Barb's Blog

Go, No Go? Gone.

I read today of the death of Roger Boisjoly, an engineer who worked on the space shuttle Challenger, which was launched in 1986.  Although space shuttles had come and gone prior to this, the Challenger flight was highly popular because it carried the first Teacher in Space along with six other crew members.  It seemed like just about everyone could identify with the teacher, Christa McAuliffe, who, after all, was just an ordinary person chosen for an extraordinary adventure.

Thousands of people watched the take-off on the ground in Florida, many school children around the country viewed on television it from their classrooms, and many others took it in at home.  The Challenger lifted off and gracefully ascended into the heavens.  It was a bright day with vivid blue skies.  The craft moved smoothly and elegantly.  Then, 73 seconds into the flight, it burst into pieces and flames,* disappearing behind billows of smoke.  Everyone was shocked.

Well, not everyone.  Roger Boisjoly worked for Morton Thiokol, the contractor that built the Challenger.  He had been warning his superiors at Morton Thiokol and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) that the joints in the booster rockets could fail.  The flight was to occur on a particularly cold day, and Boisjoly was concerned the o-rings on the engines would contract, thereby allowing hot gases and flames to escape.  Boisjoly predicted that launching at that time would result in a “catastrophe of the highest order” and wanted NASA to delay the flight.  He had begun his warning in 1985 and continued it up to the night before the launch when he argued with other engineers for hours.  One program manager rhetorically asked "My God, Thiokol, when do you want me to launch — next April?"  On the morning of the flight, Boisjoly was so worried that he could not bring himself to watch it.

Sometimes being right is not all that satisfying.  

Boisjoly paid a professional and personal price for speaking truth to power.  He was banished from the space engineering industry and had to reinvent a new career and new life for himself.  

What does it take to change the course of an organization whose leaders have already made up their mind?  How do you convince decision makers to pay attention to the recommendations of knowledgeable people who bring up serious, scientifically-based concerns?  What can any of us do when we see something is wrong and we speak up but are ignored?

Boisjoly made his experience the basis for speaking and teaching about the importance of ethical decision making for planners and engineers.  He was awarded the Prize for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and spoke to more than 300 universities and civic groups about corporate ethics.  He was not able to prevent the Challenger disaster, but he will go down in history as being a voice of honor and integrity.  

Perhaps, for all of us, the lesson is that we must keep on doing the right thing, even in the face of overwhelming odds.  

*While there is some captioning on this video, other comments are audible but are not captioned.  These comments are from the flight controllers and describe various aspects of the flight, e.g., the state of the engines, “engines at 94 percent,” speed, “443 nautical miles,” etc.  Just before the explosion a controller says “Challenger, go with throttle up.” Later the phrases “major malfunction” and “we have no down link” are spoken.  When the crowd is shown one can hear some screaming and the like, but no specific words are clearly audible.

Copyright 2012.  Do not reproduce without permission. 

© Barbara Raimondo 2015