Shuttle Launch Critic Offered Job Heading Redesign
Rocket engineer Allan J. McDonald, who first revealed that he and fellow Morton Thiokol engineers had fought unsuccessfully to postpone the launch of the space shuttle Challenger, has been offered a key job directing redesign work on the shuttle’s solid rocket boosters, The Times learned Friday.
The move would thrust McDonald, 48, into one of the most important engineering roles in the shuttle program, which has been shut down pending correction of rocket defects believed responsible for the Jan. 28 shuttle tragedy that killed seven crew members.
And it would follow a major shake-up at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration involving the early retirements and reassignment of the officials who ignored engineering objections to the Challenger launch.
Recently, a congressional tempest erupted because of assertions that some engineers who opposed the launch--including McDonald and Roger Boisjoly--had been reassigned or demoted in punishment for their dramatic disclosures to the presidential commission investigating the Challenger disaster.
McDonald, who prior to the shuttle explosion was director of solid rocket motor projects for Morton Thiokol, told the commission earlier this month that the company “took my people away and gave me a more menial job” as director of special projects.
William P. Rogers, chairman of the commission, called the suggestion of retaliation against the engineers “shocking.” They should be promoted instead, he said.
Although Morton Thiokol officials insist that neither McDonald nor Boisjoly was demoted, they have conceded that both engineers were reassigned to reduce their contact--and “potential friction"--with officials at NASA.
According to NASA sources, McDonald’s new role is not universally welcomed at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., where the redesign work is supervised. A Morton Thiokol source confirmed, however, that a company executive had conferred with top NASA officials at Marshall before offering the job to McDonald.
“We had to make sure it wouldn’t be a problem for anyone,” the source said. “Marshall indicated they would welcome him.”
McDonald did not immediately accept the offer. He reportedly will decide over the weekend after talking with two Thiokol vice presidents who overruled engineering objections and authorized the shuttle launch. McDonald would have to work closely with the two executi1986360197his new assignment.
Inquiry on Reassignment
Word of McDonald’s pending assignment comes while a NASA inspector general’s investigation is still under way into whether the engineers were “demoted or pushed aside” under influence from NASA officials. The official inquiry was launched two weeks ago after more than 30 Senate Democrats signed a letter protesting treatment of the engineers.
The threat of a Senate investigation also was lingering. Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.) and Sen. Donald W. Riegle Jr. (D-Mich.) called Ed Garrison, president of Morton Thiokol’s aerospace group, to Washington 10 days ago to answer questions about whether the company was retaliating against the engineers. They expressed particular concern about comments attributed to Charles Locke, chairman of the company.
Locke was quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying: “Once this commission issues its report . . . it’s going to be a different situation, because people are paid to do productive work for our company and not to wander around the country gossiping with people.”
Gorton, chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation subcommittee on space and technology, countered that he would be “extremely concerned” if the remarks indicated an intention to retaliate against McDonald and Boisjoly after the Challenger investigation closed.
Garrison, appearing before a Senate hearing, denied any such plans existed. He also flew to Brigham City, Utah, with Locke to personally reassure the company’s engineers.
Expected at Conference
If McDonald accepts the new assignment, he is expected to attend a technical conference at Marshall June 9-11, at which time test results and analyses of a variety of rocket seal redesign concepts may be discussed. Boisjoly, who has continued to work on the rocket seal problem although he has been isolated from contact with NASA, also is expected to attend.
They will be dealing with a number of new NASA faces. Lawrence B. Mulloy, for example, former manager of the solid rocket booster project office and the NASA executive who had called the launch-eve objections of Thiokol engineers “illogical,” has moved to the space flight center’s Science and Engineering Directorate and no longer is involved in the shuttle rocket program.
Also, George Hardy, Marshall’s deputy director for engineering, who had told Thiokol engineers he was “appalled” at their recommendation to delay launching, has taken early retirement.
William C. Rempel reported from Los Angeles and Rudy Abramson from Washington.