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NASA Science

Robert Boisjoly Dies At 73, the Engineer Who Tried To Stop the Challenger Launch 380

Posted by Soulskill
from the rest-in-peace dept.
demachina writes "Robert Boisjoly has died at the age of 73. Boisjoly, Allan J. McDonald and three others argued through the night of 27 January, 1986 to stop the following day's Challenger launch, but Joseph Kilminster, their boss at Morton Thiokol, overruled them. NASA managers didn't listen to the engineers. Both Boisjoly and McDonald were blackballed for speaking out. NASA's mismanagement 'is not going to stop until somebody gets sent to hard rock hotel,' Boisjoly said after the 2003 Columbia disaster. 'I don't care how many commissions you have. These guys have a way of numbing their brains. They have destroyed $5 billion worth of hardware and 14 lives because of their nonsense.'"
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Robert Boisjoly Dies At 73, the Engineer Who Tried To Stop the Challenger Launch

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  • A prize nomination? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by samjam (256347) on Wednesday February 08, 2012 @09:24AM (#38965593) Homepage Journal

    Perhaps he should be nominated for the not-yet existing Bradley Manning prize for integrity in the face of overwhelming odds.

  • Re:In perspective (Score:5, Interesting)

    by sl4shd0rk (755837) on Wednesday February 08, 2012 @09:30AM (#38965649)

    > 17 lives lost in the last 50 years of U.S. space exploration really is not too bad

    Understand your reasoning but that's not the point here. Those lives and money were lost due to human negligence and pure bullheadedness. The loss was easily preventable.

  • Re:In perspective (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday February 08, 2012 @09:33AM (#38965675)

    I have had NASA contracts, they almost broke me. Their main concern was, "where does the NASA sticker go?". I vowed to become homeless before ever taking on another NASA contract. And I never have.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday February 08, 2012 @09:43AM (#38965747)

    He killed 14 people, so why isn't he in jail?

  • Re:In perspective (Score:4, Interesting)

    by ledow (319597) on Wednesday February 08, 2012 @09:46AM (#38965771) Homepage

    When you push the boundaries of capability and science, there are bound to be accidents, oversights and, yes, casualties.

    And just because this guy did spot the problem, it doesn't make NASA any less dangerous a place to be in even today, knowing about it. Thousands of cranks and scientists probably doubted every section of every component at one time or another. How many people *thought* there'd be a slight risk of an accident with the numerous things they were responsible for but there never was? It doesn't mean it was right, or he was any more wrong, but it's a HUGE project pushing every capability to the maximum so it's always a risk.

    This is what gets me most about modern warfare. One soldier dies and it's front-page news. Do you have any notion of how many died just a generation or two ago in wars that involved much fewer countries?

    It's a matter of perspective. For those 17, it was tragic. For their families, it was awful. For anyone who knew that it was incredibly sad. For everyone else - they were fecking military test pilots flying something completely outside the normal historical bounds of flight.

    Just how many lives do you think have been claimed by things like land-speed records? Is that tragic? How many by Arctic expeditions just to say they set foot on the pole? How many by people trying to climb Everest for charity? All *completely* avoidable - so long as we don't want to try to do anything like that.

    They still died, of course, and were still human. But, in context, that many people die EVERY WEEK just in ordinary car accidents. These people were on the cutting edge of science, propulsion, flight, control systems, and on one of the hugest amounts of flammable fuel every collected in order to blast off into the most inhospitable environment that humans have ever been in. It's not exactly a shocking amount of deaths, no matter what the circumstances (more people die every time a train derails because someone forgot to check it).

    You can either take it into account and move on, or you can abandon spaceflight entirely because someone might die. One of those progresses science and one doesn't. One of those would shut down CERN, nuclear reactors, etc. overnight and one wouldn't.

    They knew what they were risking, and that's part of *why* they signed up. They didn't *need* to die but the fact that they, or someone doing the same things, died is hardly shocking to even themselves - and shouldn't be to us. Remember them, but don't "blame" them by proxy for us never wanting to put another human on a rocket again.

  • Re:In perspective (Score:4, Interesting)

    by sunderland56 (621843) on Wednesday February 08, 2012 @09:47AM (#38965785)

    Fortunately, on the millions of other projects that do succeed, the right calls are made.

    Not exactly. On the millions of other decisions, when the wrong call was made, it was either (a) caught in time, or (b) was non-fatal, or (c) was like Apollo 13, where an engineering mistake caused an extremely serious incident, which was rescued by the brilliance of other engineers.

  • Re:In perspective (Score:3, Interesting)

    by MjDelves (811950) on Wednesday February 08, 2012 @09:49AM (#38965813) Journal
    A good book to read on the background to the Challenger Launch Decision. [amazon.com] The deaths were avoidable if the management culture at the time would have listened.
  • Re:In perspective (Score:5, Interesting)

    by FunPika (1551249) on Wednesday February 08, 2012 @09:58AM (#38965859) Journal
    Still, this guy should have been taken somewhat seriously. He had over 20 years of experience, had been working at the company that developed the SRB's for several years, and was ignored even after showing his managers photographic evidence of damage being caused to the O-rings by cold weather with several of his colleagues on the team agreeing.
  • by HangingChad (677530) on Wednesday February 08, 2012 @09:58AM (#38965863) Homepage

    Both Boisjoly and McDonald were blackballed for speaking out.

