Roger Boisjoly

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Roger Boisjoly (born 25 April 1938) is an engineer who worked for Morton Thiokol, the manufacturer of the solid rocket boosters of the space shuttle.


[edit] O-Ring Safety Concerns

He wrote a memo in July of 1985 to his superiors concerning the faulty design of the solid rocket boosters that, if left unaddressed, could lead to a catastrophic event during launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger

This memo followed his investigation of a Solid Rocket Booster from a shuttle flight in January 1985. During his investigation, he discovered that the first of a system of 2 "O-Rings" had failed completely, and that some damage had been caused to the second "O-Ring".

The "O-Rings" were two rubber rings that formed a seal between two sections of the Solid Rocket Boosters. The idea was that the rings - being made of rubber - would expand and contract and move in order to form a perfect seal between the two sections of the Solid Rocket Booster, whatever kind of displacement was caused to those two connected sections during take-off.

The upper (or first) "O-Ring" was deemed to be mostly sufficient to form a perfect seal between the two sections. However, in case of any problems, or damage caused during take-off, a lower (or second) O-Ring, was also located in each joint to ensure a perfect seal.

What Boisjoly's investigation showed was that the upper O-Ring had been damaged sufficiently during take-off to prevent a secure seal being made. This meant that the second O-Ring had been the only one forming the seal between the two sections. The second O-Ring also appeared to show some damage.

If the second O-Ring had failed, Boisjoly realized, the results would almost certainly have been catastrophic with the complete loss of the shuttle and crew seemingly the only outcome. His investigation found that the first O-ring failed because of the low temperatures on the night before the flight had compromised the flexibility of the O-Ring, reducing its ability to form a seal. The temperature at launch had been only 10°C - the coldest on record (until 28 January 1986). The first rubber O-ring had formed a partial seal, but not a complete one, but fortunately the second O-ring had held.

Boisjoly sent a memo, describing the problem to his managers, but was apparently ignored. It is true that Morton Thiokol were in discussions with NASA with regards to a new contract (reportedly worth up to $1 Billion) and it is possible that the management were concerned that any issues discovered with the Solid Rocket Boosters may compromise the chances of the contract being renewed.

Following several further memos, a "taskforce" was set up - including Boisjoly - to investigate the matter, but after a month Boisjoly realized that the taskforce had no power, no resources and no management support.

Eventually, in late 1985 Boisjoly advised his managers that - if the problem was not fixed, there was a distinct chance that a shuttle mission would end in disaster. No action was taken.

[edit] Challenger Disaster

Following the announcement that the Challenger mission was confirmed for 28 January 1986, Boisjoly and his colleagues determined to try and stop the flight. Temperatures were due to be down to -14°C overnight. Boisjoly felt that this would severely compromise the safety of the O-Ring - and potentially lose the flight.

The matter was discussed with Morton Thiokol management - who agreed that the issue was serious enough to recommend delaying the flight. They arranged a telephone conference with NASA management and gave their findings. However, after a while, the Morton Thiokol managers asked for a few minutes off the phone to discuss their final position again. Despite the efforts of Boisjoly and others in this off-air briefing, the Morton Thiokol managers decided to advise NASA that their data was inconclusive. NASA asked if anyone objected. Boisjoly stayed silent and the decision to fly the ill-fated STS-51L Challenger mission was made.

Boisjoly's theory of a massive disaster proved to be correct when, on the morning of January 28, 1986, at Cape Canaveral, 73 seconds into the mission, the space shuttle Challenger disintegrated, killing its seven member crew. In fact, Boisjoly was quite relieved when the flight lifted off, as his investigations had predicted that the SRB would explode during the initial take-off. Seventy-three seconds later he witnessed the shuttle explosion on TV.

[edit] Career Post-Challenger

After Ronald Reagan ordered a Presidential Committee to review the disaster, Boisjoly was one of the witnesses called. He gave accounts of how and why he felt the O-Rings had failed. After the Committee gave its findings, Boisjoly found himself shunned by colleagues and managers and he resigned from the company.

Boisjoly became a speaker on workplace ethics.[1] He argues that the caucus called by Morton Thiokol managers, which resulted in a recommendation to launch, "constituted the unethical decision-making forum resulting from intense customer intimidation."[2]

[edit] Source of information

Most of this information is taken from personal accounts by Boisjoly and others during a TV Documentary on Channel 4 in the UK, which aired on 2 February 2006. It is accepted by this editor that these views may not be impartial, which may account for any discrepancies in the information above.
  1. ^ Roger Boisjoly and the Challenger disaster. Retrieved on 2006-11-20.
  2. ^ Boisjoly, Roger. Ethical Decisions - Morton Thiokol and the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster: Telecon Meeting. Retrieved on 2006-12-15.

[edit] External links

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