The night before the Challenger space shuttle disaster, engineer Roger Boisjoly spent hours trying to get the mission called off. He was so certain that booster joints would fail in freezing weather and destroy the craft that he refused to watch it happen. [LA Times]

17 Responses to “Engineer who warned of Challenger disaster dies”

  1. sargentrg says:

    From the LA Times article: “It was among the great engineering miscalculations in history.” It doesn’t sound like a miscalculation to me, they knew the situation,  its limitations and the danger. A management decision was made to discard that information which resulted in the predicted outcome. Maybe it should read “It was among the great [management] miscalculations in history.”

    • suburbanhick says:

      Is there such a thing as a calculated miscalculation?

    • Read “The Challenger Launch Decision” by Diane Vaughan.  Terribly dry but very detailed.  

      On page 383 are two charts.  One is the one generated by Boisjoly and his team in the days before the launch and it shows all 7 previous flights that  blow-by (hot gas escaping around an o-ring) was experienced.  It shows that there is more blow-by the colder you get.   But the chart also shows that one gets more blow-by the warmer the temperature is, so it’s not cut and dry and hard to explain the warm blow-by with the argument they were making.  The decision to go ahead with the launch was based on this argument, plus the knowledge that there was a redundant O-ring, plus the consideration that many systems include a measure of acceptable risk.  That’s engineering.  
      The second chart on the page was made by his team in the days afterward.  It included all the data from all the flights, that is, all the temperatures where 0 blow-by was experienced.  With this plot it was clear that the one warm-temperature point was errant and that under 65°F there will always be blow-by and the colder one gets the more there is.  

      There are usually people on both sides of decisions, and one side usually ends up being right.    The funny thing is that usually the people on both sides are also experts in the field.   However, being wrong doesn’t mean you’re not an expert, just as being right doesn’t automatically make you one.  Both sides had experts making good arguments in this case.

      You need to have a clear message when you want other people to spend money and cause alot of trouble, which is what a delayed flight results in.  NASA had no qualm against delaying flights, they had already delayed this flight days earlier because the weather at a  emergency landing area in Africa (I think it was) looked poor.  The launch went ahead on the 28th because the argument against it was not made clearly.  People died because communication was not complete.    The second chart was clear, it was just a couple days too late.

      I keep a copy of the two charts on my desk at work as a reminder of that.   I look at them almost every day.

  2. suburbanhick says:

    Sad to think that this sort of hubris was responsible for the deaths of 14 people.
    RIP, Mr. Boisjoly, and thank you.

  3. Shaun Usher says:

    Here’s the memo he sent, in which he warned of a potential “catastrophe.”

    http://www.lettersofnote.com/2009/10/result-would-be-catastrophe.html

  4. Chicago_SC says:

    My father ( an engineer part of the program) claims to have been of this opinion and refers often to memos he and others wrote warning of this.  I have never seen them, but he’s my pop and I believe him.

    That day he stayed home from work and picked me up at school shortly after it happened.

  5. satn says:

    Here’s to you Roger. Thank you for having the fortitude to try doing the right thing when so many would have just kept quiet for their own sake.

    If the world had more engineers like him, calling the shots, we would be in a much better place.

  6. swimsy says:

    A true hero. Thanks, Roger! Speak truth to power!

  7. Guest says:

    What’s worse than being totally wrong? Being right, and berated for it. 

    • Antinous / Moderator says:

      Cassandra

      • Sekino says:

        My thought exactly: Cassandra’s curse.

        This man may not have had the disaster on his conscience since he tried his best to prevent it… However it must have been torturous in its own right to have seen it coming so lucidly yet not have been able to change it.

        My only hope is that he was able to move on and not be too haunted and embittered by it.

  8. Christopher says:

    I remember being at a friend’s house the day the Challenger explosion happened. It was a teacher’s work day or parent-conference day so we had the day off from school. My friend and I were playing on his computer and his sister ran into the room and said, “The space shuttle just blew up!” We laughed. It wasn’t funny, but I think we didn’t know how to react to something so unbelievable. To us it just didn’t seem like it could happen.

    Of course it was Mr. Boisjoly’s job to think it could happen and to do everything he could to prevent it, which he did. I think it’s tragic that he did everything he could but was overridden by people who didn’t have the sense to listen to him.

  9. MrEricSir says:

    The whole Space Shuttle program was all about cutting corners and doing things on the cehap.  Reagan needed a way to launch and maintain SDI (Star Wars) without busting the budget.

    • Ito Kagehisa says:

      Speaking as someone who was employed at Morton Thiokol the day this happened…. you are both right, and wrong.

      The shuttle was always the Volkswagen of space.  Better designs were rejected due to cost, although ironically the initial design of the shuttle was so cheesy the revisions required to survive re-entry ended up causing massive cost overruns.

      However, Reagan had nothing to do with it.  He was perfectly willing to lie to Congress and cut illegal deals with foreign dictators and drug runners in order to fund dirty little wars in South America, but he wasn’t the one who made the decision to build the shuttle on the lowest bid.  I think that was Congress, actually, back in the 1970s.

      It’s also ironic that I’m defending that treasonous bastard Reagan.  On the day the Challenger blew up, I was helping Reagan supply the House of Saud with nuclear cruise missile technology, something you won’t read about in the history books.

      I never met Boisjuly although I know people who did.  He had a reputation for being a difficult personality, but you can’t deny he tried to do the right thing, and if NASA had listened to him it would have saved lives (and my job).

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