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Engineer who warned of 1986 Challenger disaster still racked with guilt, three decades on

"I could have done more. I should have done more," engineer Bob Ebeling said in 1986. Today, he feels no different.
By Doug G. Ware   |   Updated Jan. 29, 2016 at 4:10 PM
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BRIGHAM CITY, Utah, Jan. 28 (UPI) -- The entire nation was stunned into silence watching the Space Shuttle Challenger abruptly blow apart 73 seconds after launch, but one man wasn't. In fact, he blew the whistle as loud as he could in the days leading up to the worst disaster in the history of the American space program exactly 30 years ago Thursday.

The problem was, no one with any authority listened to Bob Ebeling.

An engineer at Morton Thiokol, the rocket propulsion firm that supplied the space shuttle's two solid rocket boosters, Ebeling repeatedly warned NASA that the launch conditions that day could be catastrophic.

It was a lesson learned too late.

The Challenger was doomed by a failed rubber seal, called an O-ring, in the field joints of each section of the boosters. The O-rings are designed to flex during movement and prevent fuel from escaping from the boosters. In the chilly Florida temperatures that day, one of the seals on the lower right booster didn't flex because it was too cold. Additionally, it was partly burned away by the combustion of fuel during liftoff -- producing small black puffs of smoke that can be seen in footage of the launch.

Ebeling, 89, says he was fully aware of the ring's limitations and tried to get NASA on board with his thinking, but was ultimately overruled by managers at Thiokol and the space administration.

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

Although Ebeling can't be accused of neglect or failing to act, he says he still feels responsible for the deaths of six American astronauts and a civilian teacher aboard the flight -- even now, 30 years later.

By the time the Challenger finally launched on the morning of Jan. 28, 1986, it had already been delayed six times between Jan. 22 and Jan. 28. The reasons for the delays varied from mechanical to meteorological, but the postponements may have made NASA more eager to get the late shuttle into orbit.

"NASA ruled the launch," Ebeling told NPR. "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."

Ebeling, and four others at Thiokol, actually believed that if an O-ring failed, Challenger would blow up on the launch pad. By an incredible stroke of luck, it didn't, and the spacecraft lifted off and cleared the tower.

Watching the launch on television from their firm's Utah headquarters, a relieved Ebeling and other concerned engineers at Morton Thiokol thought they, NASA and the astronauts had dodged a major bullet -- until mission controller Richard Covey relayed a command to shuttle pilots Dick Scobee and Michael Smith to increase power.

"Challenger, go at throttle-up."

In the crew's final communication to the ground, Scobee acknowledged the instruction.

"Roger, go at throttle-up."

About a second later, the engineers at Thiokol agonizingly realized their solace had been premature.

Further, Ebeling and the others had been right. Challenger never should have gotten into the air. But a buildup of metallic material in the rocket fuel, called slag, inadvertently plugged the leak caused by the failed seal.

Engineers speculated in the years following that if the slag had continued to stem the leak for just a few more moments, the shuttle and its crew almost certainly would have have survived. The vehicle exploded less than a minute before the boosters would've been jettisoned.

A subsequent government investigation confirmed what Ebeling already knew -- that the chilly weather precluded an O-ring from expanding properly during launch. When the escaping fuel came into contact with the flames trailing the shuttle, it ignited and instantaneously blew the shuttle to smithereens.

The disaster caused NASA to shutter the program until 1988, but Challenger would not be the last shuttle to meet with catastrophe.

Seven more astronauts were killed aboard Columbia at the end of mission STS-107 in 2003. In that case, though, the problem wasn't a rocket booster -- but a piece of foam that fell from the main center tank during launch and punched a hole in the leading edge of the left wing.

It was critical mishap. Beneath the wing and the entire shuttle are thermal tiles that resist the inferno of penetrating Earth's atmosphere during re-entry. The gaping hole in Columbia's wing was present for the entire two-week mission, but went unnoticed by the astronauts and mission controllers.

NASA finally shut down its space shuttle program in 2011, but that's something Ebeling says he'll never be able to do with his feelings of sorrow and guilt

"I could have done more. I should have done more," Ebeling said in 1986. Today, he feels no different.

"I think that was one of the mistakes that God made," he said. "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.'"

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