The 30th anniversary of the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger on Jan 28th, 1986, has come and passed with brief mention in the news. While the technical and human factor reasons for the explosion have been touted to have been analyzed and corrected by NASA in subsequent launches, it is the personal effects on the shuttle rocket engineers that may continue to have lasting psychological effects.
A NPR article in 2006 marked the 20th anniversary of the rocket engine engineers who fought to delay the launch. The engineers worked for the Morton Thiokol company, which was the NASA subcontractor that designed and built the rocket engines. The engineers cited their understanding that the cold temperature conditions of the launch predicted the failing of rubber O-rings that were designed to prevent the leaking of burning engine propellant.
The article cited factors frustrating the technical arguments to delay the launch as NASA’s expectations to establish a regular Space Shuttle launching schedule (even during winter conditions), the initial support of but ultimate overruling of the engineer’s report by internal Thiokol managers, the “coercing” of Thiokol by NASA to approve the launch, the expectations of classrooms across the country to receive the first science class taught from space by a science teacher crewmember, and expectations that then President Ronald Reagan was to mention the successful launch during the State of the Union address the same evening. Given these myriad of external human factors, in hindsight, the warnings of the engineers didn’t have much of a chance to be heard.
A NPR article from 2012 marked the death of one of the other Thiokol engineers, Roger Boisjoly, who had tried to stop the launch. The report cites him as observing that he had “… fought like Hell to stop that launch.”and that he had been “talking to the right people, … the people who had the power to stop that launch.” The article goes on to highlight the career trajectory of Boisjoly, who encouraged by his psychotherapist, went on to lecture at different engineering schools to teach about ethical decision making.
A recent NPR follow-up article marking the 30th anniversary of the explosion gives an updated glimpse into the psychological effects of the explosion on one of the engineers who had tried to sound the alarm. The story and interview reveals for the first time, the identity and lingering self-blame of the now 89 year old engineer, Bob Ebeling, who was at the heart of the failed effort to persuade NASA to delay the launching. The article describes his development of deep depression after the incident and his sense in 1986 that he “… could have done more…. should have done more” and now 30 years later, with similar conclusions that he had been inadequate and didn’t argue the data well enough. It appears that Ebeling continues to blame himself by thinking that he was “…one of the mistakes that God made” and wondering why God had “… picked a loser.”
From the brief NPR articles we only read and hear soundbites and a glimpse into the psyche of both men but it is easy to understand why both engineers would have battled with anger, depression, and self-blame after their failed attempts. In his self-condemnations that he “should have done more” Ebeling exhibits typical cognitive hind sight bias after a traumatic event that likely contributes to ongoing depression. Hindsight bias is constructing a particular (negative) accounting of a past incident, when the repercussions of actions and decisions are fully known after the fact but that could not have been fully known at the time that the decisions were made. He may be blaming himself for not having done more since he “should” have known that his failure to convince his Thiokol managers and NASA would be the reason for the death of all the astronauts. While the link between failed O-rings under cold weather conditions and a fatal explosion had been predicted by the other engineer Boisjoly in company memos months before the explosion, Ebeling may be personalizing his failure to persuade his managers as the direct cause of the deaths without taking into account all the other factors that contributed to the tragedy.
His understandable but terrible self-descriptors of being God’s “mistake” and a “loser” are critical damning perceptions that likely perpetuate his depression unless they are corrected. It is not clear what kind of religious faith he subscribes to, but I hope that through his faith and with some assistance, he will be able to come to terms with and have a more accurate appraisal of his and others’ valiant efforts in the face of overwhelming external factors. Certainly blame and condemnation should be borne by all those in the chain of command who over-ruled the engineers’ warnings and succumbed to the lure of power, pride, financial gain, and fear.