Ethics Hero Emeritus: Roger Boisjoly (1938-2012)

Roger Boisjoly’s death was originally just reported locally when he died in Utah last month at the age of 73. Only now is the media reminding the public of Boisjoly’s life, his tragic role in a national tragedy, and how he tried and failed to avert it.

In 1986, Boisjoly was a booster rocket engineer at Morton Thiokol, the NASA contractor that, infamously, manufactured the faulty O-ring that was installed in the Space Shuttle Challenger, and that caused it to explode. Six months before the Challenger disaster, he wrote a memo to his bosses at Thiokol predicting”a catastrophe of the highest order” involving “loss of human life.” He had identified a flaw in the elastic seals at the joints of the multi-stage booster rockets: they tended to stiffen and unseal in cold weather.  NASA’s shuttle launch schedule included winter lift-offs, and Boisjoly  warned his company that send the Shuttle into space at low temperatures was too risky. On January 27, 1986, the day before the scheduled launch of the Challenger, Boisjoly and his colleague Allan J. McDonald argued for hours with NASA officials to persuade NASA to delay the launch, only to be over-ruled, first by NASA, then by Thiokol, which deferred to its client.

And the next day, on a clear and beautiful morning, the Shuttle’s rocket exploded after take-off, killing the crew of seven and mortally wounding the space program.

Three weeks later, Boisjoly told NPR’s Daniel Zwerdling about his experience in an unrecorded and confidential interview, which is only now being fully revealed to the public. The discovery of his memo briefly brought him notoriety as a whistleblower, though that was not really what Boisjoly was. He was a man trying to do his duty in the teeth of resistance based on politics, bureaucratic tunnel-vision,  arrogance and a flawed decision-making system.  After the disaster, McDonald and Boisjoly were ostracized by their Thiokol colleagues, as both the company and NASA effectively blackballed them in the industry for breaking ranks.

Boisjoly’s anger, stress and guilt—he always felt that he should have been able to stop the launch, though, realistically, he could not—affected his health, leaving him with chronic headaches. He tried to sue Thiokol and NASA without success, and ended his career as a forensic engineer and a lecturer on engineering ethics, the latter role in part as therapy recommended by his doctor as a way to deal with his rage. Boisjoly spoke to engineering schools around the world on the importance of ethical decision-making, trying to do his part to prevent future disasters, having failed to prevent the one that haunted him.

Can we accurately call Roger Boisjoly an Ethics Hero, even though he didn’t stop the launch? I usually don’t like to call people heroes for doing their jobs. If Thiokol and NASA had behaved ethically, competently and rationally, we would not know anything about his memo or him. He did the right things, as his duties demanded. He alerted management to a deadly problem in plenty of time to address it. When they went forward, he argued and protested, until the decision was final. Afterwards, he told the truth to investigators, so the decision-making problems could be addressed. In his world, in that bureaucracy, this—doing his duty, doing the right thing—took courage. He knew, I am certain, that his career would suffer as a result of his actions. Yes, that makes Roger Boisjoly an ethics hero.

Perhaps he could have been a greater one, and that was the tantalizing “what if?” that shadowed the rest of Boisjoly’s life. Should he have threatened to go to the media if the launch wasn’t re-scheduled? Or try to sabotage the launch, like Jimmy Stewart as the metallurgist in “No Highway in the Sky,” disabling a passenger plane on the runway when his calculations showed that the plane’s tail was about to fall off in flight, after everyone dismissed his warnings? Should he have risked being brought down in a hail of bullets on national TV as he physically blocked the launch, like Jack Lemmon’s desperate nuclear power plant manager in “The China Syndrome”?  These acts would have required remarkable courage and extreme certitude, and perhaps only seem reasonable now, after we know what happened. And after we’ve seen the movies.

Roger Boisjoly was a real life ethics hero, the kind we all should and can aspire to be. He did his best, tried to do right, and tried to help others do right. The fact that he failed when it mattered most is moral luck at its cruelest, but it shouldn’t change our assessment of his values, his courage, or his life. Sometimes, like Roger Boisjoly, we can do everything right, and events will still go horribly wrong. Unethical, irresponsible and incompetent people outnumber the ethical among us, and always have.

That’s why we have to keep recruiting.

13 thoughts on “Ethics Hero Emeritus: Roger Boisjoly (1938-2012)

  1. Aargh. I was going to write about him, but you beat me to it. Good job.

    Speaking truth to power can be excrutiatingly difficult, and as an engineer iwith a contractor in the space program, even more so. There was terrible pressure to move ahead. Boisjoly was a real ethics hero to speak up forcefully.

  2. For endeavors like space programs, I think this is a question beyond the human race’s capability of answering with finality: Which business model best provides for all of these: (1) the best risk management, (2) the best decision making, and (3) the best accountability for (1) and (2)? But that question, even if it is relevant, still depends on the answer to: What loss is tolerable, beyond which further endeavor is unsustainable?

    That said, there are (or ought to be) a lot of people holding their breath, while U.S. space programs take a turn toward launching inhabited machines using what we now call commercial business models. When the first fatality occurs on a commercial space flight, we’ll see what-all happens next; I am fairly sure of much of what will happen next, but it’s what I am not sure about that troubles me the most – the “unknown unknowns” that pioneers succeed in spite of.

  3. At the time, I was working as one of those vile and evil lobbyists, promoting manned space exploration. I had met Boisjoly several times. He was a nice guy. I also know he was in an utterly impossible situation, dealing with an utterly incompetent and abjectly ethically corrupt acting administrator of NASA. He wanted that launch to go off on time, and no one was going to stop him. From what I know of the situation, more people than Boisjoly warned of the danger of the situation. He did not care. It is that plain and that simple.

    A few months later I had the honor of working through Sen. Hollings’ office to help get him canned. In SC, the day of the confirmation vote to keep Graham on as administrator, a group of us engineered a call-in to Hollings’ office, to get him sacked. We were successful.

    There is a tremendous amount of information that has never been made public. It was not pretty. It left a number of us very bitter over the launch and the investigation that followed. I do like the word “cover-up”. I was so upset with the entire situation I quite, completely went another direction, professionally.

    The Pink Flamingo

  4. I still remember how amazed I was to learn that it was the solid fuel booster that had failed. That should have been the last thing to go wrong on something as mechanically complex as a space shuttle. No moving parts! We’d been using boosters of that sort for decades. Nobody could initially understand how a rocket booster designed to contain heat and pressure of that sort could be fatally compromised by a minor DECREASE in outside temperature. It was a engineering blunder of the kind that makes its way through layers of scrutiny because nobody dares to challenge it. The result is usually an historic tragedy.

  5. It was disturbing to know the Challenger disaster might have been avoided, but I didn’t know the story of this man. I’d say we often have to or can chose to do heroic things in our jobs. Thank you for sharing this, Jack!

  6. Pingback: Could twitter have saved the lives of seven astronauts? | Small Pond Science

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