PE Warned of Space Shuttle Disaster

Roger Boisjoly, the engineer who warned of a possible O-ring failure that could lead to the destruction of the space shuttleChallenger, died on January 6 in Utah, according to the New York Times.

Nearly a decade after the disaster, Boisjoly shared his story with NSPE. Below is the complete article from the August 1995 issue ofEngineering Times.

PE Perseveres, 10 Years After Challenger Explosion

By Molly Galvin
Associate Editor

As filmgoers pack Apollo 13 and marvel at the story about a disaster that almost was, Roger Boisjoly tells the story of the disaster that NASA failed to avoid. For 10 years, the professional engineer has been living with the aftermath of the Challenger space shuttle explosion and the events that ended his aerospace career. He has managed not only to find the lessons in that loss but also to carve new opportunities from it.

As a lead engineer for Morton Thiokol, a NASA contractor that helped develop the Challenger’s solid rocket booster, Boisjoly in effect predicted the disaster before it occurred. He correctly noted that the critical O-ring seals in the booster could fail in the low temperatures expected on Challenger’s launch day. But company management repeatedly ignored Boisjoly’s and other engineers’ warnings.

His story of managers putting profit over safety and, ultimately, human life, is as chilling today as it was 10 years ago. The day before the launch, a teleconference was held with NASA officials and Morton Thiokol management. After NASA officials expressed disappointment with Thiokol engineers’ recommendation to cancel the launch, the company’s senior managers overruled that decision. “Take off your engineer’s hat and put on your manager’s hat,” a Thiokol senior manager told the vice president of engineering.

The next day, the world watched the disastrous consequences. “I had made up my mind not to watch the launch,” says Boisjoly, but ended up watching at a colleague’s urging. At first, it looked like the launch might make it. “I whispered to him that we had just dodged a bullet,” he says. “Sixty seconds into the flight [my colleague] whispered back that he had completed a prayer of thanks. Thirteen seconds later, we all saw the horror of destruction as the vehicle exploded.”

Boisjoly’s life would never be the same. A few days later, he was assigned to a failure investigation team with several other engineers. “What I saw there made me sick all over again, because NASA was definitely engaged in a massive cover-up attempt.” Officials were trying to hide the fact that the 31 degree F temperature at launch had any effect on the explosion, he says. And he learned some other disturbing news. “NASA’s initial quick [statement] that [the astronauts] died instantly was simply not true,” Boisjoly says. “The astronauts...were alive when they hit the water in excess of 200 miles an hour.”

For Boisjoly, the nightmare only grew worse as a presidential commission investigated the circumstances surrounding the explosion. “I submitted quite a few documents that clearly showed this was a preventable event. It was a disaster waiting to happen, caused by people who simply wouldn’t listen.” The investigation went from strictly an examination of technical aspects to a grilling of managerial decisions. “[Thiokol managers] were extremely angry when I turned in my documentation and that anger increased as I continued to testify,” says Boisjoly. During testimony at a committee hearing, he publicly refuted a manager’s assertion that Thiokol engineers weren’t unanimous in recommending that the launch be canceled. “When I finished they were so damn mad that I think if they had guns they would have shot me on the spot,” he says.

While his career at Morton Thiokol seemed to be over, he stuck it out for about six months. “I was in a world of hurt. I was blaming myself for not having done more,” he says. Meanwhile, managers isolated him in his position and “made life a living hell on a day-to-day basis.” Eventually he took sick leave because he was experiencing double vision, mood swings, and lots of anger—all of the signs leading up to a stroke or heart attack.

He told Thiokol he wasn’t returning. Boisjoly had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and learned that he qualified for two years of long-term disability. “I filed several lawsuits against Thiokol, which turned out to be an exercise in total futility,” he says. “I think [the court system was] afraid of what they’d find.” The suits never even made it to the discovery process, he says. Boisjoly decided not to pursue the lawsuits further. “I tried to get on with my life,” he says.

He threw himself into studying for his engineering licensure exam. The long hours he spent studying were a catharsis for healing, he says. In the meantime, he was asked to speak about his experience some 60 times, which he said also helped the healing process. His goal was to do consulting work. “I took the licensure exams because I was absolutely sure that an industry blackball would be instituted against me, especially because of my public brand as a whistle-blower. I was right.”

After he earned his PE license, he started getting more speaking engagements and landed a couple of consulting jobs. “I still didn’t have a great deal of jobs, but I got enough to give me a taste of forensic engineering work.” He was invited to join the NSPE-affiliated National Academy of Forensic Engineers. “I liked to do [forensic work] because the adversarial setting in the courtroom is really not that much different from what I experienced in the 27 years I spent in the aerospace industry.”

Although Boisjoly sometimes misses the excitement of work in the aerospace industry, he says he loves his new career, a combination of forensic engineering work, consulting, and speaking about engineering ethics. He makes his home in Utah, where he was named the 1994 Engineer of the Year by the Utah Society of Professional Engineers and the Utah Engineers Council.

Speaking publicly about the disaster was difficult at first, but he finds it fulfilling now. “It’s changed a lot of lives. It’s a wonderful high to know that you’re making a difference.” Despite the tragedy, Boisjoly has learned to value the lessons Challenger taught. “We [engineers] did all the right things. We informed our customers. The only thing that went wrong is that we had a customer that was hell-bent on launching regardless of the facts,” he says.

