ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

In January 1986, when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded, five engineers on the ground knew exactly what happened and why. In fact, they had tried to stop the launch the night before. They argued that freezing temperatures at launch time could cause catastrophic failure in the shuttle's booster rockets. Well, this weekend, we learned that one of those engineers has died. His name was Roger Boisjoly, and he marshaled the data that might have stopped the Challenger launch.

NPR's Howard Berkes has this remembrance.

HOWARD BERKES, BYLINE: Bulky, bald and tall, Roger Boisjoly was an imposing figure, especially when armed with data. Six months before the Challenger tragedy, he predicted in a memo a catastrophe of the highest order - loss of human life - if space shuttle contractor Morton Thiokol didn't act. Boisjoly was a Thiokol engineer, and three weeks after the explosion, he sat tearful in a hotel room in Alabama. Don't use my name or voice, he told NPR's Danny Zwerdling, who began his story this way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

DANNY ZWERDLING, BYLINE: A Morton Thiokol engineer sits before me, his eyes getting red with tears. I fought like hell to stop that launch, he says. I'm so torn up inside I can hardly talk about it, even now.

BERKES: Boisjoly detailed the most frustrating experience of his life. He and his fellow engineers used their data to argue that launching in cold weather was dangerous. Cold caused the rubber O-rings that sealed the joints in the shuttle's booster rockets to stiffen and fail to seal. The Challenger launch would be the coldest ever. Zwerdling reported Boisjoly's words.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

ZWERDLING: We all knew what the implication was without actually coming out and saying it. We all knew if the seals failed, the shuttle would blow up.

BERKES: The NASA officials on a conference call didn't want to hear it. The shuttle program managers were desperate to prove they could launch reliably. When do you want me to launch, one of them said, next April? A year later, Boisjoly suffered from disabling headaches. He moved boulders off his lawn all day so he'd be exhausted enough to sleep at night. And he huddled in the corner of a couch, thin and tearful, his arms folded tight, ready to speak out.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROGER BOISJOLY: Why was the Challenger launched? Why was there a change in attitude from NASA's standpoint to get that flight up? I mean, we were put in the position of proving that it was not safe to launch. That was totally unheard of before this flight. We were always being put in the position as a contractor of proving that it was safe to launch.

BERKES: Boisjoly testified before the Challenger Commission investigating the tragedy. He spoke openly in interviews. And he unsuccessfully sued Thiokol and NASA. But he never got a good answer to his question. NASA's decision to overrule the engineers, despite their data, and their vigorous and persistent arguments, was never fully explained.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BOISJOLY: I have flashes still, wondered if I could have done anything different, but we were talking to the right people. We were talking to the people who had the authority. We were talking to people that had the power to stop the launch.

BERKES: A therapist told Boisjoly to go out and talk about that night. And he did, for nearly three decades, to engineering students around the globe. He had a simple message: Make ethical decisions and stick to your data. His wife, Roberta, says he found relief and redemption in that work. This is what he was meant to do, he told her. Roger Boisjoly answered emails and letters from engineering students right up until his death in Utah last month at age 73. He had just been diagnosed with cancer, his widow says, and he died at peace. Howard Berkes, NPR News.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.