Via the LA Times:
Roger Boisjoly was an engineer at solid rocket booster manufacturer Morton Thiokol and had begun warning as early as 1985 that the joints in the boosters could fail in cold weather, leading to a catastrophic failure of the casing. Then on the eve of the Jan. 28, 1986, launch, Boisjoly and four other space shuttle engineers argued late into the night against the launch.
In cold temperatures, o-rings in the joints might not seal, they said, and could allow flames to reach the rocket’s metal casing. Their pleas and technical theories were rejected by senior managers at the company and NASA, who told them they had failed to prove their case and that the shuttle would be launched in freezing temperatures the next morning. It was among the great engineering miscalculations in history.
A little more than a minute after launch, flames shot out of the booster joint, melted through the nearby hydrogen fuel tank and ignited a fireball that was watched by the astronauts’ families and much of the nation on television. Boisjoly could not watch the launch, so certain was he that the shuttle would blow up. In the months and years that followed, the disaster changed his career and permanently poisoned his view that NASA could be trusted to make the right decisions when matters came to life and death.
A more extensive, contemporaneous account of Boisjoly’s involvement in the Challenger disaster is online at the LA Times site.
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!”
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, Allan J. McDonald and three others argued through the night of 27 January, 1986 to stop the following day’s Challenger launch, but Joseph Kilminster, their boss at Morton Thiokol, overruled them. NASA managers didn’t listen to the engineers. Both Boisjoly and McDonald were blackballed for speaking out. NASA’s mismanagement ‘is not going to stop until somebody gets sent to hard rock hotel,’ Boisjoly said after the 2003 Columbia disaster. ‘I don’t care how many commissions you have. These guys have a way of numbing their brains. They have destroyed $5 billion worth of hardware and 14 lives because of their nonsense.’”
This is not a unique instance of the phenomenon of ignoring inconvenient warnings. The disaster that hit New Orleans in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina was not only predicted, but in fact had a precedent.
Certainly it’s easy to see people ignoring sound advice in daily life, but it is more striking when billions of dollars and human lives are at stake. Are there other examples at this scale in engineered systems?
They may shed light on our difficulties in convincing the world about climate and other sustainability issues.