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Bob Ebeling, Challenger Engineer Who Forewarned of Shuttle Disaster, Dead At 89 (huffingtonpost.com) 132

An anonymous reader quotes a report from HuffingtonPost: For three decades, retired NASA engineer Bob Ebeling blamed himself for being unable to stop the 1986 launch of space shuttle Challenger. He had warned that the shuttle might explode, and it did shortly after liftoff, killing seven crew members. Ebeling was one of five engineers at a NASA contractor then called Morton Thiokol who warned the space agency that cold temperatures predicated at the time of the launch could prove disastrous. The warning was ignored. The night before the launch, Ebeling reportedly told his wife, Darlene, "It's going to blow up." He told another daughter, Kathy Ebeling, that he had toyed with the idea of bringing his hunting rifle to work to threaten NASA not to launch, according to an article last month in The Washington Post. In the final weeks of his life, however, thanks to an outpouring of support following a National Public Radio story in January on the 30th anniversary of the disaster, Ebeling, 89, finally found peace. Ebeling died Monday in his home in Brigham City, Utah, after a prolonged illness with prostate cancer, NPR reported.
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Bob Ebeling, Challenger Engineer Who Forewarned of Shuttle Disaster, Dead At 89

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  • Sad. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday March 22, 2016 @02:18PM (#51754767)

    RIP Mr. Ebeling.

    A tragedy that did not have to happen because "sales and marketing" ignored the engineer with the technical knowhow.

    • "sales and marketing" ignored the engineer with the technical knowhow.

      The worst thing is, this is NASA we're talking about here, there's no "products" or "sales". So how can anyone else hope to achieve security? It's hopeless!

      • Re:Sad. (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Lisandro ( 799651 ) on Tuesday March 22, 2016 @02:27PM (#51754885)

        NASA had to launch in order to keep to their promised schedule (which was already stretched several times before the incident) in order not to lose funding. Someone made the call to consider the freezing an acceptable risk and launch even with several warnings not to do so.

        There was a a "product" and a "sale".

        • Re:Sad. (Score:5, Informative)

          by creimer ( 824291 ) on Tuesday March 22, 2016 @02:33PM (#51754939) Homepage

          There was a a "product" and a "sale".

          The product was the first teacher in space. The sale was the State of the Union address by President Ronald Reagan. According to various reports, Reagan wanted to chat with her while she was in orbit on national television. NASA and the administration categorically denied that the launch was tied to the speech.

          • Re:Sad. (Score:5, Informative)

            by thinkwaitfast ( 4150389 ) on Tuesday March 22, 2016 @02:45PM (#51755041)
            Says someone who didn't read the Rogers Commission Report [nasa.gov] including Feynman's addendum where NASA actually believed their own (completely made up) hype about 1 loss per 100,000 missions.

            Note also that the exact same causes were also listed as contributing factors in the loss of the Columbia.

            "For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled." ... Richard Feynman

            • by creimer ( 824291 )

              Says someone who didn't read the Rogers Commission Report [nasa.gov] including Feynman's addendum where NASA actually believed their own (completely made up) hype about 1 loss per 100,000 missions.

              The news media reported a possible connection between the schedules for the launch and the State of the Union address. If it was proven that NASA gambled with the lives of astronauts for a White House PR stunt, it would have been a major scandal. Unfortunately for the Reagan Administration, 1986 was the start of the Iran-Contra scandal and good PR was in short supply.

              • by Gr8Apes ( 679165 )

                The news media reported a possible connection between the schedules for the launch and the State of the Union address. If it was proven that NASA gambled with the lives of astronauts for a White House PR stunt, it would have been a major scandal.

                News media reports SENSATIONALIST possible story. Fails to support said story and nothing happens. News at 11?

                • by creimer ( 824291 )

                  Here's another SENSATIONALIST headline from that time: "Oliver North's Martial Law Plans!!!"

                  Rex 84, short for Readiness Exercise 1984, was a classified scenario and drill developed by the United States federal government to detain large numbers of American citizens deemed to be "national security threats", mainly African Americans, in the event that the President declared a "State of National Emergency". The plan was first revealed in detail in a major daily newspaper by reporter Alfonso Chardy in the July 5 1987 edition of the Miami Herald. Possible reasons for such a roundup were reported to be widespread opposition to a U.S. military invasion abroad, such as if the United States were to directly invade Central America.

