THE NIGHT before the launch of the space shuttle Challenger on Jan. 28, engineers at Morton-Thiokol begged officials not to go ahead. They feared precisely what appears to have occurred: that cold weather at the launch site would stiffen troublesome O-rings used as seals in the spacecraft's boosters; that the stiff rings might not seal, letting hot gasses break through the boosters' thin walls; and that a leak of that kind could cause a catastrophe. But NASA officials insisted on launching anyway, and Morton-Thiokol management finally took NASA's side. Thiokol's chief engineer was told to "take off your engineer hat and put on your management hat." He did, the launch was approved, the shuttle blew up, and seven people died.
That is hardly a record of which the company can be proud. You can bet it won't make the annual report. It suggests that the desire to curry favor with a big-bucks customer overcame all other elements of judgment, and that the worst kind of organizational imperatives inside both NASA and Morton-Thiokol were allowed to crush the truth. Bad enough, but now Morton-Thiokol has one-upped itself. It appears to have put on the shelf two of the engineers who resisted that night and three weeks later went public to disclose what had happened and to make clear that the O-rings had long been recognized as a weak spot in the boosters and a source of potential disaster. The two are Allan McDonald, who was director of Thiokol's solid rocket motor project, and Roger Boisjoly, who had been put in charge of a task force on the O-ring problem.
In closed-door testimony May 2, the transcript of which was released last weekend, Mr. McDonald told the presidential commission investigating the Challenger accident that he has been given a new title, "director of special projects," and that "the people that all work for me work for somebody else." He was asked by chairman William P. Rogers if he felt he had been reassigned "because of the testimony you gave before the commission?" "Yes, I do," he replied. "I feel that I was set aside so that I would not have contact with the people from NASA again because they felt that I either couldn't work with them or it would be a situation that wouldn't be good for either party." "So you were in effect punished for being right?" Mr. Rogers asked. "I feel I was," Mr. McDonald responded. Mr. Boisjoly said in response to similar questions that while he remained "seal coordinator . . . I too have been put on the sideline in that loop with relationship to the customer.
Company officials quickly said that there had been no effort to punish the engineers for testifying. There had been a general reorganization after the accident, they said, and a lot of people had had their responsibilities changed, but "we haven't demoted anyone," and "well, everybody can't be in charge." Mr. Rogers found this unconvincing, and rightly so. He blistered Thiokol management, calling its behavior "shocking." In the same hearing, just as correctly, we believe, he admonished NASA for having "pretty well glossed over" and "almost covered up" the problem with the O-rings at various points along the way.
We tell our kids in this society not to lie. We encourage them to believe that if they tell the truth they'll be supported. We owe them the example of practicing what we preach. The most important thing at issue in this case is no longer how well the space program has been managed nor even whether Challenger should have gone up that day. It is the maintenance of and insistence upon integrity. Go get 'em, Mr. Rogers.