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Slimantics: Challenger tragedy and the man who tried to prevent it

 

Former NASA engineer Allan McDonald speaks to Mississippi State University students at Colvard Student Union about his failed attempt to warn NASA about important equipment malfunctions prior to the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion in 1986. The disaster killed all seven of its crew members 73 seconds after takeoff.

Former NASA engineer Allan McDonald speaks to Mississippi State University students at Colvard Student Union about his failed attempt to warn NASA about important equipment malfunctions prior to the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion in 1986. The disaster killed all seven of its crew members 73 seconds after takeoff. Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff

 

Slim Smith

 

 

STARKVILLE -- At the beginning of his lecture Wednesday evening in the Foster Ballroom at the Colvard Student Union on Mississippi State's campus, Allan McDonald had some difficulty with his power-point presentation. 

 

"Why can't I get this to work?" he muttered. "It's not rocket science." 

 

For most, it would have been an off-hand comment. For McDonald, it was a line that filled the ballroom with laughter. 

 

After all, McDonald was a rocket scientist, and in that capacity he played a dramatic role in one of the nation's most heart-wrenching tragedies -- the explosion that took the lives of seven crew members, including America's first "Teacher in Space" -- when the space shuttle Challenger disintegrated 73 seconds into its launch on Jan. 28, 1986. 

 

Since then, many have told the story. But no one tells it the way McDonald does. No one can. 

 

At the time of the tragedy, McDonald worked for Morton Thiokol as project director for the rocket booster program. Morton Thiokol, based in Utah, had the contract to provide the boosters NASA used to launch its shuttles into orbit. 

 

McDonald's lecture was presented by the Bagley College of Engineering, and the audience of about 250 was made up primarily of young engineering students, none of whom were alive at the time of the event and, therefore, unlikely to fully grasp the emotional hammer blow that fell on the nation that cold, but sunny Florida afternoon. 

 

For an older generation of Americans, it was a surreal, heart-breaking event. 

 

What the JFK assassination was to my parents' generation, Challenger was to mine and 9-11 would be to the next -- a moment frozen in time when the unimaginable plays out before disbelieving eyes. We felt the loss as if those who died were family. 

 

McDonald spent two hours detailing the circumstances of that great tragedy, expertly describing the science and engineering and the events leading up to the launch and its aftermath. 

 

Detached as they likely were from the deep emotions of the event, the students absorbed McDonald's lecture as one of the great case studies in engineering. 

 

For the smattering of old folks in the audience, particularly those with little knowledge of engineering, McDonald's lecture was a story you find in the movies -- a drama where the hero wages a solitary battle against bureaucracy with the fate on innocent lives hanging in the balance. Only in this case, the hero didn't save the day. You wonder how it's possible that Tom Hanks hasn't played the role of McDonald. It's that kind of story. 

 

 

 

Twice delayed, pressure mounts despite warnings 

 

The Challenger launch had been delayed twice already, which likely played a role in the decision to launch on Jan. 28. It was the Challenger's 10th mission and the presence of Christa McAuliffe, who had emerged from a field on applicants to become America's first teacher in space, made it a high-profile event, the kind of publicity that NASA has always needed when Americans are tempted to lose interest in its programs and question the expense. 

 

The first launch was postponed because of rain, the second because of a bad latch on the cabin. 

 

A cold front came through on the night of Jan. 27. It was at that point that McDonald, the director of rocket booster program needed to launch the shuttle into orbit, became concerned. He had noticed a problem with one of the O-rings used to seal booster components in a previous launch and surmised that the damage, which had not been serious enough to affect that launch, may have been caused by launching in cooler temperatures: It was 53 degrees during that launch, which showed damage to the O-ring. 

 

With a forecast of 18 to 20 degrees for this launch, McDonald immediately gave the engineers a simple directive: Determine if it was safe to launch the shuttle at those temperatures. 

 

Their conclusion: It wasn't. 

