“Legions of Good People” Are Willing to Pay a Price “to Speak the Truth”

(p. A9) . . . in February 1986 . . . a presidential commission was investigating the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle, which killed all seven crew members a few weeks earlier.

Mr. McDonald was an engineer for the maker of the solid-fuel booster rockets. During a hearing, he believed an official of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was glossing over a prelaunch debate on whether to proceed despite unusually cold temperatures in Cape Canaveral, Fla.

Seated in the background, Mr. McDonald waved his hands for attention and then stood up. He told the commission that he and other engineers had warned that low temperatures might cause a failure of synthetic rubber O-ring seals in the rocket’s joints. The commission later found that such a failure was responsible for the explosion and that NASA had brushed aside a warning that could have saved the astronauts.

. . .

Mr. McDonald’s uninvited testimony was a shock to the commission appointed by President Ronald Reagan. In his memoir, “Truth, Lies and O-Rings,” the engineer recalled the reaction from William P. Rogers, chairman of the commission:

“Who in the hell are you?”

. . .

Mr. Rogers thanked Mr. McDonald and other engineers for giving their side of the story.

. . .

At work, however, Mr. McDonald was at times ostracized by colleagues who accused him of undermining the company’s aerospace business. Morton Thiokol moved him out of his space shuttle duties in what he considered a demotion.

. . .

“I never considered myself a hero for doing my job in the best manner that I knew how and telling the truth about it,” he wrote, adding that “there are legions of good people out there every day defending their professional opinions and willing to speak the truth at some risk to their own job security. They just haven’t been involved in such a high-profile news making event like me.”

For the full obituary, see:

James R. Hagerty. “Engineer Exposed Space Shuttle Risks.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, April 3, 2021): A9.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date March 30, 2021, and has the title “Rocket Engineer Blew the Whistle on NASA After the Challenger Disaster.”)

The McDonald memoir mentioned above is:

McDonald, Allan J., and James R. Hansen. Truth, Lies, and O-Rings: Inside the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2018..


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