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DATE 2023-01-01

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Key: Value:

Key: Value:

MESSAGE
DATE 2023-01-28
FROM Ruben Safir
SUBJECT Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] Doing the right thing always has consequences
Opinion | The Man Who Tried to Stop the Space Shuttle Challenger’s Launch
Rachel M. McCleary
6–7 minutes
Executives overruled the advice of engineer Roger Boisjoly, who suffered
a classic ‘moral injury.’

Your browser does not support the audio tag.

This article is in your queue.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration was preparing the
space shuttle Challenger for launch on the morning of Jan. 28, 1986. It
was an unusually cold morning for Cape Canaveral, Fla.—too cold, warned
the engineers of NASA contractor Morton Thiokol, builder of the
shuttle’s solid rocket motors. The engineers knew that the rubber
O-rings on the rocket could become brittle in cold weather, causing hot
fuel gases to leak and potentially causing an explosion. They were
right. Seventy-three seconds after liftoff, the shuttle with seven
astronauts on board, including teacher Christa McAuliffe, blew up.

The day before the launch, Thiokol engineers and executives met with
NASA officials on a teleconference. Roger Boisjoly, the principal
engineer on the Thiokol O-ring task force, and Arnold Thompson were the
most knowledgeable experts on O-rings in the U.S. The two engineers
argued that an ambient temperature below 53 degrees Fahrenheit could
prevent the O-rings from sealing properly. A Thiokol engineer reported
the anticipated temperature during the following day’s launch time would
be around 26 degrees. Erring on the side of caution, Boisjoly, Thompson
and other engineers recommended delaying the launch.

NASA officials pushed back. Lawrence Mulloy, NASA solid-rocket booster
manager at Marshall Space Center, was particularly angered by the
prospect of postponement, which had already been done three times.

Thiokol executives requested a private caucus. Boisjoly and Thompson
repeated their argument for a no-launch decision—to no avail. In what
amounted to a “management” decision, engineers were excluded from the
final vote. Returning to the teleconference, Thiokol executives informed
NASA that the launch was approved.

On Feb. 3, just under a week after the failed launch, President Ronald
Reagan announced the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle
Challenger Accident to investigate the disaster. Also known as the
Rogers Commission for its chairman, William Rogers, the commission
concluded that Thiokol engineers had known for months what Nobel physics
laureate Richard Feynman, a commission member, demonstrated by famously
dropping an O-ring in a glass of cold water: The rubber substance
hardens in cold temperatures and can’t properly seal.

Testifying before the commission, Boisjoly said: “I felt I really did
all I could to stop the launch.” Boisjoly had done everything in his
power to prevent the disaster. “We were talking to the people who had
the power to stop that launch,” he told NPR’s Howard Berkes in 1987.

The commission, relying on Boisjoly’s memos and reports, expanded its
inquiry beyond technical malfeasance to include management
decision-making. Considered disloyal, Boisjoly was removed from
Thiokol’s Challenger failure investigation team. Isolated from his
colleagues who were redesigning the O-ring, his self-esteem suffered and
destroyed his confidence as an engineer. Boisjoly, who understood the
potential consequences of an unsafe launch, had acted on his conscience
in trying to prevent it. But Thiokol executives didn’t respect him as a
valued professional. Six months after the disaster, Boisjoly requested
an extended sick leave. He never worked as an engineer again.

Since the Rogers Commission report, an avalanche of published materials
has chronicled the technological, management and organizational
dimensions of the disaster. Yet little attention has been paid to the
psychological suffering of the engineers who rightly opposed the launch.
Recent advances in psychology give us insight into their suffering.
Psychiatrist Jonathan Shay has observed that moral injury occurs when a
person in authority disregards a subordinate’s judgment on the morally
correct course of action, thereby violating the subordinate’s trust and
self-esteem. Dr. Shay’s definition applies to the Thiokol engineers who
challenged their executives to reconsider the launch. By not succeeding,
the engineers paid a high psychological price.

Two years after the Challenger disaster, Boisjoly found redemption as a
lecturer at engineering schools on ethical decision-making and data
analysis. He received the American Association for Advancement in
Science Prize for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility in 1988 for his
contribution to the engineering profession.

When Boisjoly left Thiokol in 1986, the notion of moral injury was a
nascent idea in Dr. Shay’s mind. Today, interdisciplinary therapies and
treatments are available to veterans, doctors, lawyers, teachers and
others who suffer from moral injury. On the anniversary of the
Challenger disaster, let us remember Roger Boisjoly along with the seven
astronauts whose lives he tried to protect.

Ms. McCleary is a lecturer in economics at Harvard and a nonresident
senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. She is writing a
book titled “Conscience Explained.”

Appeared in the January 28, 2023, print edition as 'The Man Who Tried to
Stop the Space Shuttle Challenger’s Launch'.


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that Brooklyn, like Atlantis, reaches mythological
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