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. Continue reading