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

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

But on Jan. 28, 1986, the tragedy was on television, beyond the reach of even a final embrace. It was not, however, beyond that all-too-familiar sense of loss--and guilt. Ebeling recognized a brutal, heart-wrenching guilt he had known only once before. And again he wondered why he hadn't done more to prevent it.

Feelings of Guilt

It wasn't that Ebeling hadn't tried to stop the launch. He had been one of the first to recommend delay. He'd left the debate to the experts, Boisjoly and Thompson--and McDonald out at the Cape. But none of that made the pain go away.

"How many times can you stand to feel responsible for something that goes wrong?" Ebeling agonized. "I should have been more boisterous. I should have said something more."

Fortunately, perhaps, there was little time for anyone to ponder all the implications of the disaster. An investigation was under way almost instantly. Boisjoly and Thompson were dispatched to the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., where NASA would conduct its own probe.

Maybe there had been defective workmanship or defective equipment. Maybe something in the cargo hold had exploded. Maybe the big, rust-colored external tank had leaked. Maybe one of the main engines had thrown a rotor blade. Maybe a strand of hair had compromised a seal in the rocket booster. The maybes seemed infinite.

Most engineers and managers at Thiokol felt no sense of guilt--corporate or personal--in those first days after the Challenger crash. Most doubted that the solid rocket boosters should even be considered suspect. Most doubted that--but not Ebeling or Boisjoly or Thompson or McDonald or Russell.

Puts Finger on Problem

Just hours after the explosion, "ol' optimistic Arnie" Thompson stood in a Thiokol office with stunned colleagues, all gathered to speculate about what went wrong. One of them recalls Thompson swiping a big, bony finger across a picture of a booster rocket joint and saying, sadly and certainly: "There. That's where it failed."

It's not clear what startled his colleagues most, the fact that Thompson could presume to solve the mystery so quickly, or that he was pointing a finger right back at his own company.

The pre-launching dispute between management and the engineers might never have come to light, had the engineers kept silent. During the first closed session of the presidential commission investigating the crash, neither NASA executives nor Thiokol managers had given any hint of the emotional debate over the cold launch conditions or the engineers' recommendation to wait.

The panel was about to adjourn when McDonald, who had sat silently until that moment, raised his hand. Al McDonald was never known for his diplomacy. Like any good engineer, he drew straight lines from Point A to Point B, and he was accustomed to speaking just as directly.

"He can be a real scratchy bastard," said a longtime friend. "He rubs some people the wrong way. Hell, he could say 'good morning' in a way that could make some folks at NASA wanna take a punch at him."

There figured to be a lot of clenched fists at NASA that day. McDonald's message was plain: the engineers had warned NASA and their managers that it was unsafe to launch in the cold, but they had been overruled.

O-Rings and Judgment

In short, Challenger and its crew had been the victims of cold O-rings and bad judgment.

In subsequent days Boisjoly, Thompson, Ebeling and Russell also were called upon to give similar testimony. Thiokol was embarrassed. Its engineers were making its managers--and prime customer, NASA--look bad. NASA was furious.

The space agency's own investigation of the Challenger crash seemed at times to focus on discrediting the cold-weather theory. An early NASA draft report spent only a few paragraphs on the affects of cold on rocket seals, but devoted several pages to other potential problems, including errors in the rocket assembly process that could have caused the failure.

But McDonald's bombshell was followed by Boisjoly's bombshell--the release of his private company memo of July 31, 1985, and other papers documenting a history of warnings and "red flags" over rocket seal problems.

It was clear to the engineers that NASA was bent on minimizing the pre-launch concern over the cold. Boisjoly was sufficiently concerned that he took his personal files into a sort of protective custody. He emptied his desk and took the critical memos with him to Huntsville. He slept with them in his motel room. He hid them in the locked trunk of his rented car when he went to work at the Marshall Space Flight Center. He sent copies home to Roberta. And still he worried that someone might try to lose or destroy them.

After he finally passed the files personally to Major Gen. Donald J. Kutyna of the presidential commission, Boisjoly was accused of "airing the company's dirty laundry" in front of the whole country.

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