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Roger Boisjoly (1938-2012): Tried to Prevent Challenger Disaster

Posted May 14, 2012 12:00 AM by SavvyExacta

Roger Boisjoly was best known for warning Morton Thiokol, his employer, and NASA against the dangers of a part on the space shuttle Challenger. Morton Thiokol decided that the data was inconclusive. NASA launched the shuttle on January 28, 1986 and it exploded seconds later.

Boisjoly earned a mechanical engineering degree from the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. During his 27-year career in the aerospace industry, he worked on projects including lunar module life-support systems (LEMs), the moon vehicle, and solid rocket boosters (SRBs).

Faulty O-Ring Discovery

Six months before the shuttle exploded, Boisjoly wrote a memo to colleagues at Morton Thiokol. He explained that cold weather could cause the O-rings in the SRB to fail. His findings were based on an investigation of an SRB from a shuttle flight a year earlier. An O-Ring had failed in the 1985 launch when the temperature was 50° F.

A task force was created to examine the effect of cold temperatures on the boosters. The seals were found to stiffen and unseal in cold weather. If this happened at launch it would spell a certain death for the astronauts on board the shuttle.

Attempts to Prevent Disaster

The temperature fell below freezing the night before the Challenger launch. That night Boisjoly and four colleagues held a phone conference with NASA to discuss delaying the launch. He showed photo evidence of damage from the previous cold-temperature launch. The Morton Thiokol vice presidents in attendance decided the evidence was not conclusive. NASA decided to go ahead with the launch.

At the time, Morton Thiokol was discussing a new $1 billion contract with NASA. The Challenger launch had already been delayed twice; it is thought that another delay could put the company's contract in jeopardy.

Work Post-Disaster

After the Challenger disaster Boisjoly testified at a Presidential commission. He explained why he thought the O-rings had failed and provided copies of the memos he had sent six months earlier. He went on leave from Morton Thiokol and was eventually unemployed. He was told nobody could afford to hire a whistleblower. His colleagues turned against him and he said astronaut Sally Ride was the only one who supported him.

Eventually he began speaking to engineering students about workplace ethics. After leaving Morton Thiokol he donated six boxes of his personal papers and memos to Chapman University in Orange, California. He was awarded the Prize for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Read more about the Challenger disaster on CR4.

Resources:

The New York Times - Roger Boisjoly, 73, Dies; Warned of Shuttle Danger [image]

NPR - Remembering Roger Boisjoly: He Tried To Stop Shuttle Challenger Launch

Wikipedia - Roger Boisjoly

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#1

Re: Roger Boisjoly (1938-2012): Tried to Prevent Challenger Disaster

05/14/2012 12:48 AM

The O-rings were flown outside their functional operating temperature range. Elastomers shrink, and get hard, when it's cold. This doomed the flight. Boisjoly and other materials engineers knew this, and I salute their honesty.

The real reason the shuttle flew on that date is as much political PR as economic. The president's state-of-the-union speech was scheduled that week and the White House wanted a teacher in space. That detail was quickly hushed up, but it's true.

Thanks for the reminder.

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#5
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Re: Roger Boisjoly (1938-2012): Tried to Prevent Challenger Disaster

05/15/2012 8:22 AM

That Reagan-is-responsible myth is unfounded. It's the product of one writer with an axe to grind.

James Oberg, noted space expert and consultant to MSNBC has written of the myths surrounding the Challenger disaster, including this one:

Myth #6: Political pressure forced the launch:

There were pressures on the flight schedule, but none of any recognizable political origin. Launch officials clearly felt pressure to get the mission off after repeated delays, and they were embarrassed by repeated mockery on the television news of previous scrubs, but the driving factor in their minds seems to have been two shuttle-launched planetary probes. The first ever probes of this kind, they had an unmovable launch window just four months in the future. The persistent rumor that the White House had ordered the flight to proceed in order to spice up President Reagan's scheduled State of the Union address seems based on political motivations, not any direct testimony or other first-hand evidence. Feynman personally checked out the rumor and never found any substantiation. If Challenger's flight had gone according to plan, the crew would have been asleep at the time of Reagan's speech, and no communications links had been set up. (Emphasis mine.)
From the Wikipedia article about James Oberg:
As a journalist, he writes for several regular publications, mostly online; he was previously space correspondent for UPI, ABC and currently MSNBC, often in an on-air role. He is a Fellow of the skeptical organization CSICOP and a consultant to its magazine Skeptical Inquirer.

Oberg has no political points to make in defending Reagan. He has a solid reputation as an honest, objective expert.

