Thirty years ago today, the space shuttle Challenger exploded less than 2 minutes after lift-off, killing all seven astronauts on board. A fe months later, two engineers talked about the disaster to National Public Radio on condition of anonymity, They revealed that they and three other engineers employed by NASA contractor Morton-Thiokol had warned that critical seals would fail in the below-freezing temperatures. NASA managers rejected their pleas for a launch delay.
The whistleblowing engineers were not initially identified. The identity of Roger Boisjoly was acknowledged after his death in 2012. Today, NPR revealed the identity of the second whistleblower, Bob Ebeling, with his permission.
Ebeling retired soon after Challenger. He suffered deep depression and has never been able to lift the burden of guilt. In 1986, as he watched that haunting image again on a television screen, he said, “I could have done more. I should have done more.”
NPR provided a similar description of Boisjoly at the time of his NPR interview.
The explosion of Challenger and the deaths of its crew, including Teacher-in Space Christa McAuliffe, traumatized the nation and left Boisjoly disabled by severe headaches, steeped in depression and unable to sleep. When I visited him at his Utah home in April of 1987, he was thin, tearful and tense.
After Boisjoly provided critical documents to investigators, his situation grew more difficult.
Colleagues and even neighbors shunned Boisjoly. Thiokol “cut him off from space work,” and NASA “tried to blackball him from the industry.” “Managers isolated him in his position and “made life a living hell on a day-to-day basis.”
“When I realized what was happening, it absolutely destroyed me,” Boisjoly told The Associated Press in a 1988 telephone interview. “It destroyed my career, my life, everything else.” Boisjoly hung on for six months before deciding to take long-term disability leave, having been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He would not return to Thiokol. (WSF, 2/12/2015)
Reactions like that are not unusual for Individuals exposed to whistleblower reprisals that may continue for years. It is a major concern for psychologist Donald Soeken who has counseled numerous whistleblowers. The nonprofit organization he founded, the Whistleblower Support Fund, specializes in helping whistleblowers targeted for psychological abuse.
Had Boisjoly and Ebeling not come forward, our understanding of the Challenger disaster would be vastly different. NPR notes that, when it published its story, “the special commission investigating the Challenger tragedy hadn’t even interviewed all the engineers involved in the pre-launch debate.” The fact that they did should be remembered in every discussion of the Challenger disaster.
For more information on this subject, see “Remembering Roger Boisjoly, Challenger disaster whistleblower (1938-2012)“