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Truth, Lies, and O-rings: Inside the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster

By: Allan J. McDonald with James R. Hansen
Reviewed by: Edward Reynolds
University Press of Florida, 2009
$39.95, Hardcover

Truth, Lies, and O-rings: Inside the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster is an abrupt slap in the face, awakening the reader to the mess left on NASA’s hallowed grounds in the wake of the 1986 Challenger disaster. One freezing cold January morning in Florida, seconds after launch, the first in-flight deaths in NASA history occurred. Onboard was Christa McAuliffe, a schoolteacher who was to be the first ordinary citizen to fly into orbit.

Aerospace historian and Auburn University history professor James Hansen (author of First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong) has coauthored a revealing insider’s look at the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger accident with Allan J. McDonald, one of several engineers at Morton Thiokol, Inc., who recommended not launching due to never having blasted off in such cold temperatures. A Presidential Commission assembled to investigate the accident determined that the O-rings had frozen and, therefore, did not properly seal, allowing hot gases to burn through the rocket boosters, dooming the mission. Thiokol built the solid rocket motors that propel the pair of rocket boosters that send the space shuttle into orbit.

McDonald was director of the Space Shuttle Solid Rocket Motor Project for Morton Thiokol. His memoir is the first to be published by anyone directly involved with the ill-fated mission. It’s a fascinating, technical look at NASA’s “good ol’ boy” network and associated politics from an insider who blew the whistle on pressure from some at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville to launch that day, forcing Thiokol’s management to reverse a decision made the night before not to fly. Regarding NASA’s odd reversal of attitude towards whether it was safe to launch or not, McDonald writes: “I was very surprised at NASA’s challenging of the data that had been presented, because this action was totally out of character with any past flight readiness review meeting that I had ever attended. In all of these other meetings, NASA always challenged the data relative to whether it was accurate enough or well enough understood to recommend a launch, and it was data far more insignificant and much better understood than we were discussing this evening.” McDonald details collusion between a few NASA personnel and Morton Thiokol as they tried to cover up the irresponsible decisions that led to the disaster. McDonald was at Kennedy Space Center the day of the launch and refused to sign off on the launch. It was the first time NASA had requested that approval for launch be placed in writing.

Hansen is not kidding when he writes in the book’s Foreword that McDonald’s account is “detailed to a fault and tremendously meticulous in its telling, because that is who he is, that is what his engineering has been all about, and that is the only way the real truth behind the Challenger accident can ever finally come out.” The book will probably be better appreciated from start to finish by NASA buffs, as McDonald provides detailed technical explanations (with diagrams) about how the O-rings failed, as well as how the solid rocket boosters were redesigned under his guidance. Regardless, the testimony before the Presidential Commission still makes for a fascinating read that even the most casual NASA observer will find interesting. April 2010

Edward Reynolds is a freelance writer in Birmingham.

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