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Forgotten Lessons of Challenger Seen as Haunting NASA

Retired space officials say today's managers must, as a first step, take blame for Columbia loss.

July 28, 2003|Ralph Vartabedian | Times Staff Writer

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — 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."

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