27 Apr 2010

Courier Journal Reviews Reviews Truth, Lies, and O-rings.

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Courier-Journal.com by Sean Rose, srose@courier-journal.com
Louisville, Kentucky – Southern Indiana
November 3, 2009

An engineer who worked on the space shuttle Challenger project urged University of Louisville students Tuesday night to speak their mind and trust their judgment, particularly when facing bureaucratic pressure.

Morton Thiokol warned NASA that no launch should take place under 53 degrees, but McDonald said NASA ignored the warning and instead solicited a recommendation to launch. McDonald, who was then director of the Space Shuttle Solid Rocket Motor Project for Morton Thiokol, refused to sign it, but his supervisor did.

Despite improvements to the rocket boosters and a restructuring of NASA management to emphasize open communication, McDonald said some of the same mistakes that doomed the Challenger recurred when the Columbia space shuttle was destroyed re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere in 2003, killing all seven crew members.

Some insulating foam had broken off the bottom of Columbia on takeoff, causing damage that destroyed the shuttle upon re-entry. Engineers had voiced concerns over this problem previously, but NASA management viewed the dangers of foam debris as negligible and something the space program would simply have to deal with, McDonald said.

Safety improvements have resulted from both accidents, but McDonald ended his presentation by encouraging students, particularly those studying engineering, to trust their judgment.

“Your job is to solve problems … you need to create an atmosphere where everybody is asking questions.”

Reporter Sean Rose can be reached at (502) 582-4199.

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