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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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  • In perspective (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday February 08, 2012 @09:16AM (#38965543)

    They have destroyed $5 billion worth of hardware and 14 lives because of their nonsense.

    (This is going to be incredibly insensitive torwards those lives that were lost, but it has to be said.) 17 lives lost in the last 50 years of U.S. space exploration really is not too bad considering how many lives where lost during other times of exploration, pioneering eras and the building of industry. I think NASA tries to be perfect and after all they are rocket scientists, but to assume that NASA is the only place that has mismanagement is incredibly naive. Look at the rest of government. Look at the military. Look at the FDA for crying out loud. Am I saying that you should have deaths? No, what I'm saying is that you need to have a little perspective. Only 17 lives lost in 50 years means that you're at least doing something right to safeguard all the other lives that you saved through careful proceedure and cool heads.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by jcreus (2547928)
      You deserve to be modded down. Every life lost, that could have been avoided, is a disaster (and not great even taking into account superpopulation, I suppose your family wouldn't like you to be dead, the 17 people's neither). And, clearly, the Challanger disaster could have been avoided as this guy proved. By the way, here's a quick link on Wikipedia [wikipedia.org] about him.
      • Re:In perspective (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Leebert (1694) * on Wednesday February 08, 2012 @09:41AM (#38965735)

        You deserve to be modded down.

        No, he doesn't. He deserves to have a logical and thoughtful refutation of his opinion posted in reply. I'm so sick of (-1, Disagree).

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

          by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday February 08, 2012 @09:48AM (#38965791)

          You deserve to be modded down.

          No, he doesn't. He deserves to have a logical and thoughtful refutation of his opinion posted in reply. I'm so sick of (-1, Disagree).

          One logical argument, coming right up: those deaths were entirely foreseeable and preventable. It's not like the deaths were a result of limitations of our knowledge, or an absolutely necessary sacrifice for the greater good of humanity. No, those deaths were because some idiotic bureaucrat couldn't be bothered to listen to qualified engineers. Far as I am concerned that guy should be 1) sued by the families for wrongful death and 2) tried for involuntary manslaughter.

          Apparently legal action is the only thing that makes thick-headed organization-type bureaucrats wake up and take notice, cf. the insanity coming out of the public schools. No amount of logic or expertise or forewarning seems to have any effect on them.

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

            by Registered Coward v2 (447531) on Wednesday February 08, 2012 @11:38AM (#38967211)

            You deserve to be modded down.

            No, he doesn't. He deserves to have a logical and thoughtful refutation of his opinion posted in reply. I'm so sick of (-1, Disagree).

            One logical argument, coming right up: those deaths were entirely foreseeable and preventable. It's not like the deaths were a result of limitations of our knowledge, or an absolutely necessary sacrifice for the greater good of humanity. No, those deaths were because some idiotic bureaucrat couldn't be bothered to listen to qualified engineers. Far as I am concerned that guy should be 1) sued by the families for wrongful death and 2) tried for involuntary manslaughter. Apparently legal action is the only thing that makes thick-headed organization-type bureaucrats wake up and take notice, cf. the insanity coming out of the public schools. No amount of logic or expertise or forewarning seems to have any effect on them.

            While NASA has it's share of bureaucrats; the real problem is not that they are thick headed or unwilling to listen; rather it's a systemic organizational problem that is not unique to NASA or the government. Everything from misunderstanding the risks involved (it was safe last time so it must be safe now); how data is presented and the tendency for technical people (much of NASA's leadership are technically trained) to disagree on what the data represents leads to a poor decision (in retrospect).,/P>

            It's a lot easier to say "That was wrong" after the fact than before.

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

              by Zeromous (668365) on Wednesday February 08, 2012 @11:58AM (#38967527) Homepage

              This is why management has no business in risk analysis. Management needs to stick to risk *reporting* and decision making based on a proper risk assessment carried out by engineers ESPECIALLY when lives and billions in equipment are on the line. You are really just saying the same thing as the parent post, except that it is somehow acceptable (or at the very least understandable!) that, managers are making poor risk assessments. It's neither acceptable nor excusable.

