On a cold Tuesday morning in 1986, millions of Americans tuned in to watch the launch of the Challenger space shuttle. Seventy-three seconds after liftoff, the shuttle exploded, claiming the lives of the seven men and women aboard—including the first ever civilian astronaut, a schoolteacher. The explosion, it was later learned, was caused by the failure of two rubber O-rings intended to separate sections of the rocket booster.
Six months earlier, Roger Boisjoly, an engineer working for rocket booster manufacturer Morton Thoikol, had warned his superiors of this very problem. He’d done an investigation into a shuttle flight the previous year, finding that cold temperatures could compromise the flexibility of the O-rings, and that the failure of both rings would lead to disaster. In a memo to his superiors sent six months before the fateful launch, Boisjoly predicted "a catastrophe of the highest order" involving "loss of human life." The managers at Morton Thoikol ignored the warning.
On the morning of the Challenger launch, Boisjoly once again attempted to stop the flight. Temperatures had slipped to 30°F overnight, low enough that the rings would be unable to form a seal. NASA management and Morton Thoikol discussed the possibility of delaying the flight, but ultimately decided that such concerns were unwarranted.
Following the explosion, President Ronald Reagan established a commission to look into the cause of the tragedy. Neither NASA nor Morton Thoikol gave any hint to the pre-launch concerns related to the weather or O-rings, and both the agency and manufacturer ordered employees to not speak with reporters. But evidence of their errors eventually made its way to the press, and three weeks after the launch, the New York Times ran a front-page story headlined: “NASA Had Warning of a Disaster Risk Posed by Booster.”
That same week, Boisjoly spoke confidentially to NPR reporter, Daniel Zwerdling. He detailed the conflict leading up to the launch, telling Zwedling, "I fought like Hell to stop that launch. I'm so torn up inside I can hardly talk about it, even now."
Only after the press storm were Boisjoly and his fellow engineers called upon to give testimony to Reagan's commission. With the O-ring issue now a major focus of the investigation, Boisjoly found himself increasingly ostracized at work. “I felt like we were being pushed out on a plank,” he recalls, “NASA was trying to discredit us. The company was treating us like black sheep. It got to be very personal, very uncomfortable.”
Boisjoly realized that his own documents—specifically his 1985 memo—could prove what NASA and Morton Thoikal hoped to obscure, and he went to great lengths to ensure the truth be protected. A 1987 piece in the Los Angeles Times reports:
“Boisjoly was sufficiently concerned that he took his personal files into a sort of protective custody. He emptied his desk and took the critical memos with him to Huntsville. He slept with them in his motel room. He hid them in the locked trunk of his rented car when he went to work at the Marshall Space Flight Center. He sent copies home to [his wife]. And still he worried that someone might try to lose or destroy them.”
Eventually, Boisjoly was able to pass the files on to Major Gen. Donald J. Kutyna of the presidential commission. The commission ultimately found that the O-rings and “failures in communication” led to the shuttle’s explosion, citing both NASA and Morton Thiokol for an inadequate response to the design flaw and poor decision-making leading up to the launch. It recommended an organizational restructuring at NASA and led to a $10 million incentive fee for Thoikal.
Many commentators have argued that the management and organizational restructuring at NASA was largely superficial and produced little in the way of effective change.
After months of animosity from his colleagues and supervisors, Boisjoly resigned from his position at Morton Thoikal. What I'm afraid of is that some young engineers will see what happened to me and think it isn't worth it to speak out, to take a stand," he said, soon after his resignation. “That's a tragedy."