Challenger Archive Provides Insights on Ethics

Reports and letters related to the Challenger shuttle disaster — documents that might have saved seven astronauts’ lives — were donated to Chapman University in January, nearly 30 years to the day after the shuttle exploded in the cold skies over Cape Canaveral.

Allan J. McDonald, one of the rocket engineers who sounded the warning that the rocket boosters’ O-ring seals would fail in the chilly weather that January morning, formally presented the collection to the Leatherby Libraries’ Frank Mt. Pleasant Library of Special Collections and Archives. Included in the donation was an O-ring, a 12-foot diameter cord made of Nitrile rubber.

The artifacts and papers join a previous personal collection donated by the late Roger Boisjoly, another Morton Thiokol engineer who implored NASA officials to scrub the Jan. 28, 1986, launch, arguing that it was unsafe in the weather conditions.

Together, the collections are an unmatched record of the ethical and political forces that were at odds and set the Challenger up for tragedy, said Mark Maier, Ph.D., director and founding chair of the leadership studies program in Chapman’s College of Educational Studies. Maier was instrumental in obtaining the McDonald donation.

“Added to the Boisjoly collection, the McDonald archive will serve as primary source material for every future scholar studying the Challenger accident,” Maier said.

During a talk on the day of his donation, McDonald described the mismanagement leading up to the 1986 Challenger launch. At multiple junctures, he warned NASA officials that the O-rings would not hold the joints in the rocket boosters in the cold weather. A failure of the seals would allow pressurized gas to leak and explode.

And on launch day, “I did the smartest thing I ever did in my life — since my wife is here I’ll say it was the second smartest thing I ever did in my life. I refused to sign the launch recommendation,” McDonald said.

The personal repercussions were difficult. He was demoted to a “non-job job” at Morton Thiokol and faced months of testifying before a presidential commission investigating the disaster. The investigation vindicated McDonald, who was reinstated to his job by an act of Congress. He continued his career at Morton Thiokol and went on to redesign changes that improved the safety of future shuttle missions. He also wrote Truth, Lies, and O-rings: Inside the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster.

McDonald urged students to remember the leadership lessons behind the Challenger disaster, no matter what their field of work.

“Do the right thing for the right reasons, at the right time with the right people, and you’ll have no regrets for the rest of your lives,” he said.

Featured image: O-ring seals that failed in cold weather, leading to the Challenger shuttle disaster, are included with the archive of documents donated to Chapman by rocket engineer Allan J. McDonald, left, shown with Chapman leadership studies professor Mark Maier, Ph.D.

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