Montana State University

Engineer who warned of trouble before Challenger disaster to sign books today

May 8, 2009 -- By Michael Becker, MSU News Service


Engineer Allan J. McDonald warned NASA not to launch the space shuttle Challenger in 1986 because of a problem with O-rings on the spacecraft's booster rockets. (Photo courtesy of Allan J. McDonald)   High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
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BOZEMAN -- On the cold night of Jan. 27, 1986, rocket engineer and Montana State University alumnus Allan J. McDonald refused to sign a piece of paper recommending that NASA launch the space shuttle Challenger.

The following morning, less than three minutes into its flight, the space shuttle disintegrated, killing its seven-member crew.

Twelve-foot-diameter rubber O-rings in the shuttle's booster rockets were made stiff and inflexible by the cold weather in Florida that morning. They could not seal in the rocket's fiery gases, which leaked out and eventually caused the destruction of the Challenger.

It was the very problem that McDonald, director of the Space Shuttle Solid Rocket Motor Project for the engineering contractor Morton Thiokol, had warned NASA about the night before, but nobody listened, he said.

"I was absolutely amazed that the NASA people I argued with against the launch didn't even mention to the other members of the mission management team that there was a concern," said McDonald, now 71.

Now the retired engineer has written a book about the circumstances surrounding the Challenger disaster and the lessons learned from it.

"Truth, Lies and O-rings: Inside the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster" looks at the pressures to launch the Challenger, the internal cover-ups and the aftermath of the disaster. It is the first book about the shuttle disaster written by someone directly involved in the decision to launch. McDonald wrote the book with the help of James Hansen, a professor at Auburn University and author of "First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong."

McDonald will be at MSU signing copies of his book on Friday, May 8, from 4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. at the MSU Bookstore. Prior to that, he will speak at the College of Engineering's Order of the Engineer Ring Ceremony.

McDonald graduated from MSU with a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering in 1959. He went on to earn a master's in engineering administration from the University of Utah in 1967. MSU presented him with an honorary doctorate in 1986 and he was named as a Distinguished Centennial Alumnus of MSU a year later.

He started work with Morton Thiokol in 1959 and stayed with the company, through various name changes and mergers, until 2001. Before retiring, he was Vice President and Technical Director for Advanced Technology Programs.

Since the Challenger accident, McDonald's refusal to sign that launch recommendation and his willingness to testify to a presidential commission and to Congress about his warnings have made his story an example in engineering ethics classes around the country.

Lending power to that story is the fact that McDonald was demoted and nearly fired by Morton Thiokol after he testified.

"I really expected to be going out the door," he said. "And I would have, if it had not been that the presidential commission and certain members of Congress found out about it and really read the riot act to the management of my company. That saved my job, frankly."

His actions also made him the subject of numerous articles in newspapers around the world, who labeled him "tenacious," a "non-conformist" and a title he is not at all comfortable with: "whistleblower."

"Most people consider a 'whistleblower' as some sort of professional snitch or troublemaker," McDonald said. "All I did was tell people exactly what I said and did and what I observed other people say and do."

His tenacity and non-conformism, he said, was part of his job as an engineer. That's something he tries to impart to young engineers today in lectures to students and professionals around the country.

"I really want to influence, in a positive vein, engineers and impress on them that they take on a very professional ethical requirement when they receive their degrees and go out into the world," he said. "They need to stand on their feet and defend their opinions and not be afraid to do that."

McDonald said that since 1986, there really hasn't been a time when the Challenger accident hasn't been a part of his life, but over the years he has managed to derive positive lessons and experience from it.

One of the most powerful of those experiences was leading the efforts to redesign the shuttle program's booster rockets after Challenger.

"I received such a great feeling from seeing the shuttle fly again safely and knowing that I was involved in seeing that happen," he said.

That new engine design, still in use on the shuttle, has flown more than 100 safe flights, and a larger version of the design has been selected for use on the spacecraft that will eventually replace the shuttle, McDonald said.

But of all the lessons he's taken from Challenger, McDonald said the most important one is that engineers need to not be afraid to ask questions, admit when they don't know something and speak their minds.

"We are hurt more by silence than by people who make statements," he said.

Online Extra

Hear McDonald talk about the Challenger accident and the circumstances surrounding it in an interview with Montana Public Radio in Missoula. (McDonald's segment begins 11 minutes and 17 seconds into the recording.)

Contact: Linda Wyckoff at 406-994-2223 or lwyckoff@coe.montana.edu; Michael Becker at 406-994-5140 or becker@montana.edu