Forgotten Lessons of Challenger Seen as Haunting NASA
Ever since the shuttle accident, rocket engineer Jud Lovingood has spent difficult days wondering whether he could have prevented the tragic deaths of seven astronauts.
“When something bad happens, like killing a bunch of people, you just think: ‘What could we have done that we didn’t do?’ ” Lovingood said in a recent interview. “I was shocked. I was sick. I could never make an engineering decision that put a life at risk again.”
Lovingood was not talking about the Columbia accident five months ago, but the Challenger disaster 17 years ago. For the people directly involved, it seems like yesterday.
Voices still crack when space officials recount their role. Investigators worry they failed in their mission to reform NASA. Blame is sharply debated. Anger flares at the mere mention of former colleagues who didn’t accept a fair share of the responsibility.
Unencumbered by the powerful NASA public-relations machine, these forgotten engineers and investigators, now in their 60s and 70s, have plenty to say. For one thing, they believe that NASA’s current managers are ducking responsibility for their mistakes and are bound to repeat them.
They have become astute analysts of the Columbia accident, watching hours of investigation hearings on the Internet. And they have a cautionary tale, both for those involved in the latest accident and for the future of the entire U.S. space program.
Nobody can predict how NASA managers of the ill-fated Columbia mission will feel in another generation, but their counterparts’ experiences suggest the road ahead will be difficult. Engineers may understand the grave risks of launching humans into space at 17,000 mph but cannot anticipate the emotional turmoil that comes after an accident. In the case of the Challenger, they were never prepared for how long it would cast a cloud over their lives.
Although the decisions that led to the Challenger accident were, by all accounts, not his own, Lovingood was a witness to one of the great engineering miscalculations of history. A distinguished 23-year career in NASA and a doctorate in mathematics failed to prepare him for what developed after the accident.
“I don’t think people realize how it feels when you are involved in something like this,” he recalled. “I couldn’t watch a shuttle launch. I couldn’t watch those videotapes of the accident. It took many years to get over it.”
About one minute after liftoff on the frigid morning of Jan. 28, 1986, the Challenger exploded, raining tons of debris onto the Atlantic Ocean as the crew’s families, NASA officials and the nation watched.
For a time after the accident, Lovingood was troubled by a recurring dream, one with an ending he so badly wanted: The crew compartment emerged out of the fireball, and a parachute opened that allowed the astronauts to safely drift back to Earth.
He is hardly alone in the baggage he carries from the Challenger disaster.
“These many years later, there are very few days that go by that I don’t think about the Challenger accident,” said Joseph Kilminster, a retired Morton Thiokol Inc. engineer who had a central role in the accident. “It is not a pleasant thought, but it is true.”
Kilminster had overruled five of his own engineers when they argued on a telephone conference call the night before the launch that the conditions were unsafe. The subfreezing temperatures at Cape Canaveral, the engineers told Kilminster, could cause a failure in the O-rings that protect the joints of Thiokol’s solid rocket motors, which could lead to an explosion. The concerns were also rejected by NASA manager Lawrence Mulloy, who was in charge of the solid rocket boosters and was listening in on the debate.
Kilminster and Mulloy had argued that the engineers lacked the data to prove their point.
As matters turned out, the engineers were right.
Ever since then, Kilminster, 69, now retired and living in the woods near Missoula, Mont., has spent difficult days rethinking that decision. “Was there something there I should have picked up on, something that should have been obvious?” he asks himself. Terrible mistakes were made in the Challenger mission, Kilminster acknowledged. “I have a clear conscience,” he added, “but the fact remains seven wonderful people lost their lives, and that will be with me for the rest of my life.”
Like many of the other players in the Challenger accident, Kilminster left the space program; he found solace in helping to design the explosive devices that inflate automobile air bags. “Early reports came back from highway patrol officers that people were walking away from accidents they might have perished in if not for the air bags,” he said.
Like Kilminster, Mulloy got much of the blame for the accident, even being named in a $1-billion suit by the widow of the Challenger commander. He was later dropped from the case.
“I volunteered for the blame,” Mulloy said. “Nobody assigned it to me. It was my responsibility, and I accepted it.”
At the same time, Mulloy said, he figured out quickly that other NASA officials would escape blame. Not long after the accident, Mulloy left NASA.
He moved to Washington, D.C., where he became a self-described Beltway bandit, a consultant to NASA and other federal agencies. He said he made a lot of money trading on his connections in the space program, and he eventually retired near Nashville.
But Mulloy still struggles to explain how the accident happened.
“You can’t build perfect machines any more than you can get perfect humans to operate them,” he added. “The political types didn’t understand that. You are dealing with people who are not perfect. We weren’t ignoring the problem, but we underestimated the risk.”
In the late 1980s, the lessons of the Challenger were so stark that no one imagined NASA would ever forget them; that assumption proved a grave error that paved the way for the Columbia accident, Mulloy said.
“Lessons learned are soon forgotten,” he said. “The memory will fade, and the graybeards will leave and young people will come on. It’s a problem that affects any government organization or business.”
