NASA Hit On O-Ring Warnings

By Michael Isikoff and Charles Fishman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, May 11, 1986

The chairman of the presidential commission on the loss of the Challenger has charged that NASA "almost covered up" evidence that would have grounded the space shuttle and described as "shocking" the transfer of two Morton Thiokol Inc. engineers who argued the night before the Jan. 28 disaster against launching the spacecraft.

In a closed-door hearing on May 2, the transcript of which was released yesterday, members of the panel angrily criticized the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and Thiokol officials for repeatedly ignoring clear-cut warnings about problems with the shuttle's solid rocket booster joints in the months before the flight.

That evidence, spelled out in memo after memo, was serious enough to prevent the shuttle from continuing to be launched, but NASA official Lawrence B. Mulloy routinely signed "waivers" permitting flights even though the problem was not fixed, the transcript shows.

It was during the closed-door hearing that the panel learned that Allan McDonald, a Thiokol rocket engineer who argued against launching the Challenger, only to be overruled by superiors, was stripped of his responsibilities and transferred to a lesser job after he testified about his objections, according to the transcript.

The transfer of McDonald into a job with no staff, along with the similar transfer of engineer Roger Boisjoly, who also argued against the launch, brought stinging criticism from presidential panel chairman and former secretary of state William P. Rogers. He suggested that Thiokol, the maker of the rocket boosters, was trying to intimidate witnesses before the commission by engaging in "retaliation."

"If their warnings had been heeded that day . . . we might never have had the accident," Rogers said, according to the panel transcript. "And to have something happen to him [McDonald] is shocking."

The panel was also so dismayed about what it views as inadequate testing of the joints that it is considering recommending numerous full-scale test firings of the boosters before shuttle flights are resumed. Such a requirement could significantly delay the resumption of shuttle launches, tentatively set for next spring, a commission source said yesterday.

Panel member Joseph Sutter, a vice president of Boeing Co., charged that NASA did not test the rocket "one one-hundredth of what you need to say the booster is safe" and relied on "a hell of a skimpy data base" in approving the joints for flight after engineers warned about potentially catastrophic defects.

"Before anything flies there ought to be five or 10 of these full-scale things shot off, and after you get about 10 of them that work right, then you can say you should fly again," Sutter said. "I am going to see that . . . there is going to be a lot of full-scale testing or something suitable to back it up, not these little dinky 10-inch tests."

NASA and commission officials have concluded that design defects in the rocket's joints combined with the impact of cold weather caused the accident that destroyed the Challenger spacecraft and killed its seven crew members.

The Washington Post reported May 3 that, starting in July of last year, Mulloy, the chief of the rocket program at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, signed six separate "waivers" permitting shuttle flights to continue even though he had previously designated the joints as a "launch constraint," meaning no flights were to take place until the problem was fixed.

Mulloy was transferred late Friday from his job as head of the rocket booster project to a newly created post as assistant to the director of science and engineering at Marshall. The new position has no defined responsibilities.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 1986 The Washington Post Company