He makes it a point to urge all engineers to get licensed, if only for their own protection. Even industry engineers must protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public, he points out. “In industry, the public are the customers. Now picture the scenario of me having a PE license when this happened, and me taking the code of ethics and shoving it up their noses and saying `Look! This is what the code says, this is what I’m obligated to do.’ That’s a powerful threat, especially if my colleagues also have PE licenses.”

Sometimes, after they hear all the hardships he endured on the way, students in Boisjoly’s audiences will ask why he went public with what he knew. “Because I like to sleep peacefully at night,” he answers. “My conscience would have eaten me alive if I had not stepped up and fought for stopping that launch.” He urges all engineers to act responsibly no matter what the consequences. “I believe in the philosophy that you need to tell people what they need to know, not what they want to hear. [Engineers] have got to stand up and fight for what they know is right.”

Published February 6, 2012 by NSPE

Filed under: ethics,


This item appeared today (8 February) in the Washington Post: Engineer warned of dangers to Challenger launch. It is an obituary of Roger Boisjoly, P.E., who died of cancer on January 6, and who was the one voice that forcefully told the launch committee to hold the launch of the Challenger for warmer weather. They launched anyway, and it got farther than Roger thought it would, which was still not very far. Roger went into PTDS over it, and when he told the truth under oath, contrary to orders from his management, he was fired, lost his retirement, and just about everything else.

I knew Roger Boisjoly. He took his story on the road, so to speak, to show the engineering community and the rest of the world just how serious it is to pay attention to your stubborn engineers. I met him in Phoenix when he presented to the Papago Chapter of Arizona Society of Professional Engineers, and I immediately engaged him to present to the IEEE Phoenix Area Consultants Network. His story was one of how to do forensic engineering, running a problem down to the root cause. He had spotted the hot gas leak at the joint between two booster sections on many previous launches (everything is filmed from multiple aspects), and he got a look at the joints and the seal rings on several post-launch analyses. The rings were burnt. He determined that they would not flex enough to seal at low temperatures, and proved it with laboratory tests, which his management would not pay for or authorize. He was a member of the launch committee at Thiokol, and when he heard the outside temperature at launch time he tried desperately to stop the launch. Since it took unanimous consent to launch, they sent him out of the room to prevent his veto. The rest is known history.

Roger is one of the few people I know or knew that taught me how to be an engineer, even though he was only 4 years older than me. He taught me the importance of determining the root cause of every event, no matter how minor it may seem, and he taught me the importance of sticking to the truth and not being swayed by management desires, political pressure, cost constraints or schedule. It is absolutely vital that we do so, with as much quality documentation as we can assemble. It is equally vital that we listen to others who are trying to tell us things that they have determined. The cost of inattention cost us far more than two spacecraft and 14 lives. It cost us our reputations in many fields, and it cost us our pride, all in ways that cannot be described. Can we afford all of that?

Wednesday, February 08, 2012 9:10 AM by Henry A Burger, PE

I was saddened to hear of the passing of Roger Boisjoly. I have used the facts around the Challenger incident to educate a generation of engineers, coworkers, and subordinates. There is some much to learn and so much to teach the leaders of industry.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012 3:53 PM by Joseph Sener, PE

As an adjunct for four years, I taught courses in Professional Development in Civil Engineering at The University of Tennessee.  Included in these courses were classes on engineering ethics.  I used Mr. Boisjoly story to share with civil engineering students the importance of making sound ethical decisions.  I used a video interview that he gave Carnegie Mellon University five years after the incident.  His points related to making good ethical decisions in this interview had  significant impacts on the students.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012 4:10 PM by Daryl R. Armentrout, Ph.D., P.E.

Though the culture of engineering ethics is not common between Japan and United States, many Japanese engineers concious of the workplace ethics very well know the name of Mr.Roger Boisjoley appearing on the ethics textbooks and as a somewhat "martyr" for the justice of the ethics.

After I know his passing away, I sincerely deliver my respect to him for his honest behavior during and after the Challenger event.

I, as a director of Japan Society of Professional Engineers and have gotten my Oregon PE license 5 years ago, recently notice that the Aerospace discipline is not included in the US PE license in any state, and I learned from this Mr.Boislojy's article that he has gotten his PE license "after" the Challenger disaster.

Takeya Kawamura, PE  Kobe, Japan  

Sunday, February 26, 2012 3:18 AM by Takeya Kawamura

The story of Roger Boisjoly needs to be told to all engineering students as well as those engineers seeking a license. Engineers generally are often not in a position to authorize or approve design changes or investigations in cases where someone in management at a higher level must approve such actions. The engineering profession needs a strong, effective component that supports such whistle blowers without supporting engineers who have specious, trivial or erroneous claims.

Of course, to know the difference is not usually clear or easily determined by those of us not able to have access to the pertinate data and information. The next best action is to publize cases such as Roger Boisjoly's. Please, NSPE, do this more often; and thank you for doing it when you do.

Jim Neal

Wednesday, June 06, 2012 10:23 AM by James P. Neal, P.E.(retired)

Roger Boisjoly is one of my heros and I mourned his passing.

It's very important that NSPE run articles like this and the one in the March 2012 PE Journal on on Defending the Public that referred to it.

-Ken Sides, PE

Friday, December 07, 2012 3:17 PM by Ken Sides, PE

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