By Jane Benson, NSRDEC Public AffairsOctober 3, 2017
NATICK, Mass. -- "I hate the nomenclature 'whistleblower,'" said Allan McDonald, an engineer who refused to sign off on the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger. "I'd like to change it to 'truth tellers.'"
The importance of finding the courage to tell the truth and the importance of creating a work culture where speaking up is encouraged were at the heart of a talk given recently by McDonald at the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center. McDonald's presentation discussed "Safety and Ethics Learned from the Space Shuttle Challenger and Columbia Accidents" and was followed by a question and answer period.
In the mid-1980s, McDonald served as the director of the Space Shuttle Solid Rocket Motor Project and as the Morton Thiokol project manager for the O-Rings on the Solid Rocket Boosters. He refused to sign off on the required launch recommendation report for the Space Shuttle Challenger because he believed that one of parts, the O-ring, might not hold up under the cold temperatures predicted for Jan. 28, 1986: the day of the launch.
He knew that the launch was behind schedule, but he knew that safety rather than schedules and budgets had to drive the decision of whether or not to launch. He and other engineers determined that the shuttle should not be launched under 53 degrees Fahrenheit.
His boss overrode that decision and called for the launch to go on as planned with no temperature restrictions.
The Challenger launch went ahead as scheduled, killing all seven people on board, including Christa McAuliffe, a New Hampshire teacher who was chosen to be the first teacher in space. McDonald noted that he thought extra caution would be taken given that the McAuliffe was not only the first teacher but also the first civilian to fly into space, but unfortunately this was not the case.
Christine Charette, a textile technologist in NSRDEC's Aerial Delivery Directorate -- as well as other members of the directorate and G1- Human Resources at NSRDEC -- sought out McDonald to come to Natick after Charette heard an interview with McDonald and a separate interview with Bob Ebling. Ebling, who is now deceased and never quite got over the tragedy, was one of the lead engineers on the Challenger project.
"I do not ever want to be in a position to feel like I could have spoken up more strongly or done more to prevent an accident," said Charette.
Charette read extensively about the Challenger decision-making process and thought McDonald's message was an extremely important one.
"As a parachute textile subject matter expert to engineers, equipment specialists and program managers, I take very seriously the responsibility to develop and provide my technical recommendations to them, so together we ensure the safety of our Soldiers," said Charette.
McDonald told the NSRDEC workforce that when the Rogers Commission was formed to investigate the Challenger accident, at first he was not one of the people asked to speak. He sat in the back and heard leadership from NASA and Morton Thiokol downplaying the discussions prior to the launch decision and saying things that were not necessarily inaccurate but definitely misleading.
He knew he had to speak up, and he decided to raise his hand.
"No one paid attention to me because I was in the cheap seats, up in the dark," said McDonald. "So I started walking toward the floor to the commission's table."
He said that he thought the commission should know that the engineers were so concerned about the O-rings that they recommended not launching below 53 degrees Fahrenheit.
The commission was shocked to hear this.
When McDonald returned to work after speaking up, his company put him in a less-visible position, essentially a non-job. Eventually, Congressman Ed Markey from Massachusetts introduced a resolution into Congress to reinstate him to his former job. The resolution was passed by the full House of Representatives and also the full Senate. McDonald is the only person in American history to have his job restored by an act of Congress.
During his presentation, McDonald also discussed the Space Shuttle Columbia. The Columbia space shuttle had completed 27 missions before failing during its 28th, killing all seven crew members. He said that the Columbia accident had failures similar to the Challenger in terms of ethics and decision-making. He cautioned leaders against creating a culture of fear where people are afraid of pointing out problems.
"A good leader is not a boss," said McDonald, who subscribes to the servant approach to leadership. "You don't boss people. You don't manage people. You're servants to the people who work for you so that you can make them the best they can be for the job they're responsible for. They are willing to tell you anything because you have a good dialogue."
He told a highly engaged NSRDEC audience that the thing he wanted them to most remember from his talk today "is to always do the right thing for the right reason at the right time with the right people and you'll have no regrets."
He noted that the best decisions can only be made when all the information is on the table. He said that people must feel free to give their professional opinions.
"You don't always have to be right, but you always have to be honest," said McDonald.
"Each of us has to prevent overconfidence and complacency with regard to Soldier safety in our careers," said Charette. "Persistence, self-awareness and personal responsibility will keep our Soldiers safe. Each of us has a responsibility to provide our technical opinion when a safety decision is being made, and not to remain silent. It also helps to remind us of the risks of adopting a 'prove it's NOT safe' mindset when we should remain in a 'prove it is safe' mindset."
The U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center is part of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, which has the mission to provide innovative research, development and engineering to produce capabilities for decisive overmatch to the Army against the complexities of the current and future operating environments in support of the Joint Warfighter and the Nation. RDECOM is a major subordinate command of the U.S. Army Materiel Command.