              It's an awful strawman to point out that hindsight is always 20-20. Of course it is!

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

          by ugglybabee (2435320) on Wednesday February 08, 2012 @10:42AM (#38966439)
          I remember that after Apollo 11, it was said that the American space program had cost 8 lives. The figure comes from a Time-Life audio documentary entitled "To the Moon" that I listened to dozens of times as a kid, and I feel absolutely certain that was the number used, though I don't know what that would refer to beyond Apollo 1 . That would bring the total for fifty years up to 23. Here's wikipedia's list of space program accidents, including non-fatalities and Russian accidents. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_spaceflight-related_accidents_and_incidents [wikipedia.org]
          • Re:In perspective (Score:4, Informative)

            by Registered Coward v2 (447531) on Wednesday February 08, 2012 @11:31AM (#38967115)

            I remember that after Apollo 11, it was said that the American space program had cost 8 lives. The figure comes from a Time-Life audio documentary entitled "To the Moon" that I listened to dozens of times as a kid, and I feel absolutely certain that was the number used, though I don't know what that would refer to beyond Apollo 1

            Several astronauts died in non-space flight related accidents - See and Barret in a trainer aircraft crash, for example, as others to bring the total to eight. Two were not NASA astronauts - one an X15 pilot and the other in the USAF MOL program. He would have been the first African American astronaut had he not been killed in a plane crash. Unfortunately, the MOL Program is largely forgotten.

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

              by networkBoy (774728) on Wednesday February 08, 2012 @12:51PM (#38968221) Homepage Journal

              And of all these fatalities, only Challenger was genuinely preventable.
              All the other deaths happened as a result of an accident (though I have my own feelings about Columbia*), and those accidental deaths were accepted by those who took the risk as possible. Do we want them to have died? no. Could we have prevented it? Yes, with hindsight.

              Challenger was an example of everything that is broken in the space program, much how we harp on megacorps here for not looking longer term then the next quarter or possibly the next year for business results, the NASA management looked no farther than "This launch is being simulcast to thousands of schools for the first teacher in space. Launch the SOB we don't want to disappoint the kiddos." Well I have a news flash for them, us kiddos (I was watching live in my 6th grade class) were beyond disappointed, my teacher was weeping in the back of the room, and all of a sudden space was no longer wondrous, but rather scary for most all of us.
              -nB
              * Columbia was preventable had NASA not embraced the tree huggers and switched to a CFC free foam for the main fuel tank. The new foam had a higher porosity and poorer adhesion. Let's face it, there are not enough shuttle launches in a year to appreciably matter when it comes to CFC emissions from making the foam insulation, and the SRB exhaust is much worse for the environment anyway. /rant

              • by Ellis D. Tripp (755736) on Wednesday February 08, 2012 @04:30PM (#38971635) Homepage

                Before you spout off about the ET insulation foam having been reformulated without CFCs, try reading the CAIB report (volume 1, Page 51), which specifically states that the portion of the foam that broke loose was the OLD CFC-based formulation.

                http://caib.nasa.gov/news/report/pdf/vol1/full/caib_report_volume1.pdf

                The story about the reformulated foam causing the Columbia accident is largely the doing of Rush Limbaugh, who seized on a lie from one of his typically ill-informed listeners, and kept repeating it until it became accepted as fact by everyone on the right.

                http://mediamatters.org/research/200508090007

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

        by JoshuaZ (1134087) on Wednesday February 08, 2012 @10:08AM (#38965983) Homepage

        You deserve to be modded down. Every life lost, that could have been avoided, is a disaster

        This is nice rhetoric. At another level, we do actually make real trade offs involving how many deaths are acceptable. For example, banning personal cars would likely save lives. But we're not going to do it because their convenience is too high. Similarly, in the US many children die drowning in backyard pools. Banning such pools would make sense if all you care about is total deaths. But we're not going to do so, because the overall chance of death is pretty small in any given case. Lots of people also die from alcohol related issues even without counting those from drunk driving. Etc. Etc. It creates a lot of cognitive dissonance to acknowledge that we're actually ok with letting some people die, because we don't like to tell ourselves that we allow that sort of thing. But we're still going to make the tradeoffs.

