posed a huge problem, considering children would not be in classrooms on a Saturday.
Things would go from bad to worse for NASA. An incredibly strong cold front penetrated the Deep South on the night of January 27, 1986. Temperatures got down to as low as 18 degrees at Kennedy Space Center and huge ice cycles formed on the launch pad. Roger Boisjoly and his engineering contemporaries were screaming to Morton Thiokol management that there was no way that Challenger should launch in such cold conditions. If the double O-ring system very nearly failed at 53 degrees, surely they would fail at much colder temperatures. During a conference call with NASA, Morton Thiokol made the recommendation that the launch be scrubbed until a date with warmer temperatures or, at least, until afternoon temperatures warmed. However a pressured NASA responded with contempt and disdain. NASA’s Larry Mulloy shouted “My God, Thiokol, when do you want me to launch? Next April?” The building pressure on NASA was now being transferred to Morton Thiokol. To the amazement, sadness and outrage of the Morton Thiokol engineers, Morton Thiokol management changed their decision from “do not launch” to “proceed with launch.” When asked by his wife, Roberta how his day was, a sickened Roger Boisjoly said, “Fine, except we are going to kill seven astronauts tomorrow!”
The next morning Boisjoly was sure that Challenger would blow up on the launch pad and was elated when that did not happened. His elation turned to terror when only 73 seconds later Challenger was lost after O-ring failure caused the explosion that initiated the disintegration of Challenger.
For Roger Boisjoly the end of Challenger was only the beginning of his personal hell. Roger was asked to participate on the Presidential Commission of the Space Shuttle Challenger, also known as the Rogers Commission. During that commission Roger handed in a packet of memos and activity reports that showed that both NASA and his own company, Morton Thiokol, knew about the O-ring design flaw, yet ignored it at the expense of human life. Instead of being celebrated as the hero he was, Roger was isolated from both NASA and Morton Thiokol management. He was chastised and criticized in front of colleagues. He was ignored professionally and personally during the project to redesign the joints of the SRBs. To say that Roger had to endure a hostile work environment would be an understatement. Why? All because he had the guts and forthrightness to stand up for what was right. The mental and emotional toll this took on Roger was staggering.
Some might say that Roger was an eighth victim of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster and, much like with the loss of the “Challenger Seven,” the damage done to Roger’s health, his career and to his family should be solely placed on the organizations that failed him, Morton Thiokol and NASA. Roger never called the Challenger disaster an accident, because it was not an accident, it was planned. Two organizations had the lives of seven people in their hands and made fatal decisions based on greed, the worry of public perception and fear of loss of power.
Although Roger filed a billion dollar lawsuit against Morton Thiokol and a ten million dollar lawsuit against NASA he did so for the noblest of reasons. I will let Roger tell you in his own words:
“First, it is my intention to secure compensatory damages for my lost salary and ruined career and second, I hope the suits send a serious and significant message to MTI (Morton Thiokol Industries) in particular and to executives of other companies and government agencies that they cannot make arbitrary irresponsible decisions that kill people and ruin the lives and careers of their employees without accountability.”
Roger Boisjoly is one of my heroes! I see in him many of the qualities that I admire in my own father! The words that would describe both men are selfless, strong, compassionate, faithful, driven, successful, thoughtful and loving. If that doesn’t describe a complete man, I am not sure what does. I think it only fitting that I end this blog with the words Roger uses to end his abstract, “Ethical Decisions- Morton Thiokol and the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster.”
“I have been asked by some if I would testify again if I knew in advance of the potential consequences to me, my family and my career. My answer is always an immediate yes. I couldn’t live with any self-respect or expect any respect from others if I tailored my actions based upon potential personal consequences resulting from my honorable actions. As a result of this paper and other exposures to real case histories, I hope that your answer will also be yes.
I hope and expect a drastic improvement in ethical decision-making practices and employee treatment for promoting ethical conduct as a result of my lawsuits, talks and this paper. Maybe together as colleagues we can all accomplish the second goal in my lawsuits and eliminate or at least significantly reduce unethical decision-making practices within our industrial and government communities.
I will never forget and I hope this nation will never forget, especially the engineering community, the supreme sacrifice that the seven Challenger astronauts paid by forfeiting their lives for such an irresponsible launch decision. May we always remember astronauts Jarvis, McAuliffe, McNair, Onizuka, Resnik, Scobee and Smith for their courage and dedication to this nation’s space program.”
Please listen to Rick Boisjoly, the brother of Roger, as he tells us the real story of what happened in the aftermath of Challenger.

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