What the Challenger taught us about integrity

Writer’s note: In honor of today’s anniversary of the Challenger disaster, I am revisiting a column that originally appeared in the Johnson City Press in 2012; it is no longer available online.

In February 2012, a small news headline reported the death of Roger Boisjoly. His death was notable because of his close connection with NASA surrounding the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986. After 34 years, the horror of watching the Challenger explode in real time is still fresh, but so are the lessons learned from the tragedy.

In the mid-1980s, Boston-born Roger Boisjoly was an engineer working for NASA contractor Morton Thiokol in Utah. Six months before the Challenger was set to launch, Boisjoly began writing memos warning managers at his company about booster rockets that would be used on the shuttle. In particularly cold weather, the elastic seals on the joints of the rockets (also called o-rings) would not seal properly; Boisjoly predicted that the results of such a launch would be catastrophic.

Unfortunately, his repeated warnings were ignored. Even the night before the launch – with the forecast calling for frigid temperatures – Boisjoly and four colleagues implored officials to delay the launch, but NASA refused. The next day, the would-be whistle blowers, along with the rest of the nation, watched in horror as the Challenger exploded seventy-three seconds after liftoff.

Both NASA and Thiokol were more interested in their public images than making ethical decisions; after the disaster, they purposely shunned Boisjoly and blackballed him from the aerospace industry for telling his story. Had NASA heeded his warnings, he would’ve been a hero; instead, they ignored him and then dismissed him as a troublemaker.

Boisjoly paid a stiff price for his persistence and suffered physically and emotionally in the years following the Challenger. For years, he was plagued with depression, severe headaches and difficulty sleeping.

While his story is sad, he never regretted his efforts or his choice to speak out after the tragedy in hopes of preventing a future accident. But in another example of gross negligence by NASA, the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003 occurred after engineers worried about its foam insulation. Boisjoly came to believe that NASA was so corrupt the only solution was to dissolve it entirely.

In later years, Boisjoly operated his own consulting business and toured the country, lecturing to engineering students about ethical decision making. He believed he’d truly found his life’s work – having an impact on the lives of young people. He was able to continue his work until shortly before his death from cancer in January 2012.

Roger Boisjoly was a family friend – he and my father, also an engineer, worked together in the 1970s in Southern California. His imposing presence, affable personality and strong Boston accent made him a memorable character to us even years after both of our families moved to different areas of the country.

In the wake of the Challenger disaster, we were surprised to learn about his connection, but not at all surprised to know that he tried desperately to stop a launch he knew was ill-fated. Initially, he spoke of his connection only with the guarantee of confidentiality, but later testified in a congressional investigation into the explosion.

It’s sad when folks have to pay a high price for simply trying to do the right thing. Of course, corporate corruption in one form or another is as old as time. It will probably never go away, but we can each do our own small part by making moral decisions and not caving to pressure from others. As Albert Einstein once said, “Relativity applies to physics, not ethics.”

There are times when we have opportunities to stand up for what is right – situations in our everyday lives that are minor but important. Martin Luther King, Jr. once advised, “Never, never be afraid to do what’s right, especially if the well-being of a person or animal is at stake. Society’s punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way.” Other people are watching and learning from our choices, especially young people trying to figure out how the world works.

The tragedy of the Challenger disaster is still palpable, but the should the lessons we learned about integrity should be, too.

Roger Boisjoly is a fine example to us all – a man of courage and strong moral character who took the high road even when it wasn’t easy and when the results cost him dearly. Despite his struggles, he never regretted the simple but profound choice to do the right thing.

Image result for roger boisjoly
Roger Boisjoly

© 2020 Rebecca Horvath

Portions of this essay previously appeared in the Johnson City Press.


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