                  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rex_84 [wikipedia.org]

              • It was never "proven" although it was thoroughly investigated. And of course NASA was gambling with their lives, that's what they do. The astronauts are well aware of this though it has been argued that Krista wasn't. One o the most damning things if you read the report is how NASA calculated the odds that they gave to the astronauts. In short, they didn't. They made up a bogus number in order to sell the program to congress and after a while the started to believe their own fables, hence the Feynman quote
            • Re:Sad. (Score:5, Insightful)

              by Solandri ( 704621 ) on Tuesday March 22, 2016 @03:49PM (#51755693)
              How NASA came up with the 1 loss per 100,000 figure is a great lesson in misapplied statistics. Most of that risk was due to O-ring failure. Mating the segments of the SRBs was a difficult task, and inspection of the SRBs after test firings showed that something like 1 in 50 O-rings sealing the joint was failing (burning through). This was correctly deemed unacceptable. NASA's "solution" was to put in 3 O-rings at each joint. That triple redundancy meant that the chance of a complete burn-through (failure of all three O-rings) was 1 in 50*50*50 = 1 in 125,000. Presto! You've taken a system with unacceptably high risk, and through the clever use of statistics turned it into something reliable.

              Unfortunately, that math only works when the failures are independent events. When a common event compromises all three O-rings - like cold weather - they all fail together and your redundancy offers no additional protection.

              The same thing happened at Fukushima. They knew the nuclear plant would need diesel generators for backup power in an emergency. Diesel generators can be finicky to start, especially if they haven't been usd much for years. So they added redundancy by installing multiple generators - 2 per reactor, plus a switching station which would allow them to shunt power from any generator to any reactor. 12 diesel generators in all for the plant.

              Again, that assumes the diesel generator failures are independent events. A common event (flooding from a tsunami) wiped out all but 2 of the generators, and those 2 (in another reactor further up the hill that had been shut down for maintenance) were useless because the flooding also wiped out the switching station.

              When you took Intro to Statistics the book said to get the overall probability, you multiply probabilities for independent events. That little bit at the end there is really important.
              • Re:Sad. (Score:4, Interesting)

                by lgw ( 121541 ) on Tuesday March 22, 2016 @04:34PM (#51756107) Journal

                Mating the segments of the SRBs was a difficult task

                It was a needlessly difficult task. The fundamental problem was that the SRB sections would deform while being shipped long distance by train, making both the O-rings and the alignment of the sections critical. They were shipped long distance by train so that they could be manufactured in the district of someone important to funding. Earmarking was the root cause. Make the SRBs on-site and avoid the need for O-rings entirely.

                The alignment problem was aggravated by really poor markings on the sections, because the "usability" of the alignment process was ignored, leaving the techs stuck trying to line up these small and cryptic markings.

                Feynman's book on all of this was a great read.

                • Re:Sad. (Score:5, Informative)

                  by ShanghaiBill ( 739463 ) on Tuesday March 22, 2016 @06:49PM (#51757265)

                  They were shipped long distance by train so that they could be manufactured in the district of someone important to funding.

                  That "someone" was Senator Jake Garn [wikipedia.org] of Utah, who chaired the appropriation committee for NASA's funding. He not only had the SRBs made in Utah, but he also got himself a ride on the Space Shuttle at a cost of tens of million to the taxpayers, despite being completely unqualified and spending near all his time in space puking from motion sickness.

                  Make the SRBs on-site and avoid the need for O-rings entirely.

                  They did not have to be made on-site. They could have been made in a single piece anywhere on the east or gulf coast and moved to the launch site by barge using the Intercoastal Waterway [wikipedia.org]. That was the original plan, before Senator Garn used his chairmanship to have construction shifted to Utah, increasing the cost, and decreasing the structural integrity.

                  • and dollars to donuts that asshole didn't lose a wink of sleep over any of this. too bad he wasn't onboard the challenger.

                • Feynman's book was a requirement in my engineering degree and also a job I had. (I'd read it before either :) )
                • by Agripa ( 139780 )

                  Sitting the SRB sections on their side for transport is not going to damage them in any way. They were designed to withstand the bending moment generated by the main engines before liftoff against the SRB hold down bolts.

