Books by Hansen, James R.

McDonald, Allan J. and James R. Hansen. Truth, Lies, and O-Rings. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2009. ISBN 978-0-8130-3326-6.
More than two decades have elapsed since Space Shuttle Challenger met its tragic end on that cold Florida morning in January 1986, and a shelf-full of books have been written about the accident and its aftermath, ranging from the five volume official report of the Presidential commission convened to investigate the disaster to conspiracy theories and accounts of religious experiences. Is it possible, at this remove, to say anything new about Challenger? The answer is unequivocally yes, as this book conclusively demonstrates.

The night before Challenger was launched on its last mission, Allan McDonald attended the final day before launch flight readiness review at the Kennedy Space Center, representing Morton Thiokol, manufacturer of the solid rocket motors, where he was Director of the Space Shuttle Solid Rocket Motor Project. McDonald initially presented Thiokol's judgement that the launch should be postponed because the temperatures forecast for launch day were far below the experience base of the shuttle program and an earlier flight at the lowest temperature to date had shown evidence of blow-by the O-ring seals in the solid rocket field joints. Thiokol engineers were concerned that low temperatures would reduce the resiliency of the elastomeric rings, causing them to fail to seal during the critical ignition transient. McDonald was astonished when NASA personnel, in a reversal of their usual rôle of challenging contractors to prove why their hardware was safe to fly, demanded that Thiokol prove the solid motor was unsafe in order to scrub the launch. Thiokol management requested a five minute offline caucus back at the plant in Utah (in which McDonald did not participate) which stretched to thirty minutes and ended up with a recommendation to launch. NASA took the unprecedented step of requiring a written approval to launch from Thiokol, which McDonald refused to provide, but which was supplied by his boss in Utah.

After the loss of the shuttle and its crew, and the discovery shortly thereafter that the proximate cause was almost certainly a leak in the aft field joint of the right solid rocket booster, NASA and Thiokol appeared to circle the wagons, trying to deflect responsibility from themselves and obscure the information available to decision makers in a position to stop the launch. It was not until McDonald's testimony to the Presidential Commission chaired by former Secretary of State William P. Rogers that the truth began to come out. This thrust McDonald, up to then an obscure engineering manager, into the media spotlight and the political arena, which he quickly discovered was not at all about his priorities as an engineer: finding out what went wrong and fixing it so it could never happen again.

This memoir, composed by McDonald from contemporary notes and documents with the aid of space historian James R. Hansen (author of the bestselling authorised biography of Neil Armstrong) takes the reader through the catastrophe and its aftermath, as seen by an insider who was there at the decision to launch, on a console in the firing room when disaster struck, before the closed and public sessions of the Presidential commission, pursued by sensation-hungry media, testifying before congressional committees, and consumed by the redesign and certification effort and the push to return the shuttle to flight. It is a personal story, but told in terms, as engineers are wont to do, based in the facts of the hardware, the experimental evidence, and the recollection of meetings which made the key decisions before and after the tragedy.

Anybody whose career may eventually land them, intentionally or not (the latter almost always the case), in the public arena can profit from reading this book. Even if you know nothing about and have no interest in solid rocket motors, O-rings, space exploration, or NASA, the dynamics of a sincere, dedicated engineer who was bent on doing the right thing encountering the ravenous media and preening politicians is a cautionary tale for anybody who finds themselves in a similar position. I wish I'd had the opportunity to read this book before my own Dark Night of the Soul encounter with a reporter from the legacy media. I do not mean to equate my own mild experience with the Hell that McDonald experienced—just to say that his narrative would have been a bracing preparation for what was to come.

The chapters on the Rogers Commission investigation provided, for me, a perspective I'd not previously encountered. Many people think of William P. Rogers primarily as Nixon's first Secretary of State who was upstaged and eventually replaced by Henry Kissinger. But before that Rogers was a federal prosecutor going after organised crime in New York City and then was Attorney General in the Eisenhower administration from 1957 to 1961. Rogers may have aged, but his skills as an interrogator and cross-examiner never weakened. In the sworn testimony quoted here, NASA managers, who come across like the kids who were the smartest in their high school class and then find themselves on the left side of the bell curve when they show up as freshmen at MIT, are pinned like specimen bugs to their own viewgraphs when they try to spin Rogers and his tag team of technical takedown artists including Richard Feynman, Neil Armstrong, and Sally Ride.

One thing which is never discussed here, but should be, is just how totally insane it is to use large solid rockets, in any form, in a human spaceflight program. Understand: solid rockets are best thought of as “directed bombs”, but if detonated at an inopportune time, or when not in launch configuration, can cause catastrophe. A simple spark of static electricity can suffice to ignite the propellant in a solid rocket, and once ignited there is no way to extinguish it until it is entirely consumed. Consider: in the Shuttle era, there are usually one or more Shuttle stacks in the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), and if NASA's Constellation Program continues, this building will continue to stack solid rocket motors in decades to come. Sooner or later, the inevitable is going to happen: a static spark, a crane dropping a segment, or an interference fit of two segments sending a hot fragment into the propellant below. The consequence: destruction of the VAB, all hardware inside, and the death of all people working therein. The expected stand-down of the U.S. human spaceflight program after such an event is on the order of a decade. Am I exaggerating the risks here? Well, maybe; you decide. But within two years, three separate disasters struck the production of large solid motors in 1985–1986. I shall predict: if NASA continue to use large solid motors in their human spaceflight program, there will be a decade-long gap in U.S. human spaceflight sometime in the next twenty years.

If you're sufficiently interested in these arcane matters to have read this far, you should read this book. Based upon notes, it's a bit repetitive, as many of the same matters were discussed in the various venues in which McDonald testified. But if you want to read a single book to prepare you for being unexpectedly thrust into the maw of ravenous media and politicians, I know of none better.

September 2009 Permalink