Space shuttle engineer encourages strong ethics, sound decision making

April 24, 2017

 

Allan McDonald speaks about the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion on Wednesday [April 19] at Mississippi State University. (Photo by Megan Bean)
Allan McDonald speaks about the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion on Wednesday [April 19] at Mississippi State University. (Photo by Megan Bean)

Contact: James Carskadon

STARKVILLE, Miss.—On Jan. 28, 1986, Allan McDonald was among the millions of Americans who watched in shock as the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after liftoff.

McDonald was present at the Launch Control Center, but the then director of the Space Shuttle Solid Rocket Motor Project for engineering contractor Morton Thiokol spent the night before the launch arguing unsuccessfully against launching Challenger in cold temperatures.

 

McDonald spoke at Mississippi State University Wednesday [April 19] as part of the Bagley College of Engineering’s Distinguished Speaker series. He discussed his experience with the Challenger disaster and its aftermath, as well as the safety and ethics lessons learned from both the Challenger and Space Shuttle Columbia accidents.

Fearing Challenger’s O-rings were not guaranteed to safely handle outside temperatures as low as 20 degrees, McDonald refused to sign the launch recommendation, but ultimately, his concerns were not heeded and the launch moved forward.

“I thought if it failed, it would blow up before it clears the tower,” McDonald told a capacity audience at MSU. “I breathed a big sigh of relief when it cleared the tower. Then, 73 seconds later, the explosion occurred.”

 

In the days after the Challenger explosion, McDonald went to Huntsville, Alabama, to join the team examining why the launch failed. He expected not to be there long, he said, because he felt the part of the shuttle he worked on was likely not responsible. However, evidence continued to mount showing the O-ring concerns he brought up before the launch played a major role in the explosion.

McDonald would end up telling his story to the presidential commission formed to investigate the shuttle failure and was later given a “non-job” by his employer. When Congress members found out he was demoted for speaking about what happened before the Challenger launch, they passed a resolution supporting McDonald. He now holds the distinction of being the only person in American history to be restored to his job by an act of Congress.

 

On Wednesday, McDonald said the Challenger and Columbia disasters both were caused by preventable problems, and concerns brought up by engineers were ignored in both cases. He said it is important for managers in engineering and all fields to create an atmosphere where employees are comfortable voicing their concerns and opinions on projects. In the discussions before the Challenger launched, McDonald said leaders expressed their support for moving forward with the launch, which made engineers hesitant to advise against the launch.

 

“The biggest mistake a manager can make is to give his opinion first,” McDonald said. “The manager that has to make a bottom-line decision should be the last one to speak.”

 

In 2009, McDonald released “Truth, Lies and O-rings: Inside the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster,” the only book written on the Challenger disaster by someone who recognized the potential disaster and tried to prevent it.

For more on the Bagley College of Engineering, visit www.bagley.msstate.edu. 

MSU is Mississippi’s leading university, available online at www.msstate.edu.