Challenger's Whistle-Blower: Hero And Outcast

The engineer who opposed the doomed launching of the shuttle finds himself ostracized as he embarks on several new careers. PHOENIX--When the shuttle Challenger blew up, the explosion lit a fuse in Roger Boisjoly's conscience. A structural engineer for Morton Thiokol Inc., the firm that later bore blame for the disaster, Boisjoly had argued against the launch the night before and, like the rest of the nation, watched in horror when the shuttle blew up. "I left the room and went directly to my

Jan 20, 1990
Elizabeth Pennisi


The engineer who opposed the doomed launching of the shuttle finds himself ostracized as he embarks on several new careers.
PHOENIX--When the shuttle Challenger blew up, the explosion lit a fuse in Roger Boisjoly's conscience. A structural engineer for Morton Thiokol Inc., the firm that later bore blame for the disaster, Boisjoly had argued against the launch the night before and, like the rest of the nation, watched in horror when the shuttle blew up. "I left the room and went directly to my office where I remained in shock the rest of the day," he recalls about that terrible morning four years ago this week.

During the next eight months, Boisjoly would become both a national hero and a professional pariah. Although widely lauded for his courage in alerting the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and his company to the dangers in the design of the space vehicle's booster rockets and for his frank testimony to a presidential commission investigating the accident, he has paid a terrible personal price for his actions. He was ostracized by most of the 1,600 residents of Willard, Utah, where Morton Thiokol is based and where, just three years earlier, he had served as mayor. And his life at Morton Thiokol, which made the faulty booster rockets, became unbearable.

"He acted to protect the public interest at a significant cost to his health and professional well-being," says Mark Frankel, head of the scientific freedom and responsibility program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which gave Boisjoly its annual award in 1988. "He made every effort to act responsibly, and for that he has paid a high price."

Now Boisjoly and his wife live in Mesa, Ariz., a suburb of Phoenix. He has set up his own consulting business and hopes to work primarily for lawyers, as a technical expert. His business card states his philosophy, as well as his place in history: "Vigorously Opposed Launching Space Shuttle Challenger."

Over these past four years Boisjoly has wrestled daily with an issue that all scientists fear but few have to face: When does one speak out? And at what price to one's career? And to one's company? As an engineer, Boisjoly might put it in more technical terms: How does one determine the appropriate risk of one's actions?

As a consultant for General Motors, Ron Westrum is trying to stimulate creativity within a corporate structure. Last year, he decided that Roger Boisjoly should be one of his program's key speakers. "I'm sure that in many corporations, somebody like Roger would have been looked down upon," says Westrum, a professor of sociology and interdisciplinary technology at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti. "But we're trying to change that."

Westrum respects Boisjoly's honesty, openness, and courage, and he hopes that the lessons from the Challenger accident will encourage employees to speak out when they see a problem and help managers to be more receptive to those comments. "If companies tend to dismiss information about danger, then they are also likely to dismiss information about innovation," says Westrum.

Boisjoly's lectures generally trace the details leading up to the final meeting before the scheduled launch of the Challenger. In the meeting Morton Thiokol executives capitulated to pressure from NASA and gave their assent to the launch despite concerns from engineers about the effect of the freezing temperatures on the seals of the booster rocket. It is not enough for engineers to be able to assess risk, Boisjoly tells his audiences. If there is danger of injury or loss of life, an engineer must be able to communicate that risk and work to prevent damage.

He recounts how he tried to raise the red flag, first by working within his company through memos to his superiors and, later, through direct warnings to NASA, the customer. The memos went unheeded, and his objections were overruled. His standards for assessing risk are high, perhaps higher than corporate planners can justify. But he sees no alternative, and the Challenger accident bears out his worse fears. Despite his concerns, he reminds himself, the launch proceeded.

He has turned that experience into a campaign for stronger professional ethics and for the need to speak out against risk. He visits college campuses about twice a month, where his message is well-received. "The students see him as a role model," says William Middleton, chairman of the ethics committee for IEEE USA. "I think he will do a great deal to change the ethical perspective [of future engineers]."

Westrum and others think Boisjoly has a broader message as well. "It's very important for high-technology firms to do what they can to speed the flow of technological information," he says. "Roger has a lot to say about why information did not flow." MIT officials have also invited him to talk to students - not about Challenger, but about what it's like to be an engineer in a big corporation. In the coming months he will visit a second General Motors plant and at least one other corporation.

