By Roger M. Boisjoly, Former Morton Thiokol Engineer, Willard, Utah
A background summary of important events leading to the Challenger disaster will be presented starting with January, 1985, plus the specifics of the telecon meeting held the night prior to the launch at which the attempt was made to stop the launch by the Morton Thiokol engineers. A detailed account will show why the off-line telecon caucus by Morton Thiokol Management constituted the unethical decision-making forum which ultimately produced the management decision to launch...
A background summary of important events leading to the Challenger disaster will be presented starting with January, 1985, plus the specifics of the telecon meeting held the night prior to the launch at which the attempt was made to stop the launch by the Morton Thiokol engineers. A detailed account will show why the off-line telecon caucus by Morton Thiokol Management constituted the unethical decision-making forum which ultimately produced the management decision to launch Challenger without any restrictions.
The paper will continue with the post-disaster chronology of my working relationship with Morton Thiokol Management and conclude with a discussion on accountability, professional responsibility and ethical conduct which should be practiced in the work place, plus statements from the academic community about the plight of whistleblowers and my closing remarks.
Back to Top
You may have already concluded that the Challenger disaster was the result of only the decisions made during the evening prior to and the day of launch. As a senior engineer involved with the SRM's since July, 1980, and specifically with the joints since 1981, I can make the following statements from personal observations.
The SRM Program at MTI was suffering from the lack of proper original development work and some may argue that sufficient funds or schedule were not available and that may be so, but MTI contracted for that condition. The Shuttle program was declared operational by NASA after the fourth flight, but the technical problems in producing and maintaining the reusable boosters were escalating rapidly as the program matured, instead of decreasing as one would normally expect. Many opportunities were available to structure the work force for corrective action, but the MTI Management style would not let anything compete or interfere with the production and shipping of boosters. The result was a program which gave the appearance of being controlled while actually collapsing from within due to excessive technical and manufacturing problems as time increased.
This paper starts with January, 1985, which was the period of gross escalation of joint seal problems and continues with specific events that should have signaled either stopping the flights or as a minimum, changing the launch commit criteria to prevent launching below 53 °F (12 °C).
Figure 1 shows the SRM joint configuration for purposes of this discussion.
All dimensions are in inches with SI units for nominals given in the supplementary table. The first O-ring to seal internal hot gases is called the primary seal while the other is termed the secondary seal. There are 177 load carrying pins plus three locating pins for assembly clocking. Pressurization of the motor to 1004 psi (6.92 x 106 pascals) causes the gap dimension to increase 0.042 inches (1.07 mm).
Author(s): Roger M. Boisjoly
All of you must now evaluate your careers and emerge with the knowledge and conviction that you have a professional and moral responsibility to yourselves and to your fellow man to defend the truth and expose any questionable practices that will lead to an unsafe product. Don't just sit passively in meetings when you know in your heart that you can make a constructive contribution and also be prepared to share your ideas with others and to compliment others for their ideas, especially when their idea is better and may even replace yours. After all, you have a responsibility to promote the best product for a company and put personal pride aside. This is the best way to cultivate colleague respect and friendship, which in industry always results in a positive long-term benefit for you, the company and its product line.
I wish that the Challenger disaster had never happened and since I cannot turn the clock back, I hope that if anything good can result from this tragedy, then I desire that all academic institutions and professional societies will recognize the importance of teaching ethical behavior in decision-making situations by using actual case histories like this one to demonstrate what was wrong so everyone is aware and prepared for what to expect when confronting a similar situation requiring an ethical decision.
I have been asked by some if I would testify again if I knew in advance of the potential consequences to me, my family and my career. My answer is always an immediate yes. I couldn't live with any self-respect or expect any respect from others if I tailored my actions based upon potential personal consequences resulting from my honorable actions. As a result of this paper and other exposures to real case histories, I hope that your answer will also be yes.
I hope and expect a drastic improvement in ethical decision-making practices and employee treatment for promoting ethical conduct as a result of my law suits, talks and this paper. Maybe together as colleagues we can all accomplish the second goal in my law suits and eliminate or at least significantly reduce unethical decision-making practices within our industrial and government communities.
I will never forget and I hope this nation will never forget, especially the engineering community, the supreme sacrifice that the seven Challenger astronauts paid by forfeiting their lives for such an irresponsible launch decision. May we always remember astronauts Jarvis, McAuliffe, McNair, Onizuka, Resnik, Scobee and Smith for their courage and dedication to this nation's space program.
Roger M. Boisjoly, Former Morton Thiokol Engineer, Willard, Utah
The site is updating and expanding and is currently in beta form. Please fill out our questionnaire to provide your feedback. It should take no more than 15 minutes to complete.
If you would like to fill out the form later, you can return to this page http://www.onlineethics.org/feedback.aspx
If you need help finding a specific resource, please contact us via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.