MSU News Service
Engineer who warned of trouble before Challenger disaster to sign books today
May 08, 2009 — By Michael Becker, MSU News Service
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.
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.