Some current NASA engineers are beginning to ask themselves the same kinds of questions that haunt the Challenger-era managers.
As top officials were conducting the final, preflight review for the Columbia late last year, safety chief Bryan D. O’Connor questioned why engineers were not more concerned about the problem of foam debris, which now is believed to have damaged the shuttle during its final launch.
“I wish I had thought of a smarter question to ask in that review,” O’Connor said in an interview in the spring. “I wasn’t smart enough, and nobody was smart enough to prevent this accident.”
Linda Ham, the manager responsible for the Columbia mission, described for the first time last week some of the faulty decisions NASA made this time around. But she said no single person should be blamed for the accident. “With the information that we had at the time, we did the best we could,” she said.
The public posture of today’s top NASA officials has infuriated some Challenger-era engineers. “They just need to take the blame like we did,” Lovingood said.
Roger Boisjoly, one of the five Morton Thiokol engineers who pleaded for a launch delay for Challenger, goes much further, saying top NASA officials should be indicted for manslaughter.
NASA’s mismanagement “is not going to stop until somebody gets sent to hard rock hotel,” Boisjoly said. “I don’t care how many commissions you have. These guys have a way of numbing their brains. They have destroyed $5 billion worth of hardware and 14 lives because of their nonsense.”
Boisjoly, who has spent the last 17 years as a forensic engineer and a lecturer on engineering ethics, said NASA attempted to blackball him from the industry after the Challenger explosion. He doubts the agency can ever be reformed because its political structure, with major centers spread across congressional districts, is too resistant to change. It should be permanently disbanded, he said.
Insisting he is not bitter, Boisjoly still scorns Kilminster and Mulloy for rejecting his concerns. “They are just stroking themselves to relieve the guilt,” he said. And he still resents former Marshall Space Flight Center director William Lucas, who Boisjoly said escaped without taking his share of responsibility for the accident.
Lucas wants no part of the debate.
“What do you want?” Lucas, now retired in Huntsville, said when a reporter called seeking an interview. “All this has been covered for years, and I don’t have anything new to say. This is ancient history.”
Allan J. McDonald, who was Thiokol’s program manager for the solid rocket motor, also had his career damaged by the Challenger accident. He was the most senior Thiokol engineer to argue against the launch, and he became the most important critic of the accident afterward. He paid dearly for the stand he took.
When pressed by NASA the night before liftoff to sign a written recommendation approving the launch, he refused. He now says that was the smartest thing he ever did. Even after the telephone conference had ended and Kilminster had overruled his engineers, McDonald continued to argue face-to-face with Mulloy at Cape Canaveral, Fla.
“I told them I wouldn’t want to be the one to stand before a board of inquiry and explain why I launched the shuttle outside its qualified limits. I just got a blank look,” said McDonald, who is now retired in Ogden, Utah.
McDonald took the lead role in disclosing the inside story of the accident to a panel of White House investigators, who said they were being kept in the dark by NASA.
As a result, his career suffered for a long time, he said. “As soon as I broke ranks,” he said, “the company set me aside.”
The repercussions from Challenger also reached into the lower tiers of the aerospace industry, where tens of thousands of workers supported the shuttle program.
One morning this spring, 82-year-old George Bower drove four hours to meet a reporter to talk about his fear that the Challenger problems were never fixed.
“I have thought about that joint design ever since the accident,” said Bower, a retired tooling engineer at a Sante Fe Springs machine shop that did work on the solid rocket motor casings. “We were told to put a Band-Aid on the problem, and that’s just what we did. But who is going to listen to some little voice like mine when millions of dollars are involved?” Other engineers say that the redesigned joint is probably the safest part of the shuttle system.
Accident investigators were profoundly affected by the experience as well. Albert Wheelon, the chief executive of an aerospace contractor that did business with NASA, said he was surprised by the “cover-up and cynicism” he discovered at the space agency.
“I thought I had better be a little more careful about dealing with NASA in the future,” Wheelon, a member of the Challenger investigation commission and former president of Hughes Aircraft, said. “It seemed to me they had a very different value structure than the military or commercial industry. It was the kind of thing you would expect from Enron or WorldCom.”
As for investigators’ efforts to improve NASA’s emphasis on safety -- they included changes to the agency’s decentralized management structure and improvements to internal communications -- Wheelon added: “I don’t think we succeeded. It was a distasteful job, and we weren’t anxious to hang around and see how it turned out.”
Diane Vaughan, a Boston University sociologist who wrote a highly acclaimed book about the Challenger accident, said there are many similarities between the two accidents. In both cases, NASA was aware of problems but chose to view them as maintenance headaches, not ongoing safety issues. “The impact on the people at the time of the Challenger was very, very powerful, and they have not forgotten,” Vaughan said. “I think the Columbia accident will also have a lasting impact.” Yet, for all the hand-wringing and efforts to reform NASA after the Challenger accident, many people say not much has really changed.
“It is unconscionable, after the Challenger accident, that it would happen again,” McDonald said. “I was appalled.”