It's essential that information flow smoothly and that corporations listen more closely to people like Boisjoly, Westrum asserts. "If they don't," he warns, "this country will continue to go down the tubes."

--E.P.

Not surprisingly, his former employer does not share Boisjoly's eagerness to discuss his actions and their meaning. A spokesman for Morton Thiokol declined to comment on any matter relating to Boisjoly, saying that the subject is closed. But colleagues applaud Boisjoly's efforts to raise the issue of professional ethics and to stress its importance.

"He's one of a very small group of people who have had the courage of their convictions," says William Middleton, chairman of the ethics committee for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). "He took the matter into his own hands and dealt with it by going public on a whistle-blowing campaign. And now he's sort of blacklisted. To those of us who do work in the ethics area, he's a hero."

Boisjoly, now 51, had no idea he would ever play such a role when he went to work for Morton Thiokol in 1980 as a structural engineer. His job then was to analyze the cases that enclosed the space shuttle's solid rocket boosters. He used data from past flights to generate flight-readiness updates for NASA, and eventually became a technical trouble- shooter for the company.

In late 1985, he became one of five engineers in charge of redesigning the seals and joints on the booster rockets. He became increasingly concerned about the ability of the seals to work properly at extreme temperatures. Although he passed his worries along to his managers, the problems were never given a high priority.

On the night before the January 1986 launch, Florida experienced a statewide cold snap. The weather prompted a teleconference between NASA and Morton Thiokol that ended, despite the engineers' objections, in a decision to go ahead with the launch. Boisjoly's subsequent testimony to a presidential commission and later to Congress helped government investigators learn about the process that contributed to the tragedy. He and two other engineers helped interpret the technical data for the committees and were more willing than Morton Thiokol to provide details of the events leading up to the launch.

Following the disaster, Boisjoly stayed on at Morton Thiokol as a senior engineer involved in redesigning the faulty seals. But he says he was not allowed to interact with NASA, nor was he given much responsibility by his superiors. "Instead," he recalls, "they put me through hell on a day-to-day basis." He became sick and depressed, a condition that doctors diagnosed as posttraumatic stress disorder. In June 1986, after testifying before Congress, he stopped going to work and went on extended sick leave. In January 1987 he began receiving long-term disability pay, collecting 60% of his salary until the benefits ran out in January 1989.

Now he's hopeful that his integrity, knowledge, and experience will attract clients to his fledgling consulting practice. "Attorneys that care and do stand for facts will want me," Boisjoly asserts.

Few engineers can match Boisjoly's track record of testifying under pressure. He was also grilled by FBI agents and officials from the Justice Department about his work analyzing technical data. "They were asking hard questions about what really happened," he recalls.

"It's engineering work plus what a lot of people cannot do - get up and communicate your findings in an adversarial environment."

Boisjoly has registered with two services that provide expert witnesses to attorneys, and he's paid to have his name added to a national directory. Last summer he sent handwritten notes to a dozen editors and reporters who had interviewed him, asking them for referrals. As a consultant he plans to provide lay interpretations of technical specifications and can determine whether a product meets the required standards. "It's just a matter of getting a match and showing people what I can do," he says.

But, so far, Roger Boisjoly's unique brand of engineering expertise is not much in demand. It takes time, he says, for lawyers to get to know what he has to offer. He did one day's worth of work examining a product that failed on a helicopter, and he's fielded a few calls from prospective clients. He fills the hours by revising his talk, making telephone calls, and puttering about the house. He's also written a few magazine articles and a technical paper for the American Society of Civil Engineers.

"The hardest part is getting over the frustration of knowing that we are barely eking out an existence while waiting for something to happen," he says. "I think there is a limit to how much a human being can take." In the meantime, his wife stays busy helping her daughter with a new baby, and the two of them are getting to know their neighbors.

Boisjoly is most visible on the college lecture circuit. He's given more than 70 talks in the United States, Canada, and Norway about his role in the accident and the investigation, and he still visits campuses about twice a month.

Until recently, his fees from speaking engagements barely covered his expenses, and the talks were chiefly therapeutic. Now they are a financial necessity, he says. "It's these talks and the honoraria that keep us floating."

His peers also appreciate his message. In 1988 he spoke to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers to pick up that group's Founders Award. A year earlier the National Space Society cited him with its presidential award. He has also been honored by IEEE USA.

