OGDEN -- Allan J. McDonald felt so strongly the space shuttle Challenger should not launch 25 years ago today that he put his name and his job on the line to stop it.
He and the engineers with him said temperatures were too cold to safely use the booster motors Morton Thiokol (now ATK Space Systems) had built.
Although several engineers were working on the problem -- Roger Boisjoly argued fiercely against launch -- McDonald's position was unique. He was Morton Thiokol's senior representative at Kennedy Space Center. His job was to approve the motors for launch.
Despite enormous pressure from his employers and NASA, he refused to sign. His supervisors in Utah overruled him and faxed a signature to NASA indicating the company, if not McDonald, approved the launch.
Both McDonald and Boisjoly paid dearly for their efforts.
After testifying before a presidential commission on the Challenger disaster, they were removed from investigating the disaster by Morton Thiokol management. Both told the commission they felt they were being punished.
In his book published last year, "Truth, Lies and O-Rings," McDonald wrote that "Roger and I already felt like lepers, but when we returned to Utah following the May 2 session our colleagues treated us as if we had just been arrested for child sexual abuse."
Boisjoly retired soon after and took up a career speaking on business ethics. McDonald stayed on and, at the urging of the presidential commission, was put in charge of shuttle motor redesign. A quarter of a century later, McDonald says he and Boisjily have been vindicated.
"I was fortunate to do the right thing for the right reason, and the smartest thing I ever did in my life was to refuse to sign the authorization to launch," McDonald said this week. "I just didn't feel good about it, didn't feel we should be taking the risk we would be taking."
McDonald, of Ogden, retired in 2001 as vice president and technical director for advance technology programs at ATK Thiokol Propulsion.
In 1986, he was director of the Space Shuttle Solid Rocket Motor Project at Morton Thiokol. After the disaster, he was made vice president of engineering for space operations, in charge of the redesign and requalification of the solid rocket motors.
ATK Space Systems still makes those rocket motors. The space shuttle is being retired this year. Similar motor segments were to be built for the Ares rocket motors, but their status is in limbo as NASA's future is debated in Congress.
George Torres, spokesman for ATK Space Systems, said the company is not planning any observances of the Challenger disaster.
"We look at it as a constant reminder of how important safety is," he said, "but at the same time, we highlight the fact that since then there's been over 100 missions using the SRBs (solid rocket boosters) without a mishap."
McDonald is a popular guest speaker a quarter-century after the disaster.
On Tuesday he was at Chapman University in California. On Thursday he went to Auburn University in Alabama. At both schools he discussed the management philosophy that led to the decision to launch the Challenger.
"At Chapman University here, they have a symposium on leadership and professional ethics and they use the Challenger accident as kind of a model of how to act professionally and how not to," he said.
With Challenger, he said, the process broke down.
In his book, he says NASA usually demanded proof that a piece of equipment was safe to launch. With the Challenger, he said, NASA wanted McDonald and his engineers to prove that it wasn't safe to launch. The change in attitude shocked McDonald.
"For some strange reason we found ourselves being challenged to prove quantitatively that it would definitely fail," he wrote, "and we couldn't do that. I was probably more shocked by this dramatic change in philosophy than anyone else."
Pressure to launch
There were a number of pressures to launch. A previous launch had been delayed, and NASA didn't want to repeat that.
The Challenger was carrying Christa McAuliffe, the first "Teacher in Space" participant. The program was an effort to revive public interest in NASA's flights, and the launch was broadcast live in schools around the nation.
A special commission investigating the disaster found NASA's decision-making process "seriously flawed," and said "The Commission concluded that the Thiokol Management reversed its position and recommended the launch of 51-L, at the urging of Marshall and contrary to the views of its engineers in order to accommodate a major customer."
McDonald said he sees similar decision-making processes today.
"Unfortunately, it's more common than not, both corporate and in the government," he said, "and that's what we've got to change. I feel the only way we can get that changed is with the younger people now," training a new generation of managers "who will start listening to the people closer to the problem and support them."
When Challenger blew up, McDonald did not first realize he was right about the O-rings.
He had argued that the O-rings sealing joints between the rocket motor segments would leak hot gasses if they were too cold. He figured if that happened, the disaster would occur on the launch pad, not 73 seconds into the mission.
So when he saw Challenger blow up, "it was absolutely a state of shock. Everybody who was in there couldn't really believe what had happened," he said.
But, he added, "frankly, at the time, as much as I was concerned about the recommendation to launch the night before, all I saw was that (the explosion) wasn't our problem because the only thing I saw come out was our two boosters."
It was several days before the first evidence was found that the O-rings had leaked, and had burned through on the launch pad, but the joint was temporarily sealed again by fuel residue.
A special presidential commission ultimately validated McDonald's fears.