Allan McDonald in 2016 with a commemorative poster in honor of the seven astronauts killed on board the space shuttle Challenger and McDonald’s attempt to postpone the launch. Howard Berkes / NPR hide caption
Howard Berkes / NPR
Howard Berkes / NPR
On January 27, 1986, Allan McDonald was on the threshold of history.
McDonald led the rocket booster project at NASA contractor Morton Thiokol. He was responsible for the two massive rockets filled with explosive fuel that lifted space shuttles into the sky. He was at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to launch the Challenger, “… to approve or deny a launch if something comes up,” he told me in 2016, 30 years after the Challenger exploded.
His job was to sign and submit an official form. Sign the form, he believed, and he would risk the seven astronauts’ lives the next morning on board the spacecraft. Refuse to sign and he would risk his job, career, and the good life he built for his wife and four children.
“And I made the smartest decision I’ve ever made in my life,” said McDonald. “I refused to sign it. I just thought we were taking risks that we shouldn’t be taking.”
McDonald persisted in citing three reasons for the delay: freezing nighttime temperatures that could affect the booster rocket joints; Ice formation on the launch pad and the spaceship that could damage the orbiter heaters on launch; and forecast rough seas at the site of the recovery of booster missiles.
He also told NASA officials, “If anything happens to this launch, I don’t want to be the person who has to stand before a commission of inquiry to explain why we took off …”.
Now, 35 years after Challenger, McDonald’s family reports that he died on Saturday in Ogden, Utah, from a fall and brain damage. He was 83 years old.
“There are two ways [McDonald’s] Actions were heroic, “remembers Mark Maier, who leads a leadership program at Chapman University and produces a documentary about Challenger’s decision to start.
“One was the night before the start, refused to sign the start permit and continued to argue against it,” says Maier. “And after that, to expose the cover-up that NASA was engaged in.”
Twelve days after the Challenger explosion, McDonald stood up in a closed hearing for a presidential commission investigating the tragedy. He was “in the cheap seats in the back” when he raised his hand and spoke. He had just heard a NASA official glossing over a fundamental fact.
McDonald and his team from The Thiokol engineers strongly opposed the startFreezing nighttime temperatures as low as 18 degrees Fahrenheit meant the o-rings on the booster rocket joints would likely stiffen and not contain the explosive fuel burning in the rockets. They presented data showing that if started earlier, O-rings had lost elasticity at a much warmer temperature of 53 ° F.
The NASA official merely said Thiokol had some concerns but approved the launch. He neglected to say that approval came only after Thiokol executives overruled the engineers under heavy pressure from NASA officials.
“I sat there thinking this is as deceptive as anything I’ve ever heard,” McDonald recalled. “So … I said I think this presidential commission should know that Morton Thiokol was so concerned that we recommended not to start below 53 degrees Fahrenheit. And we put that in writing and sent it to NASA.”
Former Secretary of State William Rogers, chairing the commission, stared into the auditorium and blinked at the voice.
“I’ll never forget Chairman Rogers said, ‘Would you come down here and repeat what I think you hear,'” said McDonald.
The focus of the commission’s investigation shifted to the booster missile o-rings, McDonald and his colleagues ‘efforts to halt the launch, and NASA officials’ failure to listen.
Morton Thiokol executives weren’t happy that McDonald’d downgraded him.
This alarmed the members of the Presidential Commission and the members of Congress. Rep. Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, noted a common resolution in the house This threatened to forbid Thiokol from receiving future NASA contracts, as McDonald and all other Thiokol engineers who spoke acquitted were fined by the company.
The company relented, and McDonald was promoted to vice president and took responsibility for redesigning the booster rocket joints that failed during the Challenger launch.
In 1988, the redesigned joints worked successfully when shuttle flights resumed.
McDonald worked at Thiokol until 2001 and retired after 42 years. He later co-authored one of the most definitive accounts of the Challenger disaster: Truth, Lies and O-Rings – In the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster (2009. University Press of Florida).
In 2018, Allan McDonald reviewed Challenger’s launch decision during a series of leadership and ethical decision-making seminars for U.S. Space Command managers. Mark Maier hide caption
In retirement, McDonald became a passionate ethical advocate, speaking to hundreds of engineering students, engineers, and managers. He and Maier of Chapman University hosted leadership and ethics seminars for businesses and government agencies, including the US Space Command.
Maier says that one of McDonald’s key moments in his conversations helps explain his ability to balance his contact with the story.
“What to remember at Al McDonald [is] he often emphasized his laws of the seven Rs, “says Maier.” It was always doing the right thing for the right reason, at the right time, with the right people. [And] You won’t regret it for the rest of your life. ”
“It’s really that easy, if you just focus it that way,” McDonald told me in 2016.
He also phrased the regret differently and described a favorite quote from the late journalist Sydney J. Harris.
“The regrets about the things we’ve done are diminished with time,” said McDonald, his face steadfast. “But regrets for things we haven’t done are heartbroken.” McDonald then paused and added, “That is absolutely true.”
Immediately after the challenger exploded in tearful calls home, he seemed heartbroken. He remembers the painful conversations in his book. “I think it’s my fault,” he said to his daughter Lisa, a nursing student in Boston. “Don’t blame yourself, Dad,” she said, crying too.
Maier believes McDonald lived his life without guilt or regret. “He died with serenity and equanimity,” he says. “I will miss him very much”
Allan McDonald leaves his wife Linda and four children and the legacy of doing the right things at the right time with the right people.