    I think that's the bigger issue here. NASA really hasn't changed, they're the same arrogant, top heavy, risk adverse organization they bloated into during the 80's. You'd think they would have been humbled by seeing heavy lift moved over to the Russians, but it hasn't dented their attitude one bit.

    It's not the lives that were lost, it was the circumstances surrounding the loss and the general lack of accountability afterwards. Engineers who try to sound warnings still will get blackballed. Nothing really changes when you have the problem dictating the solution.

  • Re:In perspective (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Hijacked Public (999535) on Wednesday February 08, 2012 @10:02AM (#38965907)

    Not really, because regardless of their false positive rate the evidence is what the evidence is.

    Actually what you need is an eyes-wide-open, honest evaluation of the data, that isn't tainted by the interests of NASA or its subs or politicians who are have taken some positionon matters related to the above. And good luck with that.

    If you read much Edward Tufte or attend one of his talks, he has a lot to say about the decision making processes for both the Challenger and Columbia incidents. I am dubious that an entire army of actual rocket scientists could have, of their own accord, made multiple data presentation choices that cast their employers in the best possible light. Laying out a graph that eventually helped a room full of smart people decide that the booster seals would be fine on the launch date. When those same data plotted differently showed an obvious direct correlation between failure and ambient temp and they were going to launch on the coldest day yet.

    There is similar manipulating of the data from the Columbia.

    People trying to serve some incidental interest, like preserving a contract or future funding, who are obviously cherry picking the information they share, aren't likely to be swayed by a low false positive rate. They made their decision long before they saw any evidence of anything anyway.

  • by BoRegardless (721219) on Wednesday February 08, 2012 @10:13AM (#38966055)

    When the bids went out to professional engineers in the aerospace seal business, my friend, now gone sadly, was asked to bid on the large O'Ring seal design for the shuttle booster rockets.

    He did his basic expansion calculations on what temperature changes would do to the large diameter structure and came to the conclusion it would not work and replied declining to quote with a note that it didn't seem to be workable because of basic physics.

    Rudolph's opinion was never seriously taken and we know the result.

  • by Rotag_FU (2039670) on Wednesday February 08, 2012 @10:26AM (#38966227)

    While not a prize, he is someone who has been effectively immortalized in engineering ethics classes, at least in the US. The Challenger incident, and his participation of it, are studied in some depth right alongside the Tacoma Narrows and Quebec River Bridge incidents. Admittedly I speak from a relatively small sample size (direct personal experience plus anecdotal evidence from ~10 other engineering colleagues), but the samples are from geographically diverse schools in the US. I'm curious if this case is studied in engineering ethics classes abroad?

  • by A10Mechanic (1056868) on Wednesday February 08, 2012 @10:30AM (#38966275)
    I prefer to remember him as the cool guest lecturer and advisor we had at Weber State for the NUSAT program. Keen intellect, razor sharp, and driven. There's more to the man than just Challenger.
  • Re:In perspective (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Eloking (877834) on Wednesday February 08, 2012 @11:04AM (#38966761)

    Every life lost, that could have been avoided, is a disaster.

    Oh that's so sweet of you. Oh and FYI, +20 000 kids die each day due to war, famine, disease etc. (source wikipedia).

    I am going to be honest, I don't care if 15 astronauts died in that disaster (the stoppage in space exploration in the other hand isn't, but that's another debate). You can all argue with me as much as you want, those astronaut live doesn't worth more in my eye as human being than the millions that die around the world each week. Sometime, I found it deeply immoral that we put so much value in people only because we see them in the news.

    At last, they (probably) had great lives and died without suffering

  • Not one more funeral (Score:5, Interesting)

    by plopez (54068) on Wednesday February 08, 2012 @11:05AM (#38966779) Journal

    I was working for a large, not directly tech related (though they do some research) Federal Agency last year and the word came down that the "Chief" (the highest ranking civil servant, not appointee) was unwilling to kill more people. We had a work stoppage, training classes etc. And the attitude of "Well, adjusted for man-hours of work we kill fewer people than other agencies." was unacceptable. He claimed he was tired of flying out fro D.C to attend funerals.

    So we did training classes and any employee is now supposed to be able to cry "Stop!" when something starts to get too hazardous without consequences. During the classes employees who tried to use the argument "Well, adjusted for man-hours of work we kill fewer people than other agencies." were "hammered" for missing the point. *The point is a culture of safety where one loss is unacceptable.*

    I find that sane and sensible.

    Will it work? Who knows. It will probably take a few years to find out.

