AAllan McDonald was not able to stop the Jan. 28, 1986 launch that destroyed Space Shuttle Challenger and killed its seven-person crew. The Morton Thiokol executive and his engineers had warned NASA officials that cold weather at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center that day could prevent O-rings from sealing properly inside the solid rocket boosters the company built.
NASA officials did not listen, however, because Thiokol could not present test data showing the O-rings would fail and instead engineers based their recommendation on Thiokol’s discovery of soot between a pair of O-rings inside boosters that had flown the previous January following a three-day cold snap. The soot suggested record-low temperatures at the launch site prevented the O-rings from providing a complete seal.
Lacking hard data, McDonald’s concerns didn’t make it past a conference call with his engineers and NASA officials in Florida and Alabama. McDonald, Thiokol’s top official at the launch site, refused to sign the launch recommendation. His boss signed it instead.
Thirty years and a second fatal space shuttle accident later, former NASA officials are discussing whether it will be easier for engineers working for private contractors or NASA to get people to take their concerns seriously.
“I’m in the middle of reading ‘Truth, Lies and O-rings,’ Allan McDonald’s book. I’ve had it on my bookshelf for years. It is striking how those people were shut down,” said Wayne Hale, who served as space shuttle program manager during NASA’s return-to-flight efforts following the 2003 Columbia accident. “I really believe that would not happen today.”
Kent Rominger, former chief of NASA’s astronaut office, said it is impossible to eliminate all risk. However, NASA and its contractors possess the technical competence to make future vehicles like Orion crew capsule far safer than space shuttles, he added.
NASA flew its final shuttle mission in 2011. And while SpaceX and Boeing are under contract to start flying astronauts to the ISS within the next two years, NASA’s Orion won’t carry crew any sooner than 2021.
With at least a decade between the end of the space shuttle and Orion’s first crewed mission, the go/no-go decisions will be made by a different group of people.
“Commercial crew certainly will fly before 2021, but it will have been a long time since NASA has been in charge of a rocket that flies,” Hale said. “How many people will have changed out of the workforce? We need to keep those lessons alive.”
When NASA does fly again, it also will no longer be the only game in town. Even its own astronauts will launch aboard a mix of government and commercial spacecraft. Will NASA and its new found commercial partners continue take the lessons of Challenger and Columbia to heart?
United Launch Alliance chief executive Tory Bruno, whose company builds the rockets Boeing and Sierra Nevada will use to launch their spacecraft to the space station, said at ULA employees “are able to voice their concerns to leadership at any point prior or during the countdown.”
SpaceX also appears to be have embraced the importance of speaking up. Before every flight, SpaceX chief Elon Musk says he sends an email to everyone in the company asking them to call or email him directly if they can think of “any possible reason” to hold off the launch — whether their managers agree or not.
“That’s the right thing to do,” said McDonald.