Monday, February 29, 2016

Institutional Failure, Cont.

It has been a little over 30 years since the space shuttle Challenger disaster. A summary of events, and of a recent NPR interview is in a prior post: Institutional Failure

NPR published an update to the story.

Bob Ebeling, now 89, was one of the engineers who had tried to stop the launch. He was interviewed last month about the disaster and it was apparent that he had spent 30 years believing he was responsible for the tragedy.

"[God] 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.'"

Ebeling and NPR received a flood of correspondence. 

One of the most touching letters was from Jim Sides, an engineer who said "When I heard he carried a burden of guilt for 30 years, it broke my heart, and I just sat there in the car in the parking lot and cried."

"Your efforts show that your care for people comes first for you. I agree with your friend Roger Boisjoly. You and he and your colleagues did all that you could do. . . . . God didn't pick a loser."

Ebeling's daughter explained that her father was devastated when no one from Thiokol or NASA had contacted him in the 30 years since he left the program.

"He's never gotten confirmation that he did do his job and he was a good worker."

Allan McDonald, Ebeling's boss at the time and who had also tried to stop the launch, called after he heard the interview.

"You did something and you really cared. That's the definition of a winner." He also credited Ebeling with making the call before the launch. That call prompted a last minute teleconference and an additional opportunity to explain the danger of launching.

Thiokol's prior vice president of engineering and the prior deputy director of engineering at the Marshall Spaceflight Center also contacted Ebling. Both assured him that he had done everything he could have done and he was not to blame. 

During NPR's followup visit, an email from NASA Administrator and former astronaut Charlie Bolden was received.

"We honor [the Challenger astronauts] not through bearing the burden of their loss, but by constantly reminding each other to remain vigilant, and to listen to those like Mr. Ebeling who have the courage to speak up so that our astronauts can safely carry out their missions."

When asked what he would like to tell the people who contacted him, he said, "You helped bring my worrisome mind to ease. You have to have an end to everything."

"The future doesn't belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we'll continue to follow them." - Ronald W. Reagan, Address to the Nation, January 28, 1986

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