The reaction to Boisjoly's 1988 speech before IEEE's professional activities section in Phoenix was typical of how most professional organizations view him. "It very deeply moved a whole bunch of our members," recalls Ed Bertnolli, IEEE vice president for professional activities. "He appeared to have been ethical in his attempt to protect the public, and he kind of got his head chopped off."

But Boisjoly has learned that praise is not the same thing as professional advancement. "Roger is a very talented technical person," says IEEE's Middleton, a retired engineer who worked for Bell of Pennsylvania. "He has a fine method of articulating his viewpoint. But he's such a public figure, any personnel director would have real concerns from a corporate standpoint of hiring somebody with such a high visibility. When they [whistle-blowers] go public, it obviously makes the career path a difficult one to follow."

Boisjoly says he has no regrets about the new direction his life has taken. But he says that the past few years have not been easy ones. "People have the wrong concept of what a whistle-blower is," he says. He insists that he's not a crusading radical, but he makes clear that he's not the type to run away from a problem he uncovers.

Boisjoly feels that a variety of duties during a 27-year career as an engineer should have paved the way for a good position near his new hometown of Mesa. But that hasn't been the case. In November 1988, he sent out 150 resumes to aerospace companies in Arizona. He got back one nibble. "It might have been because the industry has been down," he says, "or it might have been who I am and what I did.

"Industry is very reticent of hiring someone who has a mind of his own," he says. "After eight months [of waiting], I figured, `Why kid myself?' " He had spent the summer boning up in Florida for the professional engineering exams, which he took in October. Last March he was certified to set up his own company.

What hurts more than the lack of a good job is the realization that he and his wife couldn't stay in Willard. They had moved to that one-company town in 1980. They bought a house on about two acres of land with the idea that they'd settle down once he retired from Morton Thiokol. "But it was not going to be allowed to happen," he says. "Everyone was against us." Understandably, his neighbors were worried that his crusade would jeopardize their own livelihoods.

So far, those fears are unfounded. The economic outlook for Willard appears bright. Morton Thiokol has six shuttle flights left on its $2.9 billion NASA contract for the solid rocket motors, and it's competing for the chance to build rocket motors for the next 66 shuttle flights.

As far as Morton Thiokol is concerned, the Challenger is a closed chapter in U.S. space history. The company has no official comment about either the accident or Boisjoly. Two other engineers who were prominent for a brief time after telling investigators that they had opposed their company's decision to launch have elected to stay at Morton Thiokol. One, Al McDonald, is now a vice president, and the other, Arnie Thompson, is a manager. They follow their company's lead in refusing to speculate about the impact of the Challenger accident on the company and their lives.

NASA, too, seems more concerned with looking ahead than looking back. It sent 30 people to Morton Thiokol to bolster the effort to redesign the booster rockets and to calm fears about the future.

"It was a very intense, emotional undertaking, with a lot of energy spent trying to put the bad feelings behind us," says Royce Mitchell, NASA manager for the solid rocket program. "So many people did not know what would happen in terms of their jobs, their self-respect, and their image."

Although Mitchell admits that the constant oversight during the redesign project was burdensome, he believes that the effort contributed to better rapport between all members of the team. "It got a lot of people in the habit of being open and communicating and floating problems up the line," he says. "People openly and freely discuss things that in the past I am sure were not discussed. There are multiple lines of communications that we all want to maintain."

It may still be too early to know how history will ultimately remember Roger Boisjoly. But this winter, the American Broadcasting Co. will take a stab with a made-for-television movie that chronicles the six months leading up to the shuttle disaster. Boisjoly will be played by actor Peter Boyle.

George Englund, Jr., one of the producers of "The Challenger," says that in the movie, "Boisjoly is perceived by Morton Thiokol as a kind of pain in the ass. He's both a pariah and a hero. He was perceived by some people as a hero, but he's also perceived as a Chicken Little who was constantly saying `the sky is falling.' " Boisjoly was interviewed extensively as the production was under way, and was given the script to review.

Regardless of how Boisjoly is ultimately labeled, those like IEEE's William Middleton and General Motors Corp. consultant Ron Westrum (see accompanying story), who follow professional ethics issues, say that society needs these so-called Chicken Littles. "I would encourage people to be courageous, even if the penalty is stiff," says Westrum.

He hopes Boisjoly will be an inspiration to reticent employees, such as the 300 GM engineers and managers who heard Boisjoly describe his agony as he watched the Challenger explode. "It's a very potent warning about what they may have to face if they don't stand up for what they believe in," says Westrum.