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Re: Roger Boisjoly (1938-2012): Tried to Prevent Challenger Disaster

05/15/2012 8:27 AM

I based my statement on what I heard on the day of the launch, not subsequent events. The company I worked for at the time supplied the communications equipment for the program.

Of course, I wasn't there.

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#2

Re: Roger Boisjoly (1938-2012): Tried to Prevent Challenger Disaster

05/14/2012 6:36 AM

Respect.

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Re: Roger Boisjoly (1938-2012): Tried to Prevent Challenger Disaster

05/14/2012 7:00 AM

It saddens me that there is a negative connotation to the term 'Whitle blower'
These people should be honoured and rewarded.
Nearly always they are castigated by the managers and beancounters who don't have the wit or imagination to realise that honesty is in everyones interest.
I just hope that I would have the balls to do what he did in the same situation.
Odd that it's the guy who was right that gets the flak not those who sent the astronauts to their death.
And what's worse, I don't expect the guilty parties even loose sleep over it.
Del

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Re: Roger Boisjoly (1938-2012): Tried to Prevent Challenger Disaster

05/15/2012 9:50 AM

Reminds me of that old saying, 'No good deed goes unpunished'.

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Re: Roger Boisjoly (1938-2012): Tried to Prevent Challenger Disaster

05/15/2012 10:16 AM

You can put a dollar amount on anything these days, and nowhere in "fiduciary responsibility" do they mention honesty or integrity or morality.

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#9
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Re: Roger Boisjoly (1938-2012): Tried to Prevent Challenger Disaster

05/15/2012 11:17 AM

Is there a way to say "Amen!" without the religious connotation?

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Re: Roger Boisjoly (1938-2012): Tried to Prevent Challenger Disaster

07/30/2012 2:15 PM

That is true, but the Federal Law did impose the Whistle Blower Protection Act, to protect as well as compensate the Whistle Blower.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whistleblower

But it still goes without saying,

To blow the whistle on a company, government or a union, when something is wrong or illegal, no matter what you want to call it, takes guts.

And even if there is compensation, once you commit yourself to blow the whistle, there are no guarantees and the only thing in your corner is integrity and courage and nothing more.

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Re: Roger Boisjoly (1938-2012): Tried to Prevent Challenger Disaster

05/14/2012 8:25 PM

Mr Boisjoly was no doubt looked at as a troublemaker for just doing his job, although I'm sure everyone here would have done the same thing...If he would have ignored his findings, he would have been possibly guilty of contributing to negligent homicide...as it is now, no one seems to be guilty...

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Re: Roger Boisjoly (1938-2012): Tried to Prevent Challenger Disaster

05/15/2012 8:58 PM

The best seals for that kind of application is are C-seals. At room temperature they seal as tightly as rubber O-rings, but C-seals are made of metal, usually a high-temperature nickel alloy such a inconel or Waspaloy. C-seals do not stiffen at low temperatures or burn at high temperatures. They install just like O-rings, but in cross section a C-seal looks like the letter C instead of like a solid O. The open side of the C faces towards the pressure, so higher pressure makes it seal more tightly. By the 1980s nearly all jet engines used C-seals or a similar high-vibration variant called an E-seal. The only reason to use an O-ring is cost. O-rings cost pennies; C-seals cost dollars, but jetliners cost millions, and space shuttles cost billions. I suspect that the Morton Thiokol engineers did not initially think of using C-seals because they were missile designers, not aircraft designers. When you make ammunition, a few duds are acceptable. After the Challenger blew up they found out about C-seals and asked the manufacturer, Pressure Science Incorporated (PSI), make some seals for the surviving space shuttles. Unfortunately, the engineer who founded PSI (I think his name was Lambert) had recently died. He was replaced by an accountant appointed by the new owner, EG&G. The accountant calculated that the profit on such a small order not worth bothering with. I don't think it crossed his mind that saving the Shuttle Program was the right thing to do, or that telling NASA to buzz off might be bad for business. Morton Thiokol and NASA had to used extra extra backup O-rings and hope that they wouldn't all burn through. PSI's accountant tried to force his other customers to design their engines around PSI's standard seal sizes. When PSI's patents ran out, the customers when elsewhere. The lesson here is that high-tech companies like Morton Thiokol, PSI, and Apple should be run by people like Boisjoly, Lambert, and Jobs who understand the technology and what their customers need. Bean counters should only run accounting firms.

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Re: Roger Boisjoly (1938-2012): Tried to Prevent Challenger Disaster

05/16/2012 1:03 AM

That's the way it used to be.... now the bean counters have taken over and run nearly everything, except the Government of course, probably where we need them the most...

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