Jan 30, 2011

The Challenger Connection...

We have commemorated the 25th anniversary of the Challenger disaster.  I find it remarkable how vividly our memories can preserve those dreadful moments when pivotal disasters are thrust upon us.  On that morning, a coworker of mine, Lodean Scoble, ran into my cubicle and shouted, "The shuttle just blew up!"  The only TV in our building was a small black-and-white TV in the basement kitchen.  By the time I got downstairs, the room was packed.  We watched in horror as they replayed the images over and over as if maybe the next time there'd be a different outcome.  It never changed.  Seven heroes of the space race had died.

As the investigation into the disaster unfolded, the evidence pointed to a failure of the O-rings in a joint of one of the solid rocket boosters (SRBs).  That had a strong connection to Huntsville, since the SRB program was managed at our own Marshall Space Flight Center.  The manager of that program was Larry Mulloy.  In a long telephone conference the previous night, engineers and managers from Thiokol, mission operations, and the NASA Program Office had hotly debated the safety of a cold weather launch, specifically as the temperature might affect the performance of the O-rings on the solid rocket boosters.  Overnight temperatures were expected to dip into single digits.  There was no previous experience with these conditions, but some Thiokol engineers saw a disaster in the making.  There was a redesign effort in progress on the O-ring design.  Low temperature performance was the issue.  This issue had been the subject of engineering analysis for a couple of years.  It was well known to both the contractor and NASA personnel.

To complicate matters, NASA had sold the shuttle program to congress on the basis of its ability to sustain 24 launches per year.  They were a long way from approaching that goal, having launched 5 times in 1984 and 9 times in 1985.  There had already been four delays in the launch date of STS-51-L.  Consequently, there was enormous pressure to launch.  And so, when Thiokol engineers recommended
against launching on 28 January 1986, Larry Mulloy overruled that recommendation.  He was reported to have said, "My god, Thiokol, when do you want me to launch, next April?"  This decision was probably the worst lapse of good judgement in Mulloy's career.  We all know the results.

At the formal inquiry convened by President Reagan, the so-called Rogers Commission, Mulloy was a key witness.  Yet under repeated interrogation, he never apologized for his decision or admitted any error.  He appeared arrogant and defensive.  He said that given the same facts he would make the same decision again.  The inquiry board was not kind to Mr. Mulloy in their final report.  He soon took an early retirement from NASA.

For a while, Larry Mulloy was known to be looking for work around Huntsville.  He was a free agent for many months, shunned by many within the local engineering community.  At the time, I was working for John M. Cockerham and Associates, a small Huntsville consulting firm.  Mr. Cockerham started having discussions with Larry Mulloy about hiring him.  After all, John reasoned, you don't rise to the top engineering echelons of NASA by being stupid.  And after a few weeks of discussions and negotiations, Cockerham hired Larry Mulloy as a Vice President and General Manager. 

I was in the new organization that Mulloy headed up.  I worked for him for the next couple of years.  We did a lot of work together, largely on NASA contracts.  We never discussed the Challenger.


Duane said...

I also remember where I was when I heard the Challenger news. I was in a project meeting at Hughes in El Segundo. One of the crew members was from that Hughes facility. I too will not forget that day.
I also worked for Larry while at JMCA. On the way back from the Rockwell Downey in California facility we did have the opportunity to discuss Challenger. The subject seemed to injure Larry. I didn’t find Larry arrogant in that private ride in the car. According to Larry he made his decision based on the information that he had at the time. He didn’t defend his decision only stated why he made it.

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