                  After NASA changed the hold down timing to prevent damage to the launch facilities, the bending moment from the main engines was enough to damage the SRB sections before liftoff so much that they could not be straightened without bypassing the maximum force limit on the press. The Roger's

        • by kwerle ( 39371 )

          Of course there was a product and a sale.

          Product: launching stuff into space.
          Sale: M launches/N time for P $/flight/mass/whatever

          The customer was the US/congress.

        • by Agripa ( 139780 )

          NASA's belief that they had orders to launch no matter what were more insidious than that.

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org]

      • by Anonymous Coward

        The worst thing is, this is NASA we're talking about here, there's no "products" or "sales".

        mumble mumble Reagan mumble President mumble mumble actor mumble thought it was a movie set mumble

      • Re:Sad. (Score:5, Insightful)

        by gstoddart ( 321705 ) on Tuesday March 22, 2016 @02:31PM (#51754921) Homepage

        Well, then it's the next batch of cluprits ... PR and management. Which I gather in this case is exactly what happened.

        The night before the launch, Ebeling and four other engineers at NASA contractor Morton Thiokol had tried to stop the launch. Their managers and NASA overruled them.

        That night, he told his wife, Darlene, "It's going to blow up."

        When Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff, Ebeling and his colleagues sat stunned in a conference room at Thiokol's headquarters outside Brigham City, Utah. They watched the spacecraft explode on a giant television screen and they knew exactly what had happened.

        Three weeks later, Ebeling and another engineer separately and anonymously detailed to NPR the first account of that contentious pre-launch meeting. Both were despondent and in tears as they described hours of data review and arguments. The data showed that the rubber seals on the shuttle's booster rockets wouldn't seal properly in cold temperatures and this would be the coldest launch ever.

        What's really sad is this poor bastard did everything he could to avert it, and got told to STFU.

        It's sad that he carried guilt for something he properly identified and did everything he could to prevent it.

        "I think that was one of the mistakes that God made," Ebeling says softly. "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.' "

        No sir, that's not how the rest of us interpret that.

        • by leonbev ( 111395 )

          I guess that the only thing he didn't try was leaking the problem to the press. Something tells me that a "NASA Engineer Warns Of Impending Shuttle Failure" headline in the New York Times would have got NASA's attention.

          It would have been more effective than going into the office with a rifle, anyway. They just would have declared him to be a mad man, arrested or shot him, launched the shuttle anyway, and would have eventually had the same problem in either that launch or another one soon after.

          Sure, he pro

          • Deciding to launch is a difficult job. There has always been some group or another at NASA predicting failure. And all but two of them were wrong. The problem then becomes how do you know who is right and who s being over cautious? If you wait until everyone says OK, you're never going to fly. It has even been speculated that the Challenger flight would not have ended, even with the burnthrough, had it not hit worse than ever seen before wind shears. If this wee true, what then? You went to the press with
        • by Anonymous Coward

          I was there in the conference room (called "MIC" room - Management Information Center) when we lost Challenger - I'll never forget that day.

          Bob was a good guy to work with, I was sorry to hear that he felt so much guilt over that day.

    • Re:Sad. (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Anubis IV ( 1279820 ) on Tuesday March 22, 2016 @03:05PM (#51755219)

      Not only did they ignore the warnings, in some cases they directly ignored the protections in place to protect against unsafe launches. A few years back, I had the privilege of being seated next to Roger Boisjoly [wikipedia.org], another of the Morton Thiokol whistleblowers, who was to be a guest lecturer for 650 engineering ethics students at Texas A&M University the following day. It was fascinating to hear him describe his firsthand account of the conference calls and back-and-forth taking place the night before the disaster.

      From what I recall of what he said, prior to every launch, NASA required that Morton Thiokol engineers sign off on their systems, and one of those sign-offs fell to him, but he refused to sign anything due to the concerns he had about the O-ring in cold temperatures. While Morton Thiokol management tried to convince him to change his mind, they were on a conference call with NASA, who was asking what the delay was about. Morton Thiokol management played it off as a minor issue on their end that was being worked out (i.e. "He's driving into the office right now...just give us a minute" sort of stuff). When they were unable to convince him to sign it, his non-engineer manager relieved him of duty and signed-off on the launch himself, completely contrary to protocol.

      NASA accepted it regardless of that fact, and the rest is history.

