Here is another departure from our usual topics to take note of an event that shook America 30 years ago, and the tale of an unsung hero who did his best to prevent it.
We were reminded yesterday that yesterday was the 30th anniversary of the destructive failure of Space Shuttle Challenger which exploded on takeoff, and killed all seven Astronauts aboard. The cause was the failure of an O-ring seal in one of the large solid propellant boosters. It permitted hot gases from the combustion chamber to ignite the “grain” – the large solid propellant cylinder inside the booster – and to initiate its uncontrolled burning that spiked the pressure and caused an explosion.
What many people do not realize is that this tragedy, which killed all seven astronauts aboard, was not only unnecessary, but also the result of stubbornness on the part of NASA and Morton Thiokol (the boosters’ manufacturer). The design parameters were clear: the O-rings were designed to operate in Florida’s mild climate and the rocket was not to be launched if the temperature fell below 55 degrees. Roger Boisjoly, the engineer in charge of the O-ring design, warned management and argued that the launch should be scrubbed until the ambient temperature was within specifications. But for reasons that are not clear – though they sound like management hubris and a stubborn desire to meet the planned schedule – Boisjoly’s urgent warnings were disregarded, and the launch proceeded with tragic results.
The seven astronauts who thus lost their lives are being remembered and memorialized on this anniversary of that tragedy. But few people remember Roger Boisjoly’s principled and courageous stand against this act of human folly.