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Roger Boisjoly : biography

April 25, 1938 - January 6, 2012

Roger Mark Boisjoly (April 25, 1938 – January 6, 2012) was an American mechanical engineer, fluid dynamicist, and an aerodynamicist who worked for Morton Thiokol, the manufacturer of the solid rocket boosters (SRBs) for the Space Shuttle program. Prior to his employment at Thiokol, Boisjoly worked for companies in California on lunar module life-support systems and the moon vehicle. He is best known for having raised objections to the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger the day before the loss of the spacecraft and its crew.

Challenger disaster

Following the announcement that the Challenger mission was confirmed for January 28, 1986, Boisjoly and his colleagues tried to stop the flight. Temperatures were due to be down to overnight. Boisjoly felt that this would severely compromise the safety of the O-ring, and potentially lose the flight.

The matter was discussed with Morton Thiokol managers, who agreed that the issue was serious enough to recommend delaying the flight. They arranged a telephone conference with NASA management and gave their findings. However, after a while, the Morton Thiokol managers asked for a few minutes off the phone to discuss their final position again. Despite the efforts of Boisjoly and others in this off-line briefing, the Morton Thiokol managers decided to advise NASA that their data was inconclusive. NASA asked if there were objections. Hearing none, the decision to fly the ill-fated STS-51L Challenger mission was made.

Boisjoly's concerns proved correct. In the first moments after ignition, the O-rings failed completely and were burned away, resulting in the black puff of smoke visible on films of the launch. This left only a layer of insulating putty to seal the joint. At 59 seconds after launch, buffeted by high-altitude winds, the putty gave way. Hot gases streamed out of the joint in a visible torch-like plume that burned into the external hydrogen tank. At about 73 seconds, the adjacent SRB strut gave way and the vehicle quickly disintegrated.

Boisjoly was relieved when the flight lifted off, as his investigations had predicted that the SRB would explode during the initial take-off. However, seventy-three seconds later, he witnessed the shuttle disaster on television.

Later career

After President Ronald Reagan ordered a presidential commission to review the disaster, Boisjoly was one of the witnesses called. He gave accounts of how and why he felt the O-rings had failed. After the commission gave its findings, Boisjoly found himself shunned by colleagues and managers and he resigned from the company.

Boisjoly became a speaker on workplace ethics. He argued that the caucus called by Morton Thiokol managers, which resulted in a recommendation to launch, "constituted the unethical decision-making forum resulting from intense customer intimidation."

For his honesty and integrity leading up to and directly following the shuttle disaster, Boisjoly was awarded the Award for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility by the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1988.

When Boisjoly left Morton Thiokol, he took 14 boxes containing every note and paper he received or sent in seven years. On May 13, 2010, he donated his personal memoranda—six boxes of personal papers, including memos and notes from congressional testimony—to Chapman University in Orange, California. Rand Boyd, the special-collections and archival librarian at Chapman's Leatherby Libraries, said the materials will be catalogued and archived. It was to be about six months to a year before library visitors would be able to view the materials.Fields, Eugene W., , The Orange County Register, May 13, 2010 9:37 p.m.

Boisjoly died on January 6, 2012, of cancer of the colon, kidneys, and liver.

O-ring safety concerns

Boisjoly wrote a memo in July 1985 to his superiors concerning the faulty design of the solid rocket boosters that, if left unaddressed, could lead to a catastrophic event during launch of a Space Shuttle. Such a catastrophic event did occur less than a year later resulting in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.

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