 

When McDonald advised his superiors, they spoke with the engineers on a conference call, then spoke privately among themselves for about a half-hour, McDonald said. When they returned to the conference call, they asked if the engineers could establish a safe temperature for launch, and when there was no consensus, they decided to proceed with the launch because no actual temperature could be presented. 

 

"They kept asking questions until they got the answers they wanted," McDonald said. 

 

The launch would proceed, they declared, on the basis of that distorted engineers' report. 

 

"We needed to have that recommendation put in writing and signed by the responsible officer," McDonald said. "That person was me. It was then that I made the smartest decision I ever made. I refused to sign the launch recommendation. My boss had to sign it back in Utah and sent it back to them. 

 

"I was so upset that I told the NASA guys, I don't know who made this recommendation and I don't care if it was the CEO, you can't accept it. You know that the rocket boosters are not designed to fly in those conditions." 

 

The launch proceeded. Tragedy followed. 

 

"My heart just about stopped," recalled McDonald as he watched the horrific event from the control room. 

 

 

 

Setting the record straight 

 

A presidential commission was formed soon after the tragedy -- "the most distinguished group I've ever seen," McDonald said. The commission included Neil Armstrong and Sally Ride, the first woman in space. 

 

McDonald, meanwhile, had been part of the team assembled to investigate the failure. As such, he was summoned to the hearing, although it was determined he would not speak. 

 

The hearing was called after the New York Times got a leak that said the failure could be attributed to the O-ring. 

 

When Ride asked if the engineers had expressed any concerns about the O-rings and was told no objections had been made, McDonald rose from his seat in the back, walked down to the aisle and began speaking. 

 

"We recommended that the launch not be made below 53 degrees," he said. 

 

Ride heard his comment from the floor. 

 

"If I heard what I think I heard, I need you to come and repeat what you just said," she said. 

 

McDonald did. 

 

When he returned to his office a few days later, McDonald was told by the company general manager that he had been relieved of his duties as project director. 

 

"I lost all my engineers and even my secretary," he said. "I ask the GM, what am I supposed to do? He said I would be in charge of scheduling. I think it was their way of trying to get me to quit." 

 

Later that day, a lead scientist at the company, upon hearing of McDonald's demotion, asked him to help him in his private plan to redesign the rocket booster. McDonald agreed. The redesign is still used today. 

 

 

 

Redemption 

 

The story might have ended there, with McDonald being punished for his role as a whistle-blower. 

 

But when word of McDonald's demotion filtered back to Washington, the reaction was immediate. 

 

"A congressman called and we were talking about what had happened to me," McDonald said. "He said, 'Don't you know? We passed a joint resolution that you be returned to your job.'" 

 

The message from Congress to the company was clear enough: Reinstate McDonald or lose all current and future contracts with NASA. 

 

"The next day, I'm sitting in the office of the new GM and he tells me, 'The President has made getting the shuttle program back in operation the highest priority,'" McDonald said. 

 

Thirty years later, McDonald reflects on the events of that January morning. The accident itself, he said, was the result of a perfect storm of conditions that made the design flaw exponentially more dangerous. 

 

That's the engineering side. 

 

But there was a perfect storm of another sort, too -- a combination of complacency, politics, money and flawed management that would not create a climate where the experts were encouraged to speak and executives were prepared to listen. 

 

Both flaws repeated themselves 10 years later when the space shuttle Columbia broke apart on its return trip, killing the crew of eight. As it was with the Challenger, flaws exposed by previous missions were left unresolved because no tragedy had occurred. 

 

Until, of course, it did. 

 

These are the things that haunt McDonald to this day. 

 

Hours after Challenger exploded on that January day, McDonald called his wife back in Utah to tell her he wouldn't be coming home right away. His 3-year-old daughter asked when the shuttle was going to launch. 

 

"To her when the shuttle was launched, it meant I would be coming home the next day," he said. "I think maybe she thought I was on the shuttle, that I rode around with them a while, then they dropped me off and I came home. 

 

"So when she asked, "Daddy, when is the shuttle going up?" I didn't answer. 

 

"I just didn't know what to say." 

 

 

Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is ssmith@cdispatch.com.

 

 

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