30 Years After Explosion, Challenger Engineer Still Blames Himself

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(Left) Bob Ebeling in his home in Brigham City, Utah. (Right) The Challenger lifts off on Jan. 28, 1986, from a launchpad at Kennedy Space Center, 73 seconds before an explosion killed its crew of seven. ((Left) Howard Berkes/NPR; (Right) Bob Pearson/AFP/Getty Images)
(Left) Bob Ebeling in his home in Brigham City, Utah. (Right) The Challenger lifts off on Jan. 28, 1986, from a launchpad at Kennedy Space Center, 73 seconds before an explosion killed its crew of seven. ((Left) Howard Berkes/NPR; (Right) Bob Pearson/AFP/Getty Images)

Thirty years ago, as the nation mourned the loss of seven astronauts on the space shuttle Challenger, Bob Ebeling was steeped in his own deep grief.

The night before the launch, Ebeling and four other engineers at NASA contractor Morton Thiokol had tried to stop the launch. Their managers and NASA overruled them.

That night, he told his wife, Darlene, "It's going to blow up."

When Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff, Ebeling and his colleagues sat stunned in a conference room at Thiokol's headquarters outside Brigham City, Utah. They watched the spacecraft explode on a giant television screen and they knew exactly what had happened.

Three weeks later, Ebeling and another engineer separately and anonymously detailed to NPR the first account of that contentious pre-launch meeting. Both were despondent and in tears as they described hours of data review and arguments. The data showed that the rubber seals on the shuttle's booster rockets wouldn't seal properly in cold temperatures and this would be the coldest launch ever.

The Challenger lifts off on Jan. 28, 1986, from a launchpad at Kennedy Space Center, 73 seconds before an explosion killed its crew of seven.
The Challenger lifts off on Jan. 28, 1986, from a launchpad at Kennedy Space Center, 73 seconds before an explosion killed its crew of seven.

Ebeling, now 89, decided to let NPR identify him this time, on the 30th anniversary of the Challenger explosion.

"I was one of the few that was really close to the situation," Ebeling recalls. "Had they listened to me and wait[ed] for a weather change, it might have been a completely different outcome."

We spoke in the same house, kitchen and living room that we spoke in 30 years ago, when Ebeling didn't want his name used or his voice recorded. He was afraid he would lose his job.

"I think the truth has to come out," he says about the decision to speak privately then.

"NASA ruled the launch," he explains. "They had their mind set on going up and proving to the world they were right and they knew what they were doing. But they didn't."

Bob Ebeling in his home in Brigham City, Utah.
Bob Ebeling in his home in Brigham City, Utah.

A presidential commission found flaws in the space agency's decision-making process. But it's still not clear why NASA was so anxious to launch without delay.

The space shuttle program had an ambitious launch schedule that year and NASA wanted to show it could launch regularly and reliably. President Ronald Reagan was also set to deliver the State of the Union address that evening and reportedly planned to tout the Challenger launch.

Whatever the reason, Ebeling says it didn't justify the risk.

"There was more than enough [NASA officials and Thiokol managers] there to say, 'Hey, let's give it another day or two,' " Ebeling recalls. "But no one did."

Ebeling retired soon after Challenger. He suffered deep depression and has never been able to lift the burden of guilt. In 1986, as he watched that haunting image again on a television screen, he said, "I could have done more. I should have done more."

He says the same thing today, sitting in a big easy chair in the same living room, his eyes watery and his face grave. The data he and his fellow engineers presented, and their persistent and sometimes angry arguments, weren't enough to sway Thiokol managers and NASA officials. Ebeling concludes he was inadequate. He didn't argue the data well enough.

A religious man, this is something he has prayed about for the past 30 years.

"I think that was one of the mistakes that God made," Ebeling says softly. "He shouldn't have picked me for the job. But next time I talk to him, I'm gonna ask him, 'Why me. You picked a loser.' "

I reminded him of something his late colleague and friend Roger Boisjoly once told me. Boisjoly was the other Thiokol engineer who spoke anonymously with NPR 30 years ago. He came to believe that he and Ebeling and their colleagues did all they could.

"We were talking to the right people," Boisjoly told me. "We were talking to the people who had the power to stop that launch."

"Maybe," Ebeling says with a weak wave as I leave. "Maybe Roger's right."

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Thirty years ago today, seven astronauts died when the space shuttle Challenger exploded. The nation watched in shock. The shuttle program stalled as investigations began. But rocket engineers with NASA contractor Morton Thiokol knew exactly what had happened. The night before the launch, they had tried to stop it. Soon afterwards, two of them anonymously described the fatal decision to NPR. One of those engineers has died. The other just decided to let NPR name him. He spoke with NPR's Howard Berkes back in 1986 and again today.

HOWARD BERKES, BYLINE: Bob Ebeling is 89 now and was desponded on February night 30 years ago when we sat at his kitchen table in Brigham City, Utah. Ebeling and four colleagues had tried to stop the Challenger launch. They presented data to Morton Thiokol engineers and NASA officials and argued that it would be too cold to launch. The rubber seals on the shuttle's booster rockets wouldn't seal. The engineers were overruled, and that night, tearful and angry, he told his wife, Darlene...

BOB EBELING: It's going to blow up. And I did my best to let the world know I was one of the few that really was close to the situation.

BERKES: The situation went on for hours as Ebeling and other Thiokol engineers presented data repeatedly. It was unequivocally clear to them.

EBELING: But NASA ruled the launch. They had their mind set on going up and proving to the world they were right and they knew what they were doing. But they didn't.

BERKES: A presidential commission found flaws in the space agency's decision-making process, but it's never been clear why NASA was so determined to launch. The space agency desperately tried to launch the shuttle routinely and reliably. President Reagan was set to give the State of Union address that night and reportedly planned to promote the Challenger flight. Whatever the reason, Ebeling says it didn't justify the clear risk.

EBELING: Had they listened to me and wait for the weather to change, it might have been a completely different outcome. There was more than enough people there to say, let's give it another day or two, but no one did.

BERKES: Ebeling retired soon after Challenger. He suffered deep depression and has never been able to lift the burden of guilt. He still feels, as he told me in 1986, he should have and could have done more. Sitting in a big easy chair in his living room, his eyes watery and his face grave, Ebeling concludes he was inadequate. He just didn't argue the data well enough, he says. He's prayed about this for the last 30 years.

EBELING: And I think that was one of the mistakes that God made. He shouldn't have picked me for that job. I don't know. But next time I talk to him, I'm going to ask him, why me? You picked a loser.

BERKES: I remind Ebeling what his late colleague and friend Roger Boisjoly once said. Boisjoly was the other Thiokol engineer who spoke with NPR anonymously 30 years ago. They were talking to the right people, Boisjoly once told me. They were talking to the people who had the power to stop that launch, and they did all they could. Maybe, Ebeling says to me with a weak wave as I leave, maybe Roger's right. Howard Berkes, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.