ethics matter

Roger Boisjoly was a booster rocket engineer at NASA contractor Morton Thiokol in Utah in January, 1986, when he and four colleagues became embroiled in the fatal decision to launch the Space Shuttle Challenger.

Howard Berkes, Remembering Roger Boisjoly, 6 Feb 2012.

I was appearing in court at the moment the Challenger exploded, and only found out about it a few minutes later upon returning to my fourth floor office in the county Hall of Records.

It took some time for the real cause of the disaster to begin leaking out. Three weeks after the accident NPR, relying on confidential interviews with engineers close to the case, broke the behind the scenes story of government managers pressuring contractors to ignore the objections of their own engineers to the launch.

Boisjoly, who died of cancer last month at age 73, was one of those engineers, and the author of a memo delivered to his managers six months before the accident predicting a “catastrophe of the highest order” that would kill the astronauts under the very conditions that existed for that January launch.

Armed with the data that described that possibility, Boisjoly and his colleagues argued persistently and vigorously for hours. At first, Thiokol managers agreed with them and formally recommended a launch delay. But NASA officials on a conference call challenged that recommendation.

“I am appalled,” said NASA’s George Hardy, according to Boisjoly and our other source in the room. “I am appalled by your recommendation.”

Another shuttle program manager, Lawrence Mulloy, didn’t hide his disdain. “My God, Thiokol,” he said. “When do you want me to launch — next April?”

What was not widely known before his death is that Boisjoly was also one of the engineers who helped NPR uncover the truth about the cause of the disaster, and the ethical failure of NASA and Thiokol management in the affair. Boisjoly, unlike some who pushed for a launch, was haunted by his failure to prevent it to the end of his life — a period he spent speaking and corresponding with a new generation of engineering students about ethics and “sticking with data.”

R.I.P., Mr. Boisjoly.