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Remembering Roger Boisjoly, Challenger disaster whistleblower (1938-2012)

Belatedly, the world has learned that Roger M. Boisjoly, the whistleblower who tried to prevent the Challenger space shuttle explosion, passed away recently in Nephi, Utah.

Roger M. Boisjoly, the son of a mill worker, was born April 25, 1938, in Lowell, Massachusetts.  From childhood, he was known for his honesty and “would not back down from what he believed in,” say family members. After earning a mechanical engineering degree from the University of Lowell, he began working in the aircraft industry. After a move to California, then to Utah, he took a job with  Morton Thiokol, working on solid rocket boosters for the space shuttle program.

In 1985, he warned managers that 0-rings used to seal joints in the booster rockets could fail at freezing temperatures. ‘The result would be a catastrophe of the highest order — loss of human life,’ he wrote in a memo.  But, the problem had not been resolved when the space shuttle Challenger was prepared for launch on January 28, 1986.

On the night of January 27, temperatures fell below freezing. Boisjoly and four other engineers tried desperately to convince management that the launch should be scrubbed.  They warned that the cold would cause rubber o-rings used to seal joints in the rockets to become brittle and fail, allowing hot gases to leak at the joints. Morton Thiokol and NASA managers dismissed the arguments, and decided to go ahead with the launch.

The next day, Challenger lifted off from its pad at Kennedy Space Center.  At first, the launch appeared normal, but 73 seconds into flight the shuttle exploded, sending fragments arcing across the bright Florida sky.  In view of a horrified public, including thousands of schoolchildren watching a live broadcast, seven astronauts plummeted to their deaths in the Atlantic ocean.

NASA’s actions following the disaster were typical for a government agency with a scandal on its hands: it impounded documents and told employees and others connected with the program not to talk to reporters, even off-the-record.

President Ronald Reagan established a commission, known as the “Rogers Commission,” to search for the cause of the explosion and, initially, NASA managers were successful in  diverting attention from the o-rings.  But, the dissenting engineers refused to let an important truth be swept under the carpet.

It was clear to the engineers that NASA was bent on minimizing the pre-launch concern over the cold. Boisjoly was sufficiently concerned that he took his personal files into a sort of protective custody. He emptied his desk and took the critical memos with him to Huntsville. He slept with them in his motel room. He hid them in the locked trunk of his rented car when he went to work at the Marshall Space Flight Center. He sent copies home to Roberta. And still he worried that someone might try to lose or destroy them.

The investigation took a new direction after February 9, when the New York Times published a front-page story (“NASA Had Warning of a Disaster Risk Posed by Booster”) citing concerns about o-ring failure expressed in documents it had obtained from an “anonymous solid fuel rocket analyst.”  Afterward, the commission held three closed sessions where personnel from Morton Thiokol and Marshall Space Flight center were questioned, including participants in the teleconference that took place on the eve of Challenger’s launch.  As a result, the o-ring issues became a major focus of the investigation.

Boisjoly, who had been known as a “crackerjack troubleshooter,” was re-branded a “whistleblower.” “After he finally passed [his] files personally to Major Gen. Donald J. Kutyna of the presidential commission, Boisjoly was accused of ‘airing the company’s dirty laundry’ in front of the whole country,” wrote the LA Times.

In June 1986, the commission confirmed that the o-rings and cold weather led to the disaster.  But, it did not attach blame to any of the individuals who ignored the engineers’ warnings.  Instead, the commission criticized the “flawed” process of decision-making.

The pre-launch effort by Boisjoly and others to stop the launch did not qualify as whistleblowing, some experts say, because the engineers did not go outside approved channels. But, that legal definition is unrealistically narrow.

If it is a distinguishing mark of actions labeled whistleblowing that the agent intends to force attention to a serious moral problem, both Boisjoly’s and MacDonald’s responses qualify. This feature is the foundation of the public’s interest in whistleblowing. By bringing such serious problems to light, whistleblowers contribute to protecting the public’s welfare. – Vivian Weill, Illinois Institute of Technology (1996)

We now know that Boisjoly met secretly with an NPR reporter shortly after the shuttle disaster to provide information about the problems at Morton Thiokol–clearly not an approved channel. Unquestionably, that was an act of whistleblowing, but Boisjoly’s request for anonymity prevented it from becoming public knowledge.

The clearest evidence of whistleblowing, writes Weill, may be its most predictable consequence:  retaliation. There was no shortage of that after the engineers exposed the truth of o-ring failures.  Along with Allan MacDonald, another engineer who tried to stop the Challenger launch, Boisjoly was taken off the investigation team by Morton Thiokol management. The environment, he said, was hostile.

“[Thiokol managers] were extremely angry when I turned in my documentation and that anger increased as I continued to testify,” says Boisjoly. During testimony at a committee hearing, he publicly refuted a manager’s assertion that Thiokol engineers weren’t unanimous in recommending that the launch be canceled. “When I finished they were so damn mad that I think if they had guns they would have shot me on the spot,” he says.

Later, in “Truth, Lies and O-Rings,” MacDonald wrote that “Roger and I already felt like lepers, but when we returned to Utah following the May 2 session our colleagues treated us as if we had just been arrested for child sexual abuse.”

Colleagues and even neighbors shunned Boisjoly. Thiokol “cut him off from space work,” and NASA “tried to blackball him from the industry.” “Managers isolated him in his position and “made life a living hell on a day-to-day basis.”

“When I realized what was happening, it absolutely destroyed me,” Boisjoly told The Associated Press in a 1988 telephone interview. “It destroyed my career, my life, everything else.”  Boisjoly hung on for six months before deciding to take long-term disability leave, having been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He would not return to Thiokol.

Boisjoly filed lawsuits against Thiokol and NASA, including a qui tam claim that Morton Thiokol had defrauded the public. The Justice Department refused to join the suit as expected, and the lawsuits were dismissed.  The chilling spectacle of a whistleblower’s fall from grace sent a powerful message to others in the industry to stay silent about the next disaster in the making.

Boisjoly viewed the lawsuits as “an exercise in total futility.”

“I think [the court system was] afraid of what they’d find.” The suits never even made it to the discovery process, he says. Boisjoly decided not to pursue the lawsuits further. “I tried to get on with my life,” he says.

Boisjoly’s moral courage earned him multiple awards, including one from the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1988, and another from the Cavallo Foundation in 1990. Despite the awards, Boisjoly saw no hope of returning to his former career.  Like other blacklisted whistleblowers, he decided to go into business for himself.  He obtained a professional engineering license and began consulting as a forensic engineer. In additon, he wrote papers and lectured to engineering students on a subject dear to him:  ethical decision making.

NASA’s management culture failed preserve the costly lessons of the Challenger disaster . In January 2003, NASA launched another space shuttle under circumstances that worried engineers.  Foam insulation broke off during Columbia’s lift-off and punched a hole in a wing, leaving it vulnerable to the extreme forces of reentry. On February 1, as it re-entered earth’s atmosphere, Columbia disintegrated in the skies above Texas, sending another seven astronauts to their deaths.

The space program ended, several flights later, on July 21, 2011.  Less than six months after, on January 6, 2012, Roger Boisjoly finally found peace.  At the age of 73—one year for every second of Challenger’s last flight–he died in his sleep of cancer.

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Learn more about Roger Boisjoly and the Challenger disaster

Roger Boisjoly on Ethics in Business (video)

Workplace ethics (paper by Roger Boisjoly)

The Challenger launch and explosion (video)

History of the Challenger accident (Google books; h/t to Wikipedia)

 

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