Roger Boisjoly had over a quarter-century's experience in the aerospace industry in 1985 when he became involved in an improvement effort on the O-rings which connect segments of Morton Thiokol's Solid Rocket Booster, used to bring the Space Shuttle into orbit. Boisjoly has spent his entire career making well-informed decisions based on his understanding of and belief in a professional engineer's rights and responsibilities. For his honesty and integrity leading up to and directly following the shuttle disaster, Roger Boisjoly was awarded the Prize for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility by...
Roger Boisjoly had over a quarter-century's experience in the aerospace industry in 1985 when he became involved in an improvement effort on the O-rings which connect segments of Morton Thiokol's Solid Rocket Booster, used to bring the Space Shuttle into orbit. Boisjoly has spent his entire career making well-informed decisions based on his understanding of and belief in a professional engineer's rights and responsibilities. For his honesty and integrity leading up to and directly following the shuttle disaster, Roger Boisjoly was awarded the Prize for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Mr. Boisjoly died of cancer in St. George, Utah on Jan. 6, 2012. He spent his final years offering workshops and lectures on changing workplace ethics for numerous universities and civic groups.
For more information see this rememberance on NPR.
January 28, 1986. Two video clips of the Challenger Explosion from CNN: "Reagan honors shuttle crew (1986)" and "NASA remembers Challenger".
In January of 1987, nearly a full year after the Challenger exploded, Roger Boisjoly spoke at MIT about his attempts to avert the disaster during the year preceding the Challenger launch. According to the Report of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident, "evidence pointed to the right solid rocket booster as the source of the accident." In 1985 Boisjoly began work to improve the O-ring seals which connect segments of Morton Thiokol's solid rocket booster. Boisjoly was frustrated with the slow progress and the lack of management attention to the seal task force. He spoke about the events leading up to the disaster in this address.
Boisjoly's discussion of the Challenger Disaster is separated into seven sections. Each section is then followed by some possible responses. To see discussion of any response, click on the link to it. Supporting material is also provided. You may want to consult some of it in deciding what you would have done in Roger Boisjoly's place at each stage of the story.
This page and supporting pages were originally created by Jagruti S. Patel and Phil Sarin.
Roger Boisjoly presented this material first in a talk in January 1987 at MIT. The first publication was in the volume of conference papers for the 1987 Annual Meetings of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers in fall 1987.
Boisjoly, Roger M. 1987.
Ethical Decisions -- Morton Thiokol and the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster.
American Society of Mechanical Engineers Annual Meetings.
Texto en Español
The major activity that day focused upon the predicted 18 degrees Fahrenheit overnight temperature and meeting with engineering management to persuade them not to launch. The day concluded with the hurried preparation of fourteen viewgraphs which detailed our concerns about launching at such a low temperature. The teleconference with Kennedy Space Center (KSC) and MSFC started with a history of O-ring damage in field joints. Data was presented showing a major concern with seal resiliency and the change to the sealing timing function and the criticality of this on the ability to seal. I was asked several times during my portion of the presentation to quantify my concerns, but I said I could not since the only data I had was what I had presented and that I had been trying to get more data since last October. At this comment, the general manager of Morton Thiokol gave me a scolding look as if to say, "Why are you telling that to them?" The presentation ended with the recommendation not to launch below 53 degrees. This was not well received by NASA. The Vice President of Space Booster Programs, Joe Kilminster, was then asked by NASA for his launch decision. He said he did not recommend launching, based upon the engineering position just presented. Then Larry Mulloy of NASA (who was at KSC) asked George Hardy of NASA (who was at MSFC) for his launch decision. George responded that he was appalled at Thiokol's recommendation but said he would not launch over the contractor's objection. Then Larry Mulloy spent some time giving his interpretation of the data with his conclusion that the data presented was inconclusive.
Just as he finished his conclusion, Joe Kilminster asked for a five minute off-line caucus to re-evaluate the data, and as soon as the mute button was pushed our general manager, Jerry Mason, said in a soft voice, "We have to make a management decision." I became furious when I heard this because I knew that an attempt would be made by management to reverse our recommendation not to launch.
Some discussion had started between the managers when Arnie Thompson moved from his position down the table to a position in front of the managers and once again tried to explain our position by sketching the joint and discussing the problem with the seals at low temperature. Arnie stopped when he saw the unfriendly look in Mason's eyes and also realized that no one was listening to him. I then grabbed the photographic evidence showing the hot gas blow-by and placed it on the table and, somewhat angered, admonished them to look and not ignore what the photos were telling us, namely, that low temperature indeed caused more hot gas blow-by in the joints. I too received the same cold stares as Arnie with looks as if to say, "Go away and don't bother us with the facts." At that moment I felt totally helpless and felt that further argument was fruitless, so I, too, stopped pressing my case.
What followed made me both sad and angry. The managers who were struggling to make a pro-launch list of supporting data actually supported a decision not to launch. During the closed managers' discussion, Jerry Mason asked in a low voice if he was the only one who wanted to fly. The discussion continued, then Mason turned to Bob Lund, the vice-president of engineering, and told him to take off his engineering hat and put on his management hat. The decision to launch resulted from the yes vote of only the four senior executives since the rest of us were excluded from both the final decision and the vote poll. The telecon resumed, and Joe Kilminster read the launch support rationale from a handwritten list and recommended that the launch proceed. NASA promptly accepted the recommendation to launch without any probing discussion and asked Joe to send a signed copy of the chart.
The change in decision so upset me that I do not remember Stanley Reinhartz of NASA asking if anyone had anything else to say over the telecon. The telecon was then disconnected so I immediately left the room feeling badly defeated.
What is the situation that Boisjoly faces now? He has presented his case. NASA has acted in a way that was unprecedented in Boisjoly's experience. They have put the burden of proof on those who belived it was risky to fly rather than on those who felt it was safe to fly. Fearing that NASA will not continue to make Morton Thiokol the sole contractor for the Solid Rocket Booster program if they insist on holding back the Challenger flight, management has reversed the decision made by engineering. Boisjoly doesn't have the hard data that he has been requesting since last summer and which is now needed to prove that low temperature is a major contributor in hot gas blow-by, and his job appears to be at stake. He has had over a year to work on the joint problem and in that time ten shuttle missions have flown successfully. Is there anything else that can be done at this point?