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

        by Leebert (1694) * on Wednesday February 08, 2012 @10:35AM (#38966329)

        For the record, I don't believe YOUR post deserves to be modded down, either. I'm sorry to see that it's been done, and I fear it might have been induced by my reply.

        In my opinion, Flamebait and Troll are actions of intention. When I moderate down, I try to discern the intention of the poster -- were they attempting to incite something? Did they or should they have known better? Even if they were trying to incite something, do they have a legitimate point that CAN be replied to in an informative way?

        Of course, more often I more try to find a good point-counterpoint thread and upmod both sides.

      • Great gains sometimes require great risks. You can attempt to reduce the risk but you can not totally eliminate it. If NASA attempted to ensure that there is no possibility of failure we would not have a space program. Even unmanned launches require the willingness to accept the risk factors. A rocket could explode on takeoff killing ground personnel, the rocket could fail to reach orbit and plunge back down on top of someones house. Those who have died in the various accidents were volunteers who knew abo

      • by b4dc0d3r (1268512)

        "What if it was you/your family" is an appeal to emotion. I'm afraid people have berated you for suggesting gp be modded down for expressing an opinion, but no one seems to have pointed out this fallacy.

        My family would have been proud to see me dedicate my life to what is essentially science and discovery for the good of all people. They wouldn't focus so much on the dead part, they would focus on the benefit to people part.

        Knowing what little has been made public of the families of astronauts, I would sa

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

      by elsurexiste (1758620) on Wednesday February 08, 2012 @09:26AM (#38965611) Journal

      This is going to be incredibly insensitive torwards those lives that were lost...

      If you are so sure, maybe you shouldn't say it. Right?

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

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

        by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday February 08, 2012 @09:38AM (#38965703)

        you only needed to hear your engineers!

        you need information on the false positive rate for engineers' warnings before making such a statement.

        • 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 dbIII (701233)

            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.

            It's so obvious that ever since it's been the textbook example to teach first year engineering students about the glass transition temperature in polymers. It was also pretty obvious before - I remember even seeing a 1970s or early 1980s children's program where rubber was soaked in liquid nitrogen for a while and then taken out and shattered w

          • by hey! (33014)

            A priori the question might be a lot trickier than you are representing. Given the inherent dangers of the enterprise and the complexity of the system involved, there were probably at any given time some plausibly fatal scenarios. You can't launch a system like that with a standard of "provably safe". If you didn't put a positive face on the data, the system might *never* launch. Arguably a determination to launch in the absence of compelling evidence of likely failure represents an implicit acceptance of r

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

          by dragonhunter21 (1815102) on Wednesday February 08, 2012 @10:33AM (#38966307) Journal

          When the complaint is theoretical, yeah sure. When your engineers are complaining about frozen O-rings and are showing you video of O-rings spitting fire, or when your engineers are complaining about foam shedding from the fuel tank and have numerous videos of that exact occurrence happening, that's different.

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

            by Tim4444 (1122173) on Wednesday February 08, 2012 @12:29PM (#38967955)

            Nova did a program about the Columbia investigation. After running through the possibilities, the team finally sat down and worked out the expected velocities and forces involved with an impact with the foam debris. Nobody believed that foam could do any real damage so they finally tracked down a spare wing section and shot a piece of foam at it. The video is pretty damning and now it all seems so obvious. However, I got the impression that beforehand even the engineers had put this one in the acceptible risk column.

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

        by MiniMike (234881) on Wednesday February 08, 2012 @10:17AM (#38966111)

        This is going to be incredibly insensitive torwards those lives that were lost...

        If you are so sure, maybe you shouldn't say it. Right?

        He shouldn't keep quiet because he's insensitive. He should keep quiet because his argument is poorly thought out. It is not proper to compare human losses in other irrelevant or loosely related areas to losses in space exploration. The Challenger disaster simply would not have happened if the management had listened to the engineers. The Columbia disaster was caused by a known problem which they had always been lucky with before. Apollo 1 seems to have required several mistakes, including the flammable material in the cabin and the high-pressure O2 in an untested environment. It's clearly impossible to be perfect, but that doesn't mean you should just write off the resultant deaths, and ignore the lessons.