      • Re:Sad. (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Grishnakh ( 216268 ) on Tuesday March 22, 2016 @04:18PM (#51755951)

        The thing that really bothers me is that these whistleblower engineers have Wikipedia pages about them, they're listed by name in discussions or articles (including Wikipedia) about the disaster, etc.

        But where is the list of names of the managers who were *directly responsible for the deaths of the Challenger crew*? These people are guilty of **murder**. Yet we never see their names anywhere, they're just referred to as anonymous "managers".

        Why is this? These murderers should be publicly listed and shamed for the scum that they are.

        • by Anonymous Coward

          From Thiokol: Robert Lund

          From NASA: George Hardy

          There may be others, but the NPR article linked in the summary names those two.

          captcha: "stupidly"

        • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

          by Anonymous Coward

          Additionally, googling "Robert Lund" finds articles from 1986 naming the others: Joe Kilminster, Jerry Mason, and Larry Mulloy.
          While those 4 all had a part, the one ultimately responsible appears to be Joe Kilminster, who recommended the launch, and should have listened to Ebeling.

          http://articles.latimes.com/1986-03-13/news/mn-19612_1_morton-thiokol

          "Calvin Wiggins, who was demoted to deputy."

          "authority previously held by Jerry Mason, senior vice president of Wasatch Operations, and by Robert Lund, vice pre

        • But where is the list of names of the managers who were *directly responsible for the deaths of the Challenger crew*? These people are guilty of **murder**. Yet we never see their names anywhere, they're just referred to as anonymous "managers".

          How many people die aboard Challenger, and how many people died after Hurricane Katrina, or were killed on Sept 11, 2001? All of which were negligence, and in all cases, those who were responsible for mass manslaughter are anonymous and unpunished.

          • But where is the list of names of the managers who were *directly responsible for the deaths of the Challenger crew*? These people are guilty of **murder**. Yet we never see their names anywhere, they're just referred to as anonymous "managers".

            How many people die aboard Challenger, and how many people died after Hurricane Katrina, or were killed on Sept 11, 2001? All of which were negligence, and in all cases, those who were responsible for mass manslaughter are anonymous and unpunished.

            Well hold on now. It's one thing to intentionally launch a Space Shuttle when you know there's a high chance of failure. It's another thing to mismanage a relief effort of people who refused to evacuate their homes in the face of a hurricane. It's also another thing to miss all the signs that point to a criminal and nefarious act that would result in the death of thousands. Someone proactively made the decision to risk lives in the first case. In the other two cases, people made the wrong choices and i

            • Someone proactively made the decision to risk lives in the first case. In the other two cases, people made the wrong choices and it lead to deaths.

              In all three cases: "people made the wrong choices and it lead to deaths."

              we should not punish someone criminally for the second two issues unless you can show intentional negligence or malfeasance on the part of the people in charge.

              The term you're looking for is involuntary manslaughter, and it's every bit a crime as willful murder.

              Both of the others were very

          • Incorrect. We know who was negligent in Katrina: President George W Bush, his dumb lackey "Brownie", and the governor of Louisiana at the time.

        • by Agripa ( 139780 )

          But where is the list of names of the managers who were *directly responsible for the deaths of the Challenger crew*? These people are guilty of **murder**. Yet we never see their names anywhere, they're just referred to as anonymous "managers".

          Being just managers, like children they could not know any better so are not responsible for the results of their actions.

      • A few years back, I had the privilege of being seated next to Roger Boisjoly, another of the Morton Thiokol whistleblowers, who was to be a guest lecturer for 650 engineering ethics students at Texas A&M University the following day. It was fascinating to hear him describe his firsthand account of the conference calls and back-and-forth taking place the night before the disaster.

        Did he tell you the part where the seal was unsafe at any temperature and he said nothing about it? About how the flaws were

        • The tires on your car are known to fail sometimes. The cases are well documented, we've known about tire blowouts for decades, and yet we continue to put cars on the road with tires that could fail on any given drive. Would you suggest that cars are flawed, unsafe, and that the people building them are acting in an unethical fashion?

          Life involves risk. We takes steps to mitigate it. For long-haul trucks, they double-up their tires in order to keep the truck safe when a blowout inevitably occurs. Likewise, t

          • by ed1park ( 100777 )

            "but they had failed to take into account a number of factors (the most notable being the change in performance characteristics when exposed to cold temperatures), leading to the last-minute warnings as they realized the potential for disaster."

