(p. 21) Thirty years ago, Bob Ebeling drove to the headquarters of the aerospace contractor Morton Thiokol in Brigham City, Utah, to watch the launch of the space shuttle Challenger. On the way, he leaned over to his daughter Leslie and said: “The Challenger is going to blow up. Everyone’s going to die.”
Mr. Ebeling (pronounced EBB-ling), an engineer at Thiokol, knew what the rest of the world did not: that the rubber O-rings designed to seal the joints between the booster rocket’s segments performed poorly in cold weather. A severe cold snap in Florida was about to subject the O-rings to temperatures more than 30 degrees lower than at any previous launch.
During the afternoon and evening before the launch, Thiokol engineers, relying on data provided by Mr. Ebeling and his colleagues, argued passionately for a postponement of the launch in conference calls with NASA managers at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. They were overruled not only by NASA, but also by their own managers.
On the morning of Jan. 28, 1986, sitting in a conference room with his daughter and Roger Boisjoly, Thiokol’s chief seal expert, Mr. Ebeling watched on a large projection screen as the Challenger cleared the launching pad. “I turned to Bob and said, ‘We’ve just dodged a bullet,'” Mr. Boisjoly told The Guardian in 2001.
A minute later, the O-rings failed and the Challenger exploded in a ball of fire, killing all seven crew members aboard. Among them was Christa McAuliffe, a schoolteacher from New Hampshire who had been chosen to be the first citizen passenger in space.
Mr. Ebeling never recovered from the disaster. “I’ve been under terrible stress since the accident,” he told The Houston Chronicle in 1987. “I have headaches. I cry. I have bad dreams. I go into a hypnotic trance almost daily.”
He soon left Thiokol and the engineering profession. For the rest of his life he faulted himself for not doing enough to prevent the launch.
For the full obituary, see:
WILLIAM GRIMES. “Bob Ebeling Dies at 89; Warned of Challenger Disaster.” The New York Times, First Section (Sun, MARCH 27, 2016): 21.
(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date MARCH 25, 2016, and has the title “Robert Ebeling, Challenger Engineer Who Warned of Disaster, Dies at 89.”)