Roger Boisjoly ’60 Warned NASA of Potential Danger to the Space Shuttle Crew
By Jack McDonough
It was cold at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on the morning of Tuesday, Jan. 28, 1986. Unusually cold.
During the night, the temperature had dropped to as low as 8 degrees Fahrenheit. By late morning, it was still only in the 30s. And this posed a problem.
After days of weather and technical delays, NASA was eager to launch the space shuttle Challenger — an event much publicized ahead of time, especially because one of the seven crew members would be a civilian, Christa McAuliffe, a high school teacher from Concord, New Hampshire.
Still, it was cold. Too cold, in the opinion of Roger Boisjoly. Dangerously cold.
Boisjoly, who earned a mechanical engineering degree at UMass Lowell in 1960, was a staff engineer for Morton Thiokol, the aerospace company that produced the twin solid rocket boosters that would hurl Challenger into space.
In the months leading up to Jan. 28, Boisjoly had determined that extreme cold would adversely affect the rubber O-rings that formed an airtight seal between segments of the solid rocket boosters. Low temperatures would harden the rubber, he said, making it less flexible. This condition could allow hot combustion gases to escape through the damaged seals, creating a potentially dangerous situation.
Boisjoly was so concerned that, six months before the Challenger launch, he sent a memo to the company’s vice president of engineering to ensure that management was “fully aware of the seriousness of the current O-ring erosion problem,” the result of which “would be a catastrophe of the highest order — the loss of human life.”
On the day before the scheduled launch, NASA officials and Morton Thiokol management discussed the O-ring matter and, again, Boisjoly registered his serious concerns. Regardless, the decision was made to proceed.
At 11:38 the next morning, Challenger roared clear of launch pad 39B. In slightly more than 52 seconds, an intense plume of exhaust was spotted on the side of one of the rocket boosters. Twenty-one seconds later, pilot Michael Smith said, “Uh oh” — the last recorded words from the crew. The O-rings had failed. Structural breakup of the spacecraft had begun.
The crew cabin crashed into the Atlantic Ocean two minutes and 45 seconds later. There were no survivors.
President Ronald Reagan appointed a commission to review the disaster. Boisjoly and a colleague appeared before that body and testified about their opposition to the launch and management’s decision to override their recommendation. The commission subsequently placed the blame for the faulty O-rings on Morton Thiokol.
Boisjoly’s honesty and courage came with a price.
After testifying before the commission, he was shunned by company colleagues and managers and removed from space project assignments. He suffered from depression and took medical leave for treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder.
The sole gesture of support came from the late Sally Ride, the first American woman in space. She gave him a hug after he testified.
“She was the only one,” he later said. “The only one.”
Boisjoly resigned from Morton Thiokol soon afterward, started his own business in forensic engineering and delivered a series of more than 300 lectures about organizational behavior, ethics and professionalism to corporate, professional and academic audiences.
He received a host of accolades for his efforts to avert the Challenger tragedy, including a Distinguished Alumni Award from UMass Lowell in 1987; a Presidential Award from the National Space Society for professional integrity and personal courage; and, ironically, a certificate of appreciation from NASA for his support in the Challenger disaster investigation.
Roger Boisjoly — born in Lowell on April 25, 1938 — died of cancer Jan. 6, 2012, in Nephi, Utah, at the age of 73.
“Roger was a close friend, a confidant and an adviser, and he has become an icon of what it truly means to be an engineer,” Russell Boisjoly ’72, dean emeritus of the School of Business at SUNY at Fredonia, said at the time of Roger’s death.
“Yes, he was our big brother, but more importantly, he tried to be the brother of those Challenger astronauts.”
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the spring 2012 issue of the UMass Lowell Magazine.