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Roger Boisjoly, gave warning before shuttle disaster

Marilynn K. Yee/New York Times/File

ROGER BOISJOLY

NEW YORK - Six months before the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded on Jan. 28, 1986, Roger Boisjoly wrote a portentous memo. He warned that if the weather was too cold, seals connecting sections of the shuttle’s huge rocket boosters could fail.

“The result could be a catastrophe of the highest order, loss of human life,’’ he wrote.

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The memo was meant to jolt Morton Thiokol, the company that made the boosters and employed Mr. Boisjoly. About six months earlier a task force had been formed, partly on Mr. Boisjoly’s recommendation, to examine the effect of cold on the boosters. The effort, however, had become mired in paperwork, procurement delays. and a rush to launch the shuttle, according to later investigations.

Meanwhile, his apprehensions only grew. The night before the Challenger’s liftoff, the temperature dipped below freezing. Unusual for Florida, the cold was unprecedented for a shuttle launching, and it prompted Mr. Boisjoly and other engineers to plead that the flight be postponed. Their bosses, under pressure from NASA, rejected the advice.

The shuttle exploded 73 seconds after launching, killing its seven crew members, including Christa McAuliffe, a high school teacher from Concord, N.H.

Mr. Boisjoly’s memo was soon made public. He became widely known as a whistle-blower in a federal investigation of the disaster. And although he was hailed for his action by many, he was also made to suffer for it.

Mr. Boisjoly died in Nephi, Utah, near Provo, on Jan. 6. He was 73. His death was reported only locally at the time. He lived in southwest Utah, in St. George. His wife, Roberta, said he recently learned he had cancer in his colon, kidneys, and liver.

Until the Challenger disaster, Mr. Boisjoly was known in his field as a crackerjack troubleshooter who had worked for companies in California on lunar module life-support systems and the moon vehicle. In 1980, he accepted a cut in pay to move with his family to Utah to deepen his involvement in the Mormon religion and to join Morton Thiokol.

After the Challenger explosion, Mr. Boisjoly gave a presidential commission investigating the disaster internal corporate documents. His disclosure of the internal memo he had written six months before the disaster was regarded as a bombshell.

Mr. Boisjoly was awarded the Prize for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and he spoke to more than 300 universities and civic groups about corporate ethics. He became sought after as an expert in forensic engineering.

But before then he had paid the stiff price often exacted of whistle-blowers. Thiokol cut him off from space work, and he was shunned by colleagues and managers. A former friend warned him, “If you wreck this company, I’m going to put my kids on your doorstep,’’ Mr. Boisjoly told the Los Angeles Times in 1987.

He had headaches, double-vision, and depression, he said. He yelled at his dog and his daughters and skipped church to avoid people. He filed two suits against Thiokol; both were dismissed.

He later said he was sustained by a single gesture of support. Sally Ride, the first US woman in space, hugged him after his appearance before the commission.

“She was the only one,’’ he said in a whisper to a Newsday reporter in 1988. “The only one.’’

Roger Mark Boisjoly was born in Lowell, Mass., on April 25, 1938, and earned a mechanical engineering degree from UMass Lowell. Besides his wife, the former Roberta Malcolm, he leaves his daughters Norma Patterson and Darlene Richens; his brothers Ronald, Russell, and Richard; and eight grandchildren.

Mr. Boisjoly worked for 27 years in the aerospace industry. But it was one night and one moment that stood out. On the night of Jan. 27, 1986, Mr. Boisjoly and four other Thiokol engineers used a teleconference with NASA to press the case for delaying the next day’s launching because of the cold. At one point, Mr. Boisjoly said, he slapped down photos showing the damage cold temperatures had caused to an earlier shuttle. It had lifted off on a cold day, but not this cold.

Four Thiokol vice presidents, all engineers themselves, went offline to huddle. They later said that they had worried they lacked conclusive data to stop a launching that had already been postponed twice. They thought the naysayers might be operating on gut reaction, not science.

Jerry Mason, Thiokol’s general manager, told his fellow executives to take off their engineering hats and put on management hats. They told NASA it was a go.

The next morning Mr. Boisjoly watched the launching. If there was going to be a problem, he thought it would come at liftoff. As the shuttle cleared the tower, his prayers seemed answered.

“Thirteen seconds later,’’ Mr. Boisjoly said, “we saw it blow up.’’

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