The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Finally free from guilt over Challenger disaster, an engineer dies in peace

In this Jan. 28, 1986, file photo the space shuttle Challenger is destroyed by an explosion shortly after it lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (Steve Helber/AP)

“Why me?”

This is what Bob Ebeling planned to demand of God, when he saw him: “Why me? You picked a loser.”

For three decades, Ebeling, a former rocket engineer for NASA contractor Morton Thiokol, had been swamped by his own grief and guilt over the catastrophe he’d failed to stop. In the days before the space shuttle Challenger exploded mid-air, killing all seven astronauts on board, Ebeling and four other engineers had pleaded with NASA to delay the launch. They had concerns about whether the rubber O-rings on the shuttle’s booster rockets would seal properly in the frigid temperatures. Ebeling even authored an alarmed memo detailing the problems with the rings. Its subject line read bluntly, “Help!”

But the engineers were overruled. On Jan. 28, 1986, he and his colleagues watched in helpless horror as the shuttle and its crew plummeted out of the sky.

“I think that was one of the mistakes that God made,” Ebeling told NPR this year. “He shouldn’t have picked me for that job. I don’t know.”

But hundreds of people who listened to that interview, which aired on the 30th anniversary of the Challenger explosion in January, disagreed. They included Allan McDonald, Ebeling’s boss and Thiokol’s representative at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on the day of the launch.

“I called [Ebeling] up and told him, ‘You know, to me, my definition of a loser is somebody that really doesn’t do anything, but worse yet, they don’t care,'” McDonald told NPR a month later. “I said, ‘You did something, and you really cared. That’s the definition of a winner.'”

Ebeling died Monday in Brigham City, Utah, at age 89, his family said. But, thanks in part to the assurances from McDonald and untold others, he died unburdened by the question that haunted him for the past 30 years.

“It was as if he got permission from the world,” his daughter Leslie Ebeling Serna told NPR. “He was able to let that part of his life go.”

Ebeling is survived by his wife Darlene and 35 descendants spanning four generations.

The Illinois native had lived in Brigham City for more than half a century. He was a quiet, prayerful man — a husband, a devoted father, a great lover of the outdoors. He spent his free time birding, biking and boating in the vast wetland not too far from the Thiokol plant where he worked, he told the Salt Lake Tribune.

But he knew sorrow, too. In the years before the Challenger explosion, his son killed himself, Ebeling told the Los Angeles Times. At the time, Ebeling cradled the young man in his arms and wondered why he hadn’t done more to prevent his death.

It was a question he’d soon be asking himself again.

In 1985, booster rockets recovered from the Jan. 24 launch of the shuttle Discovery showed signs of seal problems. Ebeling, who had been working in engineering for 40 years, and two other engineers were assigned to examine the issue. Their findings were worrying — the rubber O-ring seals stiffened in cold weather, allowing the hot, high-pressure gas inside the boosters to leak out — but NASA and their managers at Thiokol were slow to react.

That October, Ebeling wrote an urgent memo to McDonald, his boss, under the now-infamous subject line “Help!” He told McDonald that the rocket-seal task force needed more resources, according to a presidential commission’s 1986 report on the accident, and signed off with the words “This is a red flag.”

But the launch date — already delayed once because of wind conditions — was approaching, with temperatures forecast at about 30 degrees. The afternoon before the Challenger was due to take off, Ebeling called McDonald warning him that the cold could be disastrous for the launch. That set off six hours of teleconferences between Thiokol engineers and executives and officials with NASA. Ebeling wasn’t on that phone call, according to the Times — but McDonald, along with engineers Arnold Thompson and Roger Boisjoly, argued emphatically for a delay.

30 years ago, the Shuttle Challenger exploded during launch while CNN broadcasted on live television. All seven crew members were killed. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

The space agency was determined to launch, though it’s never been quite clear why. President Ronald Reagan was due to discuss the space program in his State of the Union address that night. NASA also prided itself on sending up shuttles routinely and reliably, and it had already pushed back the Challenger launch once.

Either way, officials fiercely resisted the suggestion of another delay. George Hardy, deputy director for science and engineering at the Marshall Space Flight Center, allegedly told the engineers he was “appalled” by their recommendation.

“My God, Thiokol,” shuttle program manager Lawrence Mulloy was said to have asked, “when do you want me to launch, next April?”

Late that night, the executives and officials cast their final votes: Go.

Ebeling drove home uncharacteristically furious. “It’s going to blow up,” he told his wife, grimly.

A famous physicist’s simple experiment showed the inevitability of the Challenger disaster

The next day, Ebeling invited Boisjoly, his fellow engineer, into his office to watch the shuttle take off. When the clock reached T-minus-5 seconds, Boisjoly would later tell the Guardian, the two men reached out to hold each other’s hands.

Three. Two. One.

At “lift off,” the shuttle rocketed into the sky, clearing the launch pad without issue.

“I turned to Bob and said, ‘We’ve dodged a bullet,” Boisjoly recalled.

Ebeling, meanwhile, was in the midst of a prayer: “Thank you for making me wrong,” he whispered. And then: “Kaboom. It went,” Ebeling told CBS. “I — I walked right out of there and went in my office and cried.”

All seven astronauts onboard died: Cmdr. Francis Scobee; pilot Michael Smith; mission specialists Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair; payload specialist Gregory Jarvis; and “teacher in space” Christa McAuliffe.

