Former Morton Thiokol engineer Roger Boisjoly says he has stopped blaming himself for the destruction of the space shuttle Challenger and the deaths of its seven astronauts.
After two years of therapy and "the positive catharsis" of lectures on the disaster, Boisjoly is ready to reclaim the career that was shattered when the Challenger exploded in 1986."For a long time, I bore the burden of guilt because I hadn't done more to stop it," he said. "But I've resolved it now. I did everything I could."
Like several other Morton Thiokol engineers, Boisjoly argued fiercely the night before the Jan. 28, 1986, launch that temperatures of 53 degrees Fahrenheit or less could result in a failure of a rocket joint seal, imperiling the craft and its seven astronauts.
But after a second caucus with officials of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Boisjoly said, company managers "perceived pressure from NASA...there was no other justification for the launch. I felt the pressure, others felt the pressure."
With just six months left of the disability benefits obtained when he left Morton Thiokol, Boisjoly plans to use his remaining time and income "to get my life back together."
But at 50 years old and unemployed since September 1986, Boisjoly is realistic about his prospects.
"Changing jobs after 40 is bad enough," he said in a recent interview. "Under my circumstances, it's not going to be a cakewalk."
Boisjoly likely will return to engineering, although not in the aerospace business. A Tampa company tentatively offered a job after a lecture at the University of Southern Florida.
Boisjoly said it was NASA, not Morton Thiokol, that forced the launch.
"A lot of people think (Morton Thiokol) management argued with the engineers," he said. "It didn't happen that way. Management made the proper decision originally - they declined to launch below 54 degrees."
The following morning, Boisjoly and others at Morton Thiokol's Utah plant watched on television as the shuttle, rising above Cape Canaveral after a night of subfreezing temperatures, blew apart 73 seconds after liftoff.
For Boisjoly, the guilt and frustration sparked a brutal emotional upheaval from which he only now is recovering. After testifying before the presidential commission that investigated the disaster, he felt ostracized by Morton Thiokol.
On July 21, 1986, Boisjoly took disability leave and he quit for good in September. His benefits expire at the end of the year.
Diagnosed as suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome, Boisjoly declines to discuss his therapy.
Instead, he talks about his recent series of lectures to college students and professional societies, where he recounts Challenger-related events from Jan. 25, 1986, to the present.
"I dwell on the final chart, the decision-making chart that came out of the caucus. There's not a single statement on the chart that supports the launch," he said. "That's when my audience just looks horrified. They can't believe anybody would launch."
A mechanical engineer, Boisjoly had been in aerospace for 27 years, six at Morton Thiokol, before resigning.
"I saw the industry get broken over 20 years. We've gone from companies considering employees as an asset to considering them replaceable parts...based on the bottom line of maximum short-term profits," he said.
"It's the forced-march approach to management. It simply doesn't work," Boisjoly said. "It leads to decisions based on money and schedules."
Boisjoly also believes himself a pariah in the aerospace industry, blackballed because of his testimony before the Rogers Commission and his pessimistic assessment of the shuttle program. He has little faith in the new booster.