  • by Pezbian (1641885) on Wednesday February 08, 2012 @11:55AM (#38967465)

    When I was in 4th Grade, I had the good fortune to meet Boisjoly and a couple of other engineers from Thiokol. It wasn't like meeting a national celebrity or anything because I grew up in Brigham City, Utah, which is close enough to Thiokol that you can see the smoke plumes from booster tests rise up over the western mountains.

    At my school, a group of fellow students and I had the opportunity to hold a demo model o-ring just like the ones used to join the booster segments. These demo units were just the ones that didn't pass muster for actual use. The group and I held one o-ring spread out in a full circle and nearly covered the entire floor of the classroom. They're huge and didn't feel like the household o-rings I was used to. I could definitely see something like that getting stiff or brittle at low temperatures. My memory is hazy, but I'd almost compare it to a Neoprene type feel.

    I mentioned Challenger and how I learned about the o-rings (my grandpa, who also got me started in Electronics, told me about it). The engineers seemed surprised that a ten year old kid would know, let alone care, about that kind of thing.

    Among the other visual aids the engineers brought, there was a piece of spongy SRB fuel with a couple of ingredients missing so as to make it inert. It was Boisjoly who calmed me down after I was angry with myself for breaking the piece in half while checking the flexibility of the material to see just how sponge-like it was.

    For years after that, while still living in Brigham City, I got to see booster segments passing through town (can't take the freeway) on the way to Thiokol (now ATK) on the back of massive semi trailers with police escorts and utility workers leading the pack with tall poles on the front of their work trucks to make sure the lines over the roads would physically clear the booster and then holding the wires out of the way if there wasn't enough clearance. I always thought back to holding that o-ring and how truly massive it was.

    I only ever saw one booster test and that was back in 2003. The dead-silence for the first few seconds (speed of sound, you know?) is eerie. After that, even from over a mile away, the noise hits you like a freight train. Those o-rings are charged with holding back a truly ridiculous amount of force.

  • Re:In perspective (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Wain13001 (1119071) on Wednesday February 08, 2012 @12:44PM (#38968129)

    ... that taking one instance of an object and another instance of an object and combining them together yields two instances of that object, is a fact.

    Exactly! that's why when I take my soup and pour another soup into it I have 2 soups! Fact!

  • by aitikin (909209) on Wednesday February 08, 2012 @12:46PM (#38968153)

    I'm actually burning mod points that I used because I just have to point out that, I have a Bachelor's of Science in Business with a focus in Management (long title for BS of Management degree), and this topic and topics like it never came up. Not once. Not ever. This is more than a, "gleaming nugget of pure gold," as Rogerborg put it, it's a solid bar of it.

    Management (myself included to a mild extent, that extent might be why I'm so low on the management totem pole) is far too often worried about getting the numbers right or getting things done for the sake of getting them done instead of getting them done well, right, safely, or not getting them done at all if any of these aren't and can't be the case. I am striving to make sure that, when my employees tell me we will not get this done in time unless we cheat the numbers, I tell them, okay, let's see if we can get as much help as we need for this (again, low on the totem pole). I'm of the mindset that a job should be done right rather than just done. Shame it seems I'm the only one within my company.

  • Re:In perspective (Score:4, Interesting)

    by DerekLyons (302214) <(moc.liamg) (ta) (retawriaf)> on Wednesday February 08, 2012 @01:36PM (#38968837) Homepage

    My 2: 17 may be a low number, but 3 is a much lower one, and you only needed to hear your engineers!

    That's just the thing - they listen to their engineers. Right up until the point where the engineers changed their stories. And that's the part of the tale that Boisjoly et al have spent the last quarter century refusing to acknowledge.
     
    The tale starts in the late 60's/early 70's when NASA codified the standards for the Shuttle's segmented solids.* The item in question reads something like "There shall be zero leakage or blow by at segment joints". Well, during testing of the SRB's - they started getting small amounts of leakage and blow by at the segments joints due to joint roation. So, the engineers added a backup O-ring, and despite the fact that the backup was occasionally damaged and leaked... The engineers told management the problem was under control and that it was safe to fly.
     
    So, they went ahead and flew... And the problems with leakage and blow by continued to occur. The engineers insisted that with some minor modifications to the joint, the problem would go away.** In the meantime, the engineers insisted that is was safe to continue to fly.
     
    The comes the evening of January 27th... and the engineers change their story. Now, it's not safe to fly. Management, understandably are just a wee bit confused - is it safe to fly or not? Worse yet, the engineers cannot provide a sound engineering rationale for the sudden reversal of their position.
     
    Since the engineers couldn't or wouldn't do what they were paid to do - the managers did what they were paid to and made the call to launch. And that call was made in a large part because they did listen to their engineers, who had repeatedly told them that the problem was under control and it was safe to fly.

    The moral of the story? Managers aren't saints. But neither are engineers.

    * No, despite all the ill-informed commentary you've heard over the years, monolithics were not a viable option. It's extraordinarily difficult to pour them such that the grain is sufficiently uniform along it's length. It's virtually impossible to pour them in matched pairs. It's virtually impossible to handle them without damaging the grain.

    ** This is why the revised design was available so fast after the accident - the design process was already underway.

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