Thirty years ago, Allan McDonald faced one of the toughest decisions of his life.
As an engineer in charge of building rocket boosters for NASA, McDonald knew that the plan to launch the Challenger space shuttle on Jan. 28, 1986, was flawed because one of the pieces wouldn’t hold up in the cold temperatures predicted for that day.
McDonald and other scientists explained this to NASA the night before launch, but their objections were disregarded. He then refused to sign off on the required launch recommendation report, even knowing that his career could be on the line.
But the launch went ahead as planned, and the Challenger lasted only 73 seconds before breaking apart midair, killing all seven on board, including Christa McAuliffe, a teacher from New Hampshire who had been touted as the first American civilian to go to space.
“My heart about sank because I realized this failure really did precipitate from the exact problem we had discussed the night before,” said McDonald in a recent interview. “It was a horrible disaster that should have been avoided.”
To help the public better understand what went wrong with the Challenger, McDonald announced last week, with the 30th anniversary of the disaster only a couple of days away, that he would be donating his papers and other artifacts to Chapman University in Orange.
These materials will join those of Roger Boisjoly, one of McDonald’s colleagues who also opposed the Challenger launch.
“These primary source documents allow students to delve in and see exactly the decision making process that was going on at the time,” said Rand Boyd, coordinator of special collections and archives at Chapman. “It’s easy for us to oversimplify it and say they should have done this, but it was an amazingly complex decision, and you can see that by looking at the paperwork.”
McDonald agreed. “I’m hopeful that some of the material will be accessed by future generations and may prevent them from making the same mistakes,” he said during a visit to the college.
At the time of the Challenger explosion, McDonald was director of the space shuttle solid-motor project at Morton Thiokol, a NASA contractor that built rocket boosters.
When he heard that a cold front was coming in on the scheduled launch day, McDonald alerted some of the other engineers to look into how the low temperatures would affect the O-rings, the circular pieces of rubber that span 12 feet in diameter. The O-rings seal the metal cylinders of the rocket booster together so that no gases can escape.
But in cold temperatures, the rubber hardens and loses its seal. McDonald had seen this happen in a rocket booster the year before.
So McDonald called on the engineers to look into the data, while he arranged for a teleconference with NASA to alert officials there to the problem. The team at Thiokol recommended delaying the space shuttle launch until the weather warmed up.
“I was really taken aback by NASA’s comments and resistance to accepting the recommendation,” McDonald said. “A program manager for NASA said, ‘My God, Thiokol, when do you want me to launch, next April? We can’t be making new launch criteria the day before launch.’”
McDonald then refused to sign off on the launch recommendation report, calling it the “smartest decision I ever made in my life.” McDonald’s boss signed off on the report instead, and NASA went ahead with its plans.
“NASA finally said, ‘Al, we’ll pass this on in an advisory capacity,’” McDonald recalled. “And I said, ‘Let me tell you something. I sure hope nothing happens tomorrow, but if it does, I am not going to be the person to stand in front of a board of inquiry and explain why I gave you permission to fly my rocket boosters in an environment I knew they would never qualify to fly in.’”
As McDonald predicted, the cold temperatures made the O-rings ineffective, causing a gas leak “hotter than a blow torch” that pierced the fuel tank, causing the explosion.
McDonald was later called to testify before the presidential commission investigating the disaster, and he lost his position with Thiokol. (He was demoted to manage “scheduling” for the company.) But eventually McDonald was reinstated by a U.S. House joint resolution and tapped to head the redesign of the rocket boosters to fix the problem.
In 2012 he authored the book “Truth, Lies, and O-Rings: Inside the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster.”
The decision to make Chapman the home of the archives came as a result of McDonald and Boisjoly’s decades-long relationship with Mark Maier, director and founding chair of the leadership studies program at Chapman.
A few years after the disaster, Maier reached out to both men, seeking collaboration on a training program that would use the Challenger as a case study on leadership. They agreed, and eventually McDonald started speaking at Maier’s leadership development programs across the country.
For Maier, the lessons of the Challenger 30 years later are clear: Not only must individuals speak the truth no matter the consequences, but bosses must also encourage employees to do so.
“As a manager, are you creating a climate where people are so scared of speaking the truth that they’ll tell you what you want to hear and not what you need to know?” he said, noting that the same leadership failures that doomed the Challenger can be seen in the 2010 BP oil spill, the 2014 General Motors ignition switch scandal and today’s problems with the water supply in Flint, Mich.
“If you don’t change the managerial script, the story’s going to keep ending the same way.”
Maier hopes that the Challenger Disaster Archive at Chapman, which is open to the public and will eventually all be available online, will continue to tell McDonald and Boisjoly’s story. Boisjoly died in 2012.
“This is a way for Roger, and now Al, to make sure that the lessons from this tragedy aren’t forgotten,” he said. “It’s a way of creating legacy.”