        • I agree with you on your point but one thing that bothers me about the Columbia disaster was NASA bureaucracy fell into same pattern as Challenger. NASA engineers spotted the foam hit on review of the launch. Unfortunately they could not get any detail images of the area that was struck while the Columbia was docked as the positioning of the shuttle was such that the space station cameras could not see it. They asked for satellite images (and repositioning). Denied. They asked for an EVA with a camera.
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by zildgulf (1116981)
          From my perspective the race to launch the Challenger in freezing weather was indeed "go fever". It was strange that the flight was being delayed over and over again due to relatively minor technological and meteorological reasons and yet when an unusually strong cold front hit Georgia, Florida, and the Carolinas, that is when the guys at NASA said go, even though the Space Shuttles were not designed to launch in freezing weather. Mechanical device operate differently in such cold weather. Even in Atla
      • 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.

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

      by LighterShadeOfBlack (1011407) on Wednesday February 08, 2012 @09:28AM (#38965623) Homepage

      17 lives lost in the last 50 years of U.S. space exploration really is not too bad considering how many lives where lost during other times of exploration, pioneering eras and the building of industry.

      But when those losses could have been prevented had the people with authority not ignored those with operational knowledge then it really is unacceptable. If someone gets struck by a micro-meteor out in space or dies because of a serious failure after weeks of operation then yeah, that kind of thing can be considered the price of pioneering; the kind of stuff you just can't practically account for. Dying in an explosion seconds after launch from a fault that was detectable and warned against prior to launch is not.

    • 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.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      In perspective, at the very least the challenger disaster could have been avoided, as it's clearly stated the problem was known but management refused to listen. The columbia disaster was also just waiting to happen, they knew about the foam issue, but didn't know how to deal with it so just hoped for the best. You are a disgrace for defending the negligence that caused such unnecessary loss of life.

    • by FunPika (1551249)
      But still, the total amount of people who were at risk on NASA missions was probably much lower than the number of soldiers at risk of dying in war or the U.S. population at large who is at risk if something dangerous slips past the FDA.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      Who the fuck mods this insightful? How about this for a little perspective: the countless explorers in those previous eras who gave their lives to the crucible of progress, were working with almost no data. Remember that old cliche about "Here Be Dragons"? Not so false in those days when cartography was more of an interpretive art than a useful field. When it comes to space exploration, and especially NASA's efforts, "rocket science" as we like to call it, the physical, mathematical and logistical knowledge
    • Re:In perspective (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Aladrin (926209) on Wednesday February 08, 2012 @09:45AM (#38965769)

      I actually agree that we are too cautious in our space explorations. We need to take more risks and spend more money.

      But in this case, they were told exactly what would fail, why, and how. And they argued late into the night, and Boisjoly was so sure that he refused to watch the launch. There was absolutely no doubt in 5 engineers' minds that this would happen.

      This was not an acceptable risk. It was easily avoidable. Not with 14 lives at stake. (The $5 billion ship might have been acceptable, though.)

    • 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, Insightful)

        by oh_my_080980980 (773867) on Wednesday February 08, 2012 @10:20AM (#38966147)
        You don't work for a corporation where safety is first. You do not understand what process safety is. No one was pushing the boundaries of space by pushing O rings beyond their safety limits. This was a preventable accident. Your specious arguments don't prove otherwise.
      • by Gordonjcp (186804)

        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.

        Here's a car analogy to make it clearer.

        You could avoid dying in a horrible fiery accident by never driving your car. However, your car is mostly not on fire, so driving it is usually relatively safe.