            Bzzt wrong. The managers took the cold temps into account, and ignored the pleas of their engineers to delay the launch because previous damage sustained from temps that were not even as extreme on that day.

            http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02... [nytimes.com]

            There is risk, and then th

          • a culture of invincibility

            Coming off of Apollo, this was the whole downfall of the Shuttle Program as NASA believed they could do anything and oversold their own capabilities. A little while later when they were running into problems the had to go to congress to make them the sole launch provider for the US to get the rates up high enough to meet the cost promises. That led to design changes needed by customers, primarily the DoD who didn't want the thing in the fit place but were being forced to use it.

          • The tires on your car are known to fail sometimes. The cases are well documented, we've known about tire blowouts for decades, and yet we continue to put cars on the road with tires that could fail on any given drive.

            Tire blowouts (in terms of individual tires) are rare - the Shuttle primary o-rings suffered damage caused by leakage on nearly every flight. They suffered significant damage on (IIRC) twelve flights prior to Challenger. They suffered damage nearly to Challenger levels on two of those - with

  • by Anonymous Coward

    This guy spoke out. Now he's dead.

    • This guy spoke out. Now he's dead.

      Must be why none of those "in the know" about the Apollo 11 soundstage hoax remain silent to this day. /s -- because there are those who actually believe this ^^^

  • May he RIP (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Lisandro ( 799651 ) on Tuesday March 22, 2016 @02:32PM (#51754935)

    The worst part is reading about how the incident scarred him for life, as he felt directly responsible for the disaster. The guy spoke up and no one wanted to listen.

    • by creimer ( 824291 )

      The guy spoke up and no one wanted to listen.

      He did something that most people wouldn't do because they're afraid of what people might think of them. The guilt of being silent is far worse — and too common.

  • by holophrastic ( 221104 ) on Tuesday March 22, 2016 @02:52PM (#51755095)

    I was 6 years old, and interested in space tech. I became very aware of what had happened, and it shaped my life. I learned a valuable lesson from Bob.

    The lesson I learned wasn't to listen to warnings, or to double-check things. The lesson I learned was to stand my ground through escalation.

    Bob did his job. And had he been a psychopath, he could have been happy with what he did. But that's not me -- because of these events.

    In my case, yes I'd have grabbed my hunting rifle. But I wouldn't have walked into NASA offices with it. You don't believe me that it's going to blow up from the cold, fine. Bang. Now it's going to blow up from that hole that I just shot into it.

    I've followed this lesson quite a few times in my career, and in my life. Being willing to sabotage my own interests (clients, projects, money, property, relationships) in order to do what I strongly believed was the right thing has ensured that I sleep really damned well, each and every night.

    Thank you Bob, for giving me the lesson that would shape much of my life.

    • You don't believe me that it's going to blow up from the cold, fine. Bang. Now it's going to blow up from that hole that I just shot into it.

      _No Highway in the Sky_
      based on Nevil Shute's _No Highway_. An engineer to whom no one (but his daughter) will listen does something very similar.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Sucks that in today's world we are forced to choose between sleeping well and living well.

      • by slew ( 2918 )

        Sucks that in today's world we are forced to choose between sleeping well and living well.

        Sucks that in today's world people have been tricked into somehow equating living well, to having a well paying job...

        Unless you are skating at or below the poverty level, living well generally has less to do with your income (and material possessions) than other aspect of your life (health, friends, family). As many lottery winners will tell you, money doesn't generally make you happy.

    • by DumbSwede ( 521261 ) <slashdotbin@hotmail.com> on Tuesday March 22, 2016 @03:18PM (#51755363) Homepage Journal

      The world is full of people that are sure in their minds they are right and will do whatever it takes to stand up for their beliefs.
      The suicide bomber in Brussels I'm sure was convinced he had rightful justification for his actions.

      Escalate, yes,
      Fight the system, yes.
      Commit dangerous, illegal, criminal acts in defence of your beliefs, NO.

      Not everyone can be IN CHARGE. While there are many bad outcomes from following the chain of command, on average it is probably better than the anarchy that would reign without it.

      Perhaps you are engaging in hyperbole with your rifle example, but do you really want every halfwit in our country destroying things to back up their beliefs, because they "KNOW" they are right?