Three weeks later, Ebeling and Boisjoly agreed to anonymous interviews with NPR in which they detailed their failed fight to stop the launch. It was the first report that NASA knew what could happen.

“I should have done more,” Ebeling told reporter Howard Berkes at the time. “I could have done more.”

He, Boisjoly, McDonald, Thompson and a fifth engineer, Brian Russell, would later give testimony before the presidential commission investigating the explosion. All of them said the same thing: NASA and Thiokol were warned that it was unsafe to launch in the cold, but they went ahead anyway.

Brigham City, where many Thiokol workers lived, was hit hard by the disaster. People were simultaneously horrified by it and worried about what it might mean for their own futures. Meanwhile, Thiokol became the target of a nation outraged over the deaths of seven astronauts. According to NPR, vandals scrawled “Morton Thiokol Murderers” on a railroad overpass on the road to the Thiokol plant.

Within the company, the men who testified about Thiokol and NASA’s failures became known as “the five lepers,” according to the Los Angeles Times. Resentment from those at the company who hoped to avoid official blame — or were simply terrified for their jobs — compounded the engineers’ agony over their inability to prevent the explosion. The “lepers” were isolated at meetings, excluded from technical conferences; their reports were routinely ignored.

‘Courage is contagious’: NASA remembers astronauts on Challenger explosion anniversary

Eventually, Ebeling retired. He felt like he “wasn’t needed anymore” at his job, he told the Times, and to be honest, he wanted nothing to do with the shuttle program anymore. He couldn’t take more people’s lives into his hands.

“I couldn’t stand another malfunction that I had anything to do with,” he said.

Ebeling sought solace at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, a vast oasis of wetlands and mudflats tucked between Utah’s snow-capped mountains and arid deserts. In 1989, after years of Great Salt Lake flooding had all but destroyed the refuge — dikes and water control structures were overwhelmed, the headquarters lay in rubble, the landscape was washed bare — he showed up at the dilapidated Fish and Wildlife Service facility asking to volunteer.

Within a year, the retired engineer had rallied the community and raised funds for new infrastructure. On July 4, he helped give the first public tour of the revitalized facility, once again home to tundra swan, huge white pelicans and — Ebeling’s favorite — several species of duck.

“Space is the new frontier. It’s the future of things. Ducks are in the past tense,” Ebeling told the Salt Lake Tribune in 1990. “They are what we had and where we came from. Both have their place in society.”

‘We’ve lost ’em, God bless ’em’: What it was like to witness the Challenger disaster

Ebeling’s efforts earned him national recognition, including the National Wildlife Refuge Association volunteer of the year award in 2013, but they did not erase his unrelenting guilt. When Berkes, the NPR reporter who had interviewed him 1986, approached him again for the disaster’s 30th anniversary, Ebeling was no less hard on himself than he’d been in the three weeks after Challenger fell from the sky.

He was inadequate, he told Berkes. He didn’t argue the data well enough. Maybe another man would have been able to convince NASA to delay, but not him. He was, as he planned to tell God, “a loser.”

Listening to those words on the radio in his car in Jacksonville, N.C., 51-year-old Jim Sides, a utility engineer, was deeply moved.

“It broke my heart, and I just — I sat there in the car in the parking lot and cried,” Sides told NPR.

Sides is one of hundreds of people who wrote to Ebeling after the interview aired: “Your efforts show that your care for people comes first for you. … You and he and your colleagues did all that you could do,” he said. “God didn’t pick a loser. He picked Bob Ebeling.”

“That’s easy to say,” an unconvinced Ebeling told Berkes. “But after hearing that, I still have that guilt right here.” He pointed to his heart.

Ebeling told Berkes that he needed to hear from NASA and Thiokol (which has since been absorbed by another company). He needed to hear from someone involved in the mission that he’d done his job, that he’d told the truth.

So Berkes sought them out.

First McDonald, who assured Ebeling that he’d done all he could. McDonald called to comfort Ebeling: “And I said, ‘Think about this, Bob. If you hadn’t have called me, they were in such a go-mode, we would have never even had a chance to try to stop it,'” he told Berkes.

Then he tracked down Hardy, the now-retired NASA official who allegedly said he was “appalled” at the recommendation of a delay during the 11th hour teleconference about the launch.

“[Hardy] said you and your colleagues did everything that was expected of you,” Berkes told Ebeling. “The decision was a collective decision made by several NASA and Thiokol individuals. You should not torture yourself with any assumed blame.”

Hearing that, Ebeling exclaimed, “Thank you!”

The story also elicited a statement from current NASA Administrator Charles F Bolden Jr.: “We honor [the Challenger astronauts] not through bearing the burden of their loss, but by constantly reminding each other to remain vigilant,” it read. “And to listen to those like Mr. Ebeling who have the courage to speak up so that our astronauts can safely carry out their missions.”

The statement made Ebeling clap. Despite having to use a wheelchair and being sick with prostate cancer, Berkes reported that the 89-year-old was in brighter spirits than any time he’d seen him in the last 30 years.

“It’s wonderful, it’s like a miracle,” Bob’s daughter Kathy Ebeling told The Washington Post last month. “It’s starting to change his mind that he doesn’t feel so guilty, so that’s a miracle. Thirty years of guilt is long enough.”

The younger woman said she asked her father, “Dad, have these letters helped you in finding your peace?” He told her, “Yes.”

“He doesn’t have to die with this nagging guilt,” she said. “He can die free.”