        If I tell you "Don't drive the car, it has a split fuel hose that is pishing diesel all over the hot turbocharger and it will likely go on fire", and you drive the car, and the split hose pishes diesel all over the hot bits and it explodes and you die a hideous deaith in a horrible fiery accident, then that wa

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by MjDelves (811950)
      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.
    • by dbIII (701233) on Wednesday February 08, 2012 @09:53AM (#38965833)
      Look kid, it's not a case of always doing things right. It was a case of people coming in that were not doing things right and as a consequence getting others killed. The Russians had that problem as well, for instance an idiot in charge of a project forcing people to take stupid shortcuts at gunpoint and getting hundreds killed in an explosion. Yes, bad management happens a lot but that's no excuse not to put projects with severe consequences of failure under adult supervision instead of some horse judge that has powerful friends.
    • Re:In perspective (Score:4, Informative)

      by Tastecicles (1153671) on Wednesday February 08, 2012 @09:53AM (#38965837)

      17 lives lost out of how many flown and returned safely? call it 881 (man-flights) as at midnight UTC 8 Feb 2012. Two lost shuttles from 134 launches. [source [kursknet.ru]]. I think you'll find NASA's safety record is by orders of magnitude worse than the auto industry, commercial airlines, rail, shipping (throughout history)... yet they repeatedly fail to listen to those who build and maintain the vehicles (Morton Thiokol and Rockwell International in the specific cases of Challenger and Columbia respectively) and push for mission efficiency at the cost of safety.

      If I remember the Challenger report correctly it was mentioned that the O-ring problem was not unique to STS-51L, it had occurred on previous flights and NASA were well aware of the effects of subzero temperatures on the compounds used. It took the destruction of Challenger for the issue to finally be addressed with a seal redesign, likewise with Columbia it took the destruction of that vehicle for NASA officials to recommend via the investigation report that the robotic arm, fitted with a high resolution camera, was to be used to inspect particularly the wing roots, but also the rest of the underbelly of the craft once it had reached orbit to check for damage incurred during launch. Why it had not been done previously was, among other things, the extra weight of a camera (which would have required another half ton or so of fuel to bring it into orbit) and the time incursion which would distract at least one crew member and the full employment of the remote arm for upward of a couple hours - but what price life, eh?

      • If I remember the Challenger report correctly it was mentioned that the O-ring problem was not unique to STS-51L, it had occurred on previous flights and NASA were well aware of the effects of subzero temperatures on the compounds used. It took the destruction of Challenger for the issue to finally be addressed with a seal redesign

        You remember it mostly correctly - but there's more to it.

        1. The cause of the leakage was joint rotation (not cold), and had been known to engineers and management since the early 7
    • Or you're not flying that many people. Only about 520 people have gone into space, worldwide.

    • The lives were lost unnecessarily due to politics at different times and levels. From the political contracts that needed segmented boosters for inland transport to repeated gross negligence on the design, monitoring and launch decisions way out of spec. Empty suits are getting away with more and more and more in America. Utterly no accountability.
      • From the political contracts that needed segmented boosters for inland transport

        [sigh] Not this myth again.

        Monolithic boosters were rejected on multiple grounds.

        It was virtually impossible to pour them with consistent characteristics along the grain. It was extremely difficult to pour them with consistent performance during the burn. I.E. the motors required consistent and predictable characteristics both longitudinally and radially.) There were difficulties in ensuring complete and even

    • That is not the right perspective. It's like putting a one time murderer "into perspective" by saying he managed not to kill anyone in the previous 50 Yyears of his life and therefore he must be doing something right.

      Killings have to be considered on a case-by-case basis. perpetrators need to be punished and lessons need to be learned.

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

      by kubernet3s (1954672) on Wednesday February 08, 2012 @10:17AM (#38966101)
      As you say, they are rocket scientists. Which means that when the rocket scientists say don't go, you don't go, because they are the goddam rocket scientists and no matter how "cool" your head is, you know less than them about rocket scientist. Yes, there are mismanaged agencies all over the world and all throughout history. However, when the military makes a poor decision, or the FDA, they at least have the defenses that their endeavors are risky to begin with, that they have responsibilities that at times conflict with careful procedure, and that their management requires the synthesis of varied data towards a relatively nebulous end. Space programs are feats of science and engineering, both of which are far more concrete in their aims and guidelines. If a research program in say, a university laboratory, experienced accidents on the scale of the challenger disaster, large inquiries would be launched, and the guilty parties or policies identified, rather than the "whoopsie!" reaction NASA seems to always give, which given that they were forewarned in this case is especially troubling.