      • That's a good point, but I've always drawn a firm line. I won't let you cross the line between money and safety, law and life. Damaging a rocket, and letting everyone know that you've damaged it, doesn't have any life/safety consequences. In my world, Bob would have sabotaged the shuttle, been fired, and everyone would have moved on. We celebrate a russion who didn't push a button for the same reason.

        My hyperbole was "rifle" and "shoot". Those are dangerous terms. "Obviously sabotage" is what I wanted

        • In my world, Bob would have sabotaged the shuttle, been fired, and everyone would have moved on. We celebrate a russion who didn't push a button for the same reason.

          But there are life/safety consequences to consider. In your world Bob would very likely end up in prison and unable to work as an engineer afterwards.

          • Neither of those are life/safety consequences. Like I said, I won't let anyone cross that line. Loss of life is not the same as loss of freedom.

        • by Raenex ( 947668 )

          In my world, Bob would have sabotaged the shuttle, been fired, and everyone would have moved on.

          In your world, Bob would have been fired and put in prison, a new part would have been made or already available, and the accident would have happened anyways.

        • Every launch of the shuttle had people internal to NASA claiming it was gong to end in disaster. There were all kinds of problems with the shuttle, the ones I remember off hand are the tiles and the engine. Even the SRBs were considered very dangerous after the fixes. What makes you better than these people who did not march in with a gun? Were they incompetent because they predicted doom yet nothing happened? If you wait for perfect safety, you are never going to fly.
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      The lesson I learned wasn't to listen to warnings, or to double-check things. The lesson I learned was to stand my ground through escalation.

      You only learned that 'lesson', because Bob Ebeling and the other Morton Thiokol engineers only tell half the story - the half that makes them look good.

      They don't tell you their initial design was flawed. The don't tell you that they 'fixed' it by putting a band aid over it. They don't tell you that the flaw resurfaced when the Shuttle began flying. They do

      • I hear you. And thanks for one of the first good reason for anonymity. I understand the other half of the story today (I didn't at 6), but I'm considering irrelevant to the lesson. That there were other mistakes made in-advance is bad on its own, but the final mistake is no less a mistake as a result.

        I'm sure I could draw a lesson from the other side too, but I'd have a more difficult time explaining it to friends!

      • Thank you. Too young to have been involved with this, but many man times in similar circumstances.
      • by jmv ( 93421 )

        Since you obviously know a lot about aerospace engineering, care to enlighten us on what the correct thing to do would have been for the engineers?

        Risk 0 does not exist with rockets, much less in the late 1970s when the shuttle was designed, especially when you consider all the constraints that were imposed on the design (e.g. higher payload than the original idea). The O-ring design may or may not have been a good idea to begin with (I'm unqualified to judge here), but the thing is that they worked fine in

    • by countach44 ( 790998 ) on Tuesday March 22, 2016 @04:05PM (#51755843)
      Let's say he brought the rifle and maybe even shot the actual shuttle. The news report would be "shuttle engineer goes crazy, shoots at shuttle, launch delayed" And, for the sake of this story let's say that NASA never attempts a launch in kind of cold again. He would just always be a crazy guy that shot at a shuttle.

      As a lot of us know firsthand, this is the kind of job where if everything is going well no one knows that you exist... how many times do we warn management of risks and then things turn out okay anyway? Even with a 99.9% probability of failure, that 0.1% chance of success is still a possible outcome.

      Either way, he seems like a great guy who tried to do the right thing. It's a shame that he was ignored and even had to consider taking drastic actions. Despite his doing exactly the best he could, I know if I were in his shoes I would be second-guessing everything I could've done - not an easy burden to bear.
      • Let's say he brought the rifle and maybe even shot the actual shuttle. The news report would be "shuttle engineer goes crazy, shoots at shuttle, launch delayed" And, for the sake of this story let's say that NASA never attempts a launch in kind of cold again.

        All that would do is delay the inevitable. The cold did not cause the o-rings to fail entirely, it increased the chance that it would do so. In fact, the primary o-ring was regularly failing even at much more reasonable temperature conditions. (Even

    • You're so concerned that a problem not show itself in a case where you could feel bad about it happening that you'd make sure that they'd never take the problem seriously.

      That is the height of selfishness.

      • Actually, the height of selfishness is killing things just to survive. I do that too. I kill things to eat. I kill things to shelter myself too.

    • by lazarus ( 2879 )