In 1986, Bob Ebeling, a booster rocket engineer at NASA, was consulted over unusually cold temperatures forecasted for January 28 – the day the space shuttle Challenger lifted off the coast of Cape Canaveral, Florida. Temps that morning still hovered in the high teens only, and concerns were high over an O-ring seal in the right solid rocket booster. The ring failed, allowing pressurized burning gas to release. Seventy-three seconds into the flight, the Challenger exploded and disintegrated over the Atlantic Ocean.
Ebeling was among those who warned that the seals may fail – not only in the days leading up to the launch but as far back as one year prior – but those warnings were not heeded by NASA. As a result, seven crew members, including five NASA astronauts and two payload specialists, died in one of the space program’s most tragic disasters.
According to NPR on March 22, Ebeling “spent a third of his life consumed with guilt about the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. But at the end of his life, his family says, he was finally able to find peace.” Ebeling died Monday at age 89 in Brigham City, Utah, after a long illness.
The O-ring, a critical component that was not designed nor tested to hold up under frigid temps, was found to be the cause of the explosion. After the accident, a special commission appointed by President Ronald Reagan found that NASA violated its own safety parameters and even knew that the rocket booster seals contained a potentially catastrophic flaw, but disregarded warnings from its own engineers.
In 1985, Bob Ebeling circulated an internal memo among NASA engineers – giving it the alarming title “Help!” – that spoke openly of the O-ring concerns. In fact, as far back as 1977, tests showed that booster combustion could potentially warp the metal parts of the rings, opening a gap through which gases could leak.
Days before the launch, the shuttle’s engineers asked Ebeling about the possibility of a shuttle go at 18 degrees. Ebeling answered: “We’re only qualified to 40 degrees… What business does anyone even have thinking about 18 degrees, we’re in no man’s land.” A teleconference followed, and NASA decided to push forward with the planned launch. The evening before, Ebeling told his wife Darlene: “It’s going to blow up.”
“I was one of the few that was really close to the situation,” Ebeling recalls, according to an NPR interview from January 28 – the 30 year anniversary of the Challenger disaster. “Had they listened to me and waited for a weather change, it might have been a completely different outcome.”
Ebeling was haunted by what he perceived was his own failures. “I think the truth has to come out,” he said through tears. “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… I could have done more. I should have done more.”
Crushed and depressed, Ebeling retired shortly after the accident. He prayed about what happened – but was only swallowed up by his own self-doubt.
“I think that was one of the mistakes that God made,” Ebeling 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.’”
However, after the story was published in January, Ebeling received an outpouring of support. Writes NPR: “Hundreds of NPR readers and listeners helped Ebeling overcome persistent guilt in the weeks before his death. They sent supportive emails and letters after our January story.”
One of those individuals who reached out to Bob was his former boss, Allan McDonald. As did two of the people who had overruled him back in 1986. Former executive engineer Robert Lund and former NASA official George Hardy, along with McDonald, all lifted Ebeling’s burden. Even NASA issued a formal statement, writing that the deaths of the seven astronauts would always serve as a reminder that the agency must “remain vigilant and listen to those like Mr. Ebeling who have the courage to speak up.”
A few months later, Bob Ebeling passed away, finally freed of the burden he carried for thirty years.