AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Hundreds of NPR listeners responded after hearing a story we aired last month about the 30th anniversary of the space shuttle Challenger explosion in which the seven astronauts died. The story featured 89-year-old Bob Ebeling. He was an engineer for NASA contractor Morton Thiokol. He tried to stop the Challenger launch, and his failure to do that, he told us, continues to haunt him.
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BOB EBELING: And I think that was one of the mistakes that God made. He shouldn't have picked me for that job. I don't know. But next time I talk to him, I'm going to ask him, why me? You picked a loser.
CORNISH: We wanted to know if your letters and emails made him think differently about his role in that tragedy. So NPR's Howard Berkes returned to Ebeling's home in Utah to find out.
HOWARD BERKES, BYLINE: A week after our story aired, with snow falling in Brigham City, Utah, I barely got in the door before Bob Ebeling declared nothing had changed.
B. EBELING: I still have this guilt complex.
DARLENE EBELING: (Laughter).
BERKES: That's his wife, Darlene, chuckling and shaking her head. Letters seeking to comfort Ebeling lay unfolded on the kitchen table. They hadn't made much difference. His prayers hadn't either.
B. EBELING: And I hope that he can forgive me for not being better than I was.
BERKES: This is the sentiment that compelled so many people to write, including 51-year-old Jim Sides, who sat in his car in Jacksonville, N.C., listening to the radio, mesmerized by Ebeling's words.
JIM SIDES: And when I had heard he'd carried a burden of guilt for 30 years, it broke my heart, and I just - I sat there in the car in the parking lot and cried.
BERKES: Sides is a utility engineer, and he thought about Ebeling's mission, as he calls it, the night before Challenger was launched. Ebeling and other Thiokol engineers had data that showed the risk. Rubber O-rings that seal the joints in the shuttle's booster rockets can fail to seal in cold weather. Leaking rocket fuel could then cause an explosion, and this would be the coldest launch yet.
SIDES: He and his colleague stated it very plainly. It was a dangerous day for the launch. But he was not the decision-maker. He did his job as an engineer. He should not have to carry any guilt.
BERKES: Other engineers wrote to Ebeling, saying they learned about the Challenger launch decision in engineering school. It's a case study in ethical decision-making. They credit Ebeling for that, along with Roger doubling for that along with Roger Boisjoly, who died in 2012 and also fought the launch. Sides mentions Boisjoly in his letter to Ebeling.
SIDES: Your efforts show that your care for people comes first for you. I agree with your friend, Roger Boisjoly...
KATHY EBELING: I agree with your friend, Roger Boisjoly. You and he and your colleagues did all that you could do.
B. EBELING: That's easy to say, but after hearing that, I still have that guilt right here.
BERKES: Ebeling points to his heart. He sits in a flannel shirt and pajama bottoms in a wheelchair at his kitchen table. Kathy picks another letter from the pile and tries again.
K. EBELING: You presented the correct data and blew the whistle. You did everything you could, and I hope this letter helps you. You are not a loser. You are a challenger. God bless you.
BERKES: We're interrupted by a Meals on Wheels delivery, and as Kathy grabs the bags of food, I ask her dad if there's something more he wants to hear.
B. EBELING: You aren't NASA. You aren't Thiokol. I haven't heard any of those people.
K. EBELING: He's never gotten confirmation that he did do his job and he was a good worker and he told the truth.
BERKES: There isn't anyone still at NASA or the company that absorbed Thiokol who was likely involved in the launch decision, but some retired participants are still alive. So I started tracking them down, beginning with 78-year-old Allan McDonald, Ebeling's boss at the time and a leader of the effort to keep Challenger on the ground. He responded right away.
ALLAN MCDONALD: I called him up and told him, you know, to me, my definition of a loser is somebody that really doesn't do anything, but worse yet, they don't care. I said, you did something, and you really cared. That's the definition of a winner.
BERKES: McDonald says Ebeling first raised the alarm by calling the Kennedy Space Center where McDonald was Thiokol's launch representative. That call prompted the 11th-hour teleconference in which the engineers told NASA it was too risky to launch.
MCDONALD: And I said, think about this, Bob. If you hadn't have called me, they were in such a go-mode, we would have never even had a chance to try to stop it.
BERKES: McDonald also responds to the NPR listeners who are not sympathetic to Ebeling and the other engineers. They should've done more, those listeners wrote; the engineers should have phoned NASA's launch director or the White House.
MCDONALD: They'd probably send a van out with some white jackets and picked you up, first of all. You just don't do that. The launch director doesn't take those outside telephone calls either.
BERKES: Another key player in the launch decision didn't want to be interviewed. George Hardy is 85 now and was a NASA deputy director in 1986. He famously said he was appalled when Ebeling and the other engineers said Challenger shouldn't fly. Hardy said he'd gone over that night many, many times. There was no great value, he said, in continuing to review it. He did see value, though, in writing to Ebeling.
Do you remember George Hardy from NASA?
B. EBELING: Yes.
BERKES: He said you and your colleagues did everything that was expected of you. The decision was a collective decision made by several NASA and Thiokol individuals. You should not torture yourself with any assumed blame.
B. EBELING: Thank you.
BERKES: Hearing from Hardy and McDonald seemed to be a turning point which came two weeks after the story aired. Ebeling sat in his big easy chair in the living room, his eyes and mood brighter.
K. EBELING: I've seen a change, a real change. He doesn't have a heavy heart like he did.
B. EBELING: And I know that there's a truth that my burden has been reduced. I can't say it's totally gone, but I can certainly say it's been reduced.
BERKES: I also read aloud a statement Ebeling had yet to hear. It was emailed the night before by a spokeswoman for NASA administrator Charlie Bolden. a former astronaut who led the effort to resume shuttle flights safely after Challenger.
So this is a statement from NASA. So they're talking about the astronauts. We honor them not through bearing the burden of their loss but by constantly reminding each other to remain vigilant and to listen to those like Mr. Ebeling who have the courage to speak up so that our astronauts can safely carry out their missions.
B. EBELING: Bravo. I've had that same thought many, many times.
BERKES: Ebeling is now more buoyant than at any time I've seen or talked to him in the last 30 years despite cancer and hospice care. He'll pray again for God's assessment, he says, when our interview ends. I ask one more question. Is there anything he'd like to say to the people who wrote to him?
B. EBELING: Thank you. You helped bring my worrisome mind to ease. You have to have an end to everything.
BERKES: And as I leave, Bob Ebeling smiles, raises his hands above his head and claps. Kathy Ebeling calls that a miracle. Howard Berkes, NPR News.
CORNISH: And we've posted a statement from the Ebeling family to NPR listeners at npr.org.
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