      While your exploration analogy appeals well to intuition, it is disingenuous insofar as space exploration is not a group of bold pioneers setting out with bowie knives and covered wagons, nor is it a capitalist enterprise where a few workers caught in the gears are considered acceptable losses: it is a careful and scientific exploration of human capability, and in such an exploration, care, more than speed or distance or results, is paramount. The Challenger disaster was a failed experiment, not in that it returned an unwelcome result, but that in it return no result of use. We now know that when you send humans into space with equipment you know to be faulty, there is a chance they will perish: how does that enrich our understanding? A failed exploration at least illuminates the conditions for failure; a slew of workplace accidents are unlikely to spoil the products of industry even as they illuminate no hazards. There was no illumination here, because the initial conditions were known, and led to the result we were almost certain to obtain. If a death happens, it happens. If a death happens, and it could have been prevented, but was not due to any concern which is ancillary to the central aim of the endeavor, is unforgiveable
    • Re:In perspective (Score:5, Insightful)

      by voss (52565) on Wednesday February 08, 2012 @10:27AM (#38966235)

      We are not talking about 17 lives in 50 years. We are talking about 3 human lives lost during the entire 17 year Mercury, Gemini and Apollo eras with 0 lost during actual flight versus the 25 year shuttle era that lost 2 of the 4 shuttles with 14 crew in 50 flights. The problem is NASA spacecraft should be getting safer, less expensive and more reliable and instead were getting more expensive and less reliable and less safe. Project Constellation was more of the same with senators putting safety considerations secondary to contracts for their home districts.

    • by AJH16 (940784)

      Your argument seems decent until you consider the overall population size you are dealing with. Not that many people have been launched in to space. There have only been 165 manned launches of which 2 resulted in fatalities. That's more than 1% error. That's still a pretty significantly high margin, even in comparison to other forms of exploration (at least recently). We certainly have gotten better than we were in the past, but I wouldn't say that it was all that impressive either.

    • by trout007 (975317) on Wednesday February 08, 2012 @10:40AM (#38966401)

      Here is some perspective. The question is how many of these types of warnings are issued every flight? It's very similar to when environmental groups oppose every development project. If you go out every time warning of disaster eventually a disaster happens and you are proven right. But what is the alternative? To never build? To never fly?

      Anyone who has ever designed anything critical always has a feeling they may have missed something. There is a phase called analysis paralysis (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Analysis_paralysis) . It is when you never do something because you are always checking another scenario in which it may fail.

      Whenever any complex system fails there will always be a record of someone warning about it because that is what engineers do. In fact it is obvious after the fact. We always think of ways something can fail. But with limited time and limited budget we can't follow all of those lines of thought to their conclusion. You have to prioritize the risks and accept them to get things done.

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

      by demachina (71715) on Wednesday February 08, 2012 @10:55AM (#38966639)

      You overlook the fact that, as a result of the Challenger accident, the Shuttle program was severly damaged. Prior to Challenger it was an aggressive program pushing boundaries, afterward it become conservative, limited and cautious. In the wake of Columbia it was crippled, and was relegated to almost the bare essential missions needed to finish and support the ISS. The Air Force largely abandoned the Shuttle and returned to expendable launchers, though many think they wanted to do that anyway and Challenger was just a convenient excuse.

      Shuttles were also different than expendable launchers. They were very limited in number, expensive and difficult to build especially after the assembly line had shut down so you couldn't afford to lose any of them without damaging the whole program.

      The loss of life aside, the consequences of the twin disasters were the entire program was wrecked, the U.S. manned spaced program was crippled, may never recover at NASA, and it was all preventable and unnecessary. At this point companies like SpaceX are probably the only hope for a recovery because they are culturally free of most of the problems afflicting NASA's culture. To be successful in a technology intensive endeavor like space exploration engineers need to have a dominant voice in the program. Their voice can't be drowned out by bureaucrats and program managers with insufficient regard for the engineering.

    • 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 cptdondo (59460)

      OK to some extent. However, the Challenger deaths were pointless; the decision was made to favor publicity over engineering. So people died because NASA PHBs and political hacks didn't want to delay a highly publicized launch.

