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

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

Boisjoly became frustrated early. Engineers assigned to the problem with the seals were still expected to keep up with their regular jobs. Requests for materials were being processed routinely, and that meant long delays. Boisjoly complained.

"Roger bitches constantly. He always wants us to do things his way," groused one manager.

Boisjoly was beginning to see glimpses of a ghost: A chilling apparition of that DC-10 engineer.

On July 31, 1985, nearly six months after he had warned management at NASA and Thiokol about evidence of seal erosion, Boisjoly decided to quit waving his arms for attention and wrote a memo. In it he called for urgent action to prevent a "catastrophe of the highest order, loss of human life." He gave one to his bosses. He put away a copy in his personal files.

In response to his memo, a rocket seal task force was named, but the frustrations of chronic procurement delays continued. If costly laboratory equipment was needed, for example, it could take months of paper work, bid comparisons and a chain of executive approvals.

'No Skunk Works'

"The frustration was understandable, but this is no skunk works," one Thiokol manager said. "It's a big company now. That's a big contract, and everybody was giving NASA hell about costs."

Similar delays also plagued small orders. A $2,500 generator available from a warehouse in San Diego, for example, could have been shipped to Utah overnight. Instead, it took four weeks to process the purchase order.

Even Thompson--"ol' optimistic Arnie," as his friends called him--was beginning to grind his teeth at the delays. And Ebeling finally exploded with a less-than-delicate suggestion that Thiokol lock its gates and "stop shipping these pieces of ---- until we get them fixed."

Sometime on the night of Jan. 27, 1986, Roger Boisjoly's feeling of frustration turned to anger.

He and a team of engineers unanimously recommended postponing the shuttle launching because of the frigid conditions in Florida. But four Thiokol vice presidents, under pressure from NASA in a late-night telephone conference, overruled their top technical experts.

Boisjoly saw it coming. After listening to NASA executives challenge the reliability of their scientific data and complain that they were "appalled" at the recommendation for delay, Thiokol's general manager, Jerry Mason, told his fellow vice presidents: "It's time to take off your engineering hats and put on your management hats."

"I knew they were going to change," Boisjoly said. "I couldn't believe it, but I knew it."

Trying to head off the shift, Boisjoly raised his voice. Later, some would say that Boisjoly's emotional approach actually worked against him. That he had made too many dire warnings and "waved his arms and rolled his eyes" too many times before. That he was like the boy who cried "Wolf!"

Photos of Damage

Boisjoly shrugs. "When you see a guy about to walk off a cliff you don't whisper. You yell at him to move back,"

Boisjoly grabbed a set of photos showing seal erosion from the January, 1985, shuttle mission and "slapped them down, not gingerly" in front of the Thiokol executives.

"I said, 'Look at the photos. How the hell can you ignore this? Look at the physical evidence.' " Instead, Boisjoly remembers, the vice presidents looked at each other.

That was when Arnie Thompson scooped up a note pad and squeezed between two of the executives. He tried to draw one more picture that might convince them where mere data had failed, a picture of a rocket joint with clevis and tang and O-rings and . . . He never finished.

"They weren't listening," he would confide to a colleague later.

The vote of the vice presidents was "Go." Boisjoly didn't really hear the poll. He was too angry--"angry in body and mind."

Someone told him later that the last vote was cast by Robert Lund, the kindly and soft-spoken vice president of engineering. Others detected hesitation, even reluctance, but Lund's vote had finally made it unanimous.

Icicles were forming on the Challenger pad in Florida. In Utah, Boisjoly and Thompson went home to their first sleepless night.

Through the magic of videotape, schoolteacher-astronaut Sharon Christa McAuliffe kept strolling across the nation's television screens all morning as the launching time approached. Each time, she waved and smiled on her way to the shuttle crew module. But Thompson wasn't watching. When liftoff finally came, he was in his office with another engineer, still reliving the frustration of the night before. And trying to ignore the feeling of dread.

"I couldn't make them listen," he kept saying. Although he wouldn't watch the launching, he couldn't avoid hearing the awful news.

Maybe more than any of them, Bob Ebeling had known tragedy. He actually had held it in his arms once, on the day his son committed suicide. Ebeling could only cradle the young man in his arms as he died--and wonder why he hadn't done more to prevent it.

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