Roger Boisjoly – The Conscience of Engineering

Photo courtesy of Online Ethics Center (OEC)

My friend and rocket engineer, Roger Boisjoly, died on January 6. He loved his family, his church and his country.

Every time you get on an elevator, fly on a plane, use the brakes on your car or drive across a bridge, you should think of Roger because you are putting your life in the hands and conscience of an engineer.  You trust that engineers have the intestinal fortitude to stand up to bosses who want to take risks or shortcuts to save money or increase profits at the expense of safety.

Roger was that kind of engineer.

From its first flight in 1981, Boisjoly discovered that the big, twin, 150-foot-long solid rocket boosters on the space shuttles were leaking hot gases through seals that connect the booster segments. It got worse on each flight. He knew this compromise of the boosters could lead to the destruction of a manned shuttle and the death of its crew. He wrote memos. He told everyone in authority. He went to the Cape and inspected the recovered boosters after launch and, based on decades of experience, he wanted to ground the shuttle fleet until the problem was fixed. No one listened to him.

The night before the Challenger space shuttle was scheduled to launch on January 26, 1986, there was a meeting to decide if it was safe to launch. Although he did not know it, that night Roger committed professional suicide by stating clearly and flatly the shuttle was not safe to fly the next morning. During a pre-launch conference call with NASA executives and his bosses, he argued that the cold weather made the joint problem even more serious. He was shocked when NASA and Morton Thiokol management (his bosses) overruled his recommendation and gave a go for launch.

Seven astronauts, including a schoolteacher, were killed when the shuttle blew apart 73 seconds after liftoff from the Kennedy Space Center. Years later, as he sat in my backyard with tears streaming down his round face, Roger talked about the tragedy as if it were still that horrible morning. “I knew they were all going to die, and I could not do anything to stop it.”

What Roger revealed to the world after the Challenger explosion shocked the nation. He showed what a shell NASA had become and that corporate and government malfeasance was the foundation on which the manned space program was built. The Rogers Commission, set up to investigate the Challenger tragedy, heard Roger’s moving testimony and, for a few months, he had real hope that NASA would institute meaningful reforms. Roger ignored symptoms of post- traumatic stress and soldiered ahead trying to get NASA to approve a redesign of the shuttle boosters.

Roger was a religious man with a big enough conscience to sacrifice his career to try to stop NASA and its contractors from doing it again. But he learned the Rogers Commission was a public relations stunt to keep the money flowing to the contractors and keep Congress from shutting down manned space flight.

“When I realized what was happening, it absolutely destroyed me,” Roger said to the Associated Press in 1988. “It destroyed my career, my life, everything else. I’m just now getting back to the point where I think I’ll be able to work as an engineer again.”

Roger’s leave from Morton Thiokol soon became unemployment. As good a rocket engineer as he was, no contractor wanted to hire the man who had told the truth about NASA and embarrassed his bosses by putting evidence in the public domain that they could not deny. They told him no employer could afford to have a whistleblower of such consequence around. He had spent a career working on the most advanced engineering programs: designing spacecraft from Gemini to Apollo to the Space Transportation System (the shuttles) as well as their sister, secret, lethal space weapons systems. Roger took his work – and his responsibility – very seriously.

Morton Thiokol and the blacklist of big contractors destroyed Roger’s engineering career.  No modern corporate management wanted to receive a memo in advance of disaster that said: “The result would be a catastrophe of the highest order – loss of human life,” as Roger had written to his bosses before Challenger.

So Roger dedicated his life to lecturing engineering students on the importance of ethics in his beloved profession. Schools around the nation invited Roger to speak. He told his own story and spoke about corporate responsibility being key to engineering ethics. After his lectures at the University of Maryland, we would catch up. He never made much money – usually modest expenses and a small stipend, but he received awards and recognition for his work, and he always kept an eye on NASA.

In 2003 he called me very upset and almost breathless, his New England accent exaggerated by his emotions: “Columbia was badly damaged on liftoff. NASA is playing it down. There is an internal fight at NASA on whether the shuttle could be destroyed on reentry. NASA is keeping it secret.” Roger explained he had been getting emails and calls from NASA engineers who were predicting the loss of another shuttle. Roger was an icon among engineers, and, when faced with the same moral dilemma he had experienced, they wanted his advice.

While NASA debated the extent of damage to Columbia, Roger relived Challenger all over again. And like Challenger, NASA management did not listen to the engineers who recommended emergency measures to determine the extent of the damage and a possible rescue mission before risking reentry. They, too, were overruled. So on a terrible Saturday morning, February 1, 2003, Columbia began to break apart over California as the second shuttle nightmare played out. I spoke to Roger on the phone that morning and he was so upset he had to end the conversation.

NASA and the contractors were aware that Roger had tried to stop a second tragedy. Once again, he would pay a price.

Some universities where Roger spoke told him that corporations that funded university research were complaining about what he was telling students. These companies threatened to pull their funding if Roger Boisjoly was allowed to lecture about engineering ethics. Remarkably, some university administrators chose the cash over character.

Today NASA’s manned space program is grounded. There was no national outcry when the shuttle program was shuddered. NASA no longer captures our imagination. We are no longer a nation that dreams big dreams. We no longer feel that together we can meet huge, seemingly impossible challenges.

The young NASA was a seat-of-the-pants, try anything experiment that reached for the moon and distant planets. It tried risky rescue missions. It united the country and made us all feel like the sky was not the limit. It honored men like Roger Boisjoly.

Roger is survived by his wife of nearly half a century, Roberta, two daughters and eight grandchildren.