      When a military pilot gets in an experimental plane, s/he knows it's experimental and knows s/he is wagering their life for the excitement of doing something no one has ever done.

      That's very different from getting killed because a political hack didn't want a minor inconvenience of s

  • Get his name right! (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday February 08, 2012 @09:20AM (#38965563)

    It's *Roger* Boisjoly, like TFA says.

  • 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.

    • by Whalou (721698) on Wednesday February 08, 2012 @09:32AM (#38965665)
      He won the AAAS Award for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility in 1988.
    • 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 wienerschnizzel (1409447) on Wednesday February 08, 2012 @10:54AM (#38966625)

        has been effectively immortalized in engineering ethics classes

        Herein lies the problem. The lesson needs to be taught in Management 101 classes.

        • 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.

  • It's not the same scale, but I've had similar arguments with my manager about the quality and safety of the products we develop and even thought I'm the one who knows the code and how it works, he's the one that decides that we don't need to fix it and that it's "good to go." How well does it work? Bring up a simple informational screen and the system crashes.

    These airheads seem to think that just because they're in a position of authority, they must be right.

  • In every disaster you will always find somebody that predicted it and that includes clairvoyants. If these guys did not have a strong enough case, there where up against the others that made a better case then them. NASA should and has been held accountable for its wrongs. Do not forget that going to space is hard, real hard and NASA designed and flew the space shuttle which was the most complex machine by a margin and it hardly had any prototypes.

    The other options are spend a hell of a lot more money ensur
    • Re:Space is hard (Score:5, Insightful)

      by demachina (71715) on Wednesday February 08, 2012 @11:03AM (#38966749)

      All of the Morton Thiokol engineers responsible for the O rings were telling them to stop, they new the O rings had issues with cold temperatures. It was an anomolously cold day in Florida. It almost never freezes at Kennedy but that morning there was ice all over the launch pad. Even setting the O rings aside it was enormously foolish to launch that morning and it was pretty obvious they should postpone a day until temperatures weren't aberrant.

      As I recall Reagan was giving a speech about the space program and timing it to coincide with the launch and the teacher-in-space and the bureaucrats were unwisely feeling political pressure to launch with all engineering and safety factors screamed for them to stop.

      • Re:Space is hard (Score:4, Informative)

        by blueg3 (192743) on Wednesday February 08, 2012 @12:18PM (#38967799)

        Note that this message didn't actually get to NASA. Morton Thiokol engineers told their management that they should delay the launch. The report from Morton Thiokol management to NASA, however, said that the launch should be no different from previous (successful) launches.

  • by Anonymous Coward

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

    • by G3ckoG33k (647276) on Wednesday February 08, 2012 @11:49AM (#38967379)

      Because it was Larry Mulloy and Jerald Mason. From http://ethics.tamu.edu/ethics/shuttle/shuttle1.htm [tamu.edu]

      Marshall's Solid Rocket Booster Project Manager, Larry Mulloy, commented that the data was inconclusive and challenged the engineers' logic. A heated debate went on for several minutes before Mulloy bypassed Lund and asked Joe Kilminster for his opinion. Kilminster was in management, although he had an extensive engineering background. By bypassing the engineers, Mulloy was calling for a middle-management decision, but Kilminster stood by his engineers. Several other managers at Marshall expressed their doubts about the recommendations, and finally Kilminster asked for a meeting off of the net, so Thiokol could review its data. Boisjoly and Thompson tried to convince their senior managers to stay with their original decision not to launch. A senior executive at Thiokol, Jerald Mason, commented that a management decision was required. The managers seemed to believe the O-rings could be eroded up to one third of their diameter and still seat properly, regardless of the temperature. The data presented to them showed no correlation between temperature and the blow-by gasses which eroded the O-rings in previous missions. According to testimony by Kilminster and Boisjoly, Mason finally turned to Bob Lund and said, "Take off your engineering hat and put on your management hat." Joe Kilminster wrote out the new recommendation and went back on line with the teleconference. The new recommendation stated that the cold was still a safety concern, but their people had found that the original data was indeed inconclusive and their "engineering assessment" was that launch was recommended, even though the engineers had no part in writing the new recommendation and refused to sign it. Alan McDonald, who was present with NASA management in Florida, was surprised to see the recommendation to launch and appealed to NASA management not to launch. NASA managers decided to approve the boosters for launch despite the fact that the predicted launch temperature was outside of their operational specifications.

