This is another instance where we depart from our usual topic of eminent domain/land use to comment on a noteworthy individual or event. Today’s object of our admiration is the late Roger M. Boisjoly (pronounced Beaujolais, like the wine). Roger Boisjoly, who just passed away at the age of 73, was a rocker engineer who worked for Morton Thiokol, makers of large solid-propellant rockets. Those are the honkin’ big cylindrical devices strapped on to the outside of space shuttles, to give them the short extra boost necessary to get them into orbit, and to augment the cluster of huge F-1 liquid propellant rocket engines that gave the Apollo space vehicles their main thrust.
Those solid propellant boosters were used on the ill-fated Challenger which blew up shortly after takeoff in 1986. The cause of the blowup was an explosion inside those solid propellant booster rockets, an event that shocked the nation and killed all those brave astronauts aboard. How did it happen? How could it happen? And what did that have to do with Roger Boisjoly?
The simple answer to these questions is that the propellant inside solid-propellant rockes is a highly combustible substance, that looks and feels like solid rubber. The problem is that unlike liquid propellants, its consumption of the solid propellant by fire cannot be controlled, except by the shape of the “grain,” or the solid chunk of the stuff inside the rocket. Which means that the shape of the grain must be carefully controlled so it does not burn any faster than its design calls for. If it starts burning faster than that, the combustion becomes uncontrollable, the pressure inside the rocket goes up, and . . kaboom! That is what happened in the Challenger booster.
To accomplish that, the grain must be carefully sealed within its designed space to control its burn rate, and in this case the seals took the form of large o-rings. But as ambient temperature drops below a certain level, the o-rings’ sealing capability becomes compromised and if ignited then, the fire bypasses the seals, ighnites the grain’s outer surface and becomes uncontrollable. And in this case, at the time scheduled for launch, the ambient temperature dropped below the specified limit.
But Roger Boisjoly, took note of this and urged that the Challenegr not be launched at that time. But the launch was behind schedule, and NASA as well as Morton Thiokol management were under pressure to get on with it. So, over Boisjoly’s vigorous objections, and an explicit warning that human lives were at stake, they ordered the launch to proceed. It did. The rest became tragic history when the Challenger blew up 73 seconds after launch.
So was Boisjoly hailed as a hero whose skill and insight would have prevented the Challenger tragedy if only he had been listened to? Don’t be silly. Instead he was perceived as a “whistleblower” and shunned by his colleagues. His employer, according to the New York Times, cut him off from further space work, even though he was awarded the Prize for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility by the American Association for Advancement of Science.
So we figure that those of us who remember these things, and who are into justice should take a moment to remember the bravery and determination of a good man who risked his career in an effort to save those poor astronauts from death, by simply trying to play by the rules of science. Ah, but as we lawyers know all too well, playing by the rules is a sometimes thing, isn’t it?
For a link to the New York Times story, click here.