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Year After Disaster : Challenger's Wake: Rage, Pain, Guilt

January 28, 1987|WILLIAM C. REMPEL | Times Staff Writer

BRIGHAM CITY, Utah — Today marks the first anniversary of Roger Boisjoly's crippling rage. It was born in the angry fireball that consumed the space shuttle Challenger on Jan. 28, 1986, just 73 seconds into the heavens above Florida, and killed its seven crew members.

It didn't have to happen. That's what troubled Boisjoly. That's what made him so angry he was unable to work at his job as a rocket engineer for Morton Thiokol, the company that made the massive booster rockets that had failed and destroyed the Challenger--the company whose vice presidents had ignored Boisjoly's loud warnings that the launching would be too risky.

For a time, in the tragedy's aftermath, the veteran engineer tried to vent his enormous anger in hard physical labor. He hauled away most of the big rocks in his mountainside backyard, a landscaping exercise requiring blood vessel-popping exertion.

He tried to wear himself out, hoping to achieve through exhaustion what the sedative his doctor prescribed couldn't give him: a peaceful night's sleep.

Fame Followed Crash

At the same time, Boisjoly's frequent, blunt-spoken appearances at televised investigative hearings--usually alongside fellow engineers Allan McDonald, Arnold Thompson, Robert Ebeling and Brian Russell--made the bald New Englander a public figure, even a tragic hero of the shuttle drama.

And for that, there was an additional private cost: resentment on the part of those who had been hoping to avoid, at least in part, official blame. It came from corporate executives, and from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Morton Thiokol's biggest customer. And it came from colleagues fearful that too much exposure of truth might hurt business and cost them their jobs.

"If you wreck this company, I'm gonna put my kids on your doorstep," grumbled one. Someone finally dubbed the engineers "the five lepers."

Disability Leave Granted

Last week, Boisjoly, who for a time after the accident suffered from headaches, numbness of one arm, chest pains and double vision, was granted a long-term disability leave. Ebeling has applied for stress-related disability benefits. And, at both NASA and Morton Thiokol there have been demotions, reassignments and early retirements--among the many other victims of the shuttle crash.

The story of Roger Boisjoly and his fellow rocket engineers is about some of those unseen other victims of Jan. 28, 1986. It is a story of broken careers and troubled lives, about haunting guilt and disabling fears, about life and death and living in hell.

The following account is based on the first public interviews with Boisjoly, 48, and his family, and on interviews in the past year with other Morton Thiokol engineers and managers, most of whom asked not to be identified:

Roger Boisjoly already was a seasoned engineer when a Turkish Airlines DC-10 crashed outside Paris in March, 1974, killing 346 people. That disaster also turned out to be an engineer's nightmare: a design flaw in a cargo door was the cause. Someone had screwed up.

At the time, Boisjoly couldn't give that much thought. He had a new job with the Rockwell Corp. in Downey, doing design stress analysis for the new shuttle orbiter crew module. But he couldn't help noticing that a colleague came to work "in pretty bad shape."

"One day he was walking around in a sort of stupor. I thought he was on drugs," Boisjoly recalled.

He was, on tranquilizers. The troubled engineer had worked with a previous employer on a DC-10 design team, and he had fought for changes in the cargo door's design. Now, he blamed himself for not pushing harder. He blamed himself for 346 bodies in a Paris woods.

Boisjoly noted that man's private agony. He never forgot the image. It would return, as a ghost, in his own future.

Career Move to Utah

It was January, 1980, when Boisjoly decided he wanted to move his family to a quieter corner of the country. He clipped a Utah-shaped ad from the Los Angeles Times and applied for a job with Morton Thiokol, manufacturers of solid fuel booster rockets for the shuttle and a number of other missile systems.

It would mean a cut in pay for the middle-aged engineer, but with his wife, Roberta, and their two teen-aged daughters, Boisjoly left Southern California for the Wasatch Mountains. He planned to make it his last career move.

By early 1985, he was working on rocket seal problems with Arnie Thompson and Bob Ebeling. At that time--a full year before the Challenger's last mission--the three engineers and others already were worried over fresh data that suggested poor performance of the rocket seals in low temperatures.

The alarm bells went off after booster rockets recovered from the Jan. 24, 1985, launching showed signs of seal erosion in 53-degree weather--until then the coldest conditions of any shuttle launch. NASA and Thiokol managers agreed that the discovery required prompt analysis.

Frustrations of Job

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