  • by Lumpy (12016) on Wednesday February 08, 2012 @09:44AM (#38965757) Homepage

    " NASA managers didn't listen to the engineers."

    This is different from any place else? CEO's and executives are convinced they know more than the engineers. And when they don't listen and fail, They BLAME the engineers.

    This is Modus Operandi of any corporation and Government agency.

    Guess what executives, engineers do know a whole lot more than you do.

    I know the solution, any time engineers reccomend against something and management does it anyways and a failure happens. 1st the executive has to take all responsibility for the failure. Financial and moral.

    2nd, every engineer gets to kick the executive in the nuts two times.

    • by hipp5 (1635263)

      CEO's and executives are convinced they know more than the engineers.

      And engineers assume their perspective is the only one that matters. Part of being a manager is hearing input from every group in the company/organization/unit and evaluating their various perspectives to make a decision. Engineering considerations are only one aspect of a successful operation. Sometimes it's better to release a sub-optimal product (from an engineering perspective) for other benefits in timing, marketing, financial efficiency, etc.

      I'm not weighing in on the correctness of the management dec

      • by Lumpy (12016)

        Says an executive that does not want to be kicked in the nuts by the engineer.

        What is wrong with forcing the Executive to bear ALL The responsibility of his decisions?

  • by bigbangnet (1108411) on Wednesday February 08, 2012 @09:46AM (#38965779)
    When an engineer says don't go with the launch. Sorry but just stfu and listen to him. FFS, he's not the idiot citizen who doesn't know squat. He's an engineer and 3 of them argued...wow. And the management still didn't listen. It leaves a sour taste in my mouth. On top of that, I'm not an american and I'm very touched by this story, news and especially those lost lives. All of that could of been avoided and they would still learned from their mistake, corrected the problem and go forward with the launch later. My question is: what happened to the guy who still said let's go with the launch ? Did he get accused of murder ?
  • 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.

    • by Z00L00K (682162)

      Not very different from any other business you will encounter.

      "Shit happens" is the attitude and many in the top layer gets a good payoff and goes on to their next job as a punishment.

  • by drobety (2429764) on Wednesday February 08, 2012 @10:12AM (#38966041)

    From the 1987 LA Times article:

    And for that, there was an additional private cost: resentment on the part of those who had been hoping to avoid, at least in part, official blame. It came from corporate executives, and from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Morton Thiokol's biggest customer. And it came from colleagues fearful that too much exposure of truth might hurt business and cost them their jobs.

    "If you wreck this company, I'm gonna put my kids on your doorstep," grumbled one. Someone finally dubbed the engineers "the five lepers."

    This is the sad reality: Whistle-blowers are often the target of ostracism from their contemporaries, while usually unanimously admired later in historical context. It's still not easy to be a whistle-blower [fairwhistleblower.ca], if anything, it's harder than ever [whistleblower.org].

  • 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.

  • It is worth mentioning that CONTRACTIALY the SRB’s were rated to handle such weather. Who failed there? Why is this not mentioned or reported?

    Then there is Lockheed’s nonsense with changing over the foam insulation on the Shuttles external tank to an “Environmentally Friendly” one which exacerbated the issue of blowing holes into the flight vehicle. Somebody knew enough about the potential problem to get a exemption from the EPA to use the old foam, yet the new foam was utilized.
  • Groups of people tend toward internal modes counter to their purpose. The larger and longer-lived the group, the stronger this effect. It's easy to think we're intelligent and capable beings when you look at individuals, but on larger scales our true nature becomes clear. Unnecessary disasters will always plague large engineering projects, because we're more like monkeys than ants.
  • 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.
  • 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.

Whenever a system becomes completely defined, some damn fool discovers something which either abolishes the system or expands it beyond recognition.

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