Thursday, January 28, 2016

Challenger: it was 30 years ago today

Today is the 30th anniversary of the Challenger explosion that changed everything for NASA, perhaps forever. I won't tell you what I was doing at the time because it is absolutely mundane, nor am I interested in the "I was feeding the dog", "taking out the garbage" comments that people assume are so fascinating to others.

I recently saw a documentary about this on the Smithsonian channel. John Glenn spoke after the tragedy, stating that it was nothing short of a miracle that nothing like that had happened up to then. It's true. Apollo 13 was one of those episodes of just squeaking by.

It's funny how people use that as a reason why nothing will ever go wrong: "It hasn't happened up to now, so. . . " I most often hear this comment in connection with smoking and other suicidal habits. What it really means is "the odds are more against me all the time". When I say that, I'm always accused of being "negative". I just can't get on the Facebook cheerleading team, I guess.

I won't get into the hubris that brought this about, nor will I say that the whole team should have stood in bed. I'm saying that the numb shock everyone felt (which, by the way, I felt too) had an element not of "this shouldn't have happened", but "this COULDN'T have happened" - mainly because it had never happened before.

The Smithsonian program highlighted one particular engineer who kept warning everyone that Challenger should not be launched in such cold conditions. We all remember those infamous cracked o-rings that brought the whole space program crashing down. Literally. But it turns out there were a number of engineers who sounded that warning. Smithsonian Channel is not above dramatizations, and the "re-enactment" showed this one man pounding on the desk and bellowing at an oblivous team of men staring straight ahead. Afterwards came his account of having a nervous breakdown that sidelined him for four and a half years.

Something like this may have actually happened, but it doesn't tell the whole story. But "one man against the system" (with nobody listening) plays a lot better, makes better TV. The real story is probably much more complicated than the public will ever know.

POST-BLOG: I did a bit of digging on the Challenger whistle-blower in the documentary: one of several, though only his story was highlighted. He died in 2012 after becoming a pariah for "ratting" on NASA, an unthinkable crime (especially since he was right about everything). A more haunted-looking individual I have never seen. Nor an angrier one.

Roger Boisjoly, an aerospace engineer who warned that tragedy could result if NASA's space shuttle Challenger launched in cold weather, has died at the age of 73.

Boisjoly's warnings went unheeded, and Challenger was destroyed 73 seconds after liftoff on Jan. 28, 1986, killing all seven astronauts onboard. An investigation later attributed the disaster to a failed seal on one of the shuttle's solid rocket boosters. Cold weather prevented a rubber O-ring from maintaining its seal, allowing hot gas to leak and damage the shuttle's external fuel tank.

About six months before the disaster, Boisjoly — an engineer at Morton Thiokol, the firm that built the boosters — wrote a memo warning that freezing temperatures could lead to this nightmare scenario.

"The result would be a catastrophe of the highest order — loss of human life," Boisjoly wrote, according to the Associated Press.

Boisjoly and several colleagues reiterated their concerns the night before Challenger's launch, which was scheduled for an uncharacteristically frigid day at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. However, Morton Thiokol higher-ups overruled the whistleblowers and gave NASA the go-ahead, the AP reported.

Boisjoly testified before the presidential commission that investigated the Challenger tragedy. Later, he said his whistleblower status profoundly affected his personal and professional life, with both neighbors and workmates giving him the cold shoulder.

"When I realized what was happening, it absolutely destroyed me," Boisjoly told the AP in 1988. "It destroyed my career, my life, everything else. I'm just now getting back to the point where I think I'll be able to work as an engineer again."

Boisjoly died of cancer Jan. 6 in Nephi, Utah, about 40 miles (64 kilometers) south of Provo. He was born in Lowell, Mass., on April 25, 1938. He is survived by his wife of 49 years, Roberta, along with two daughters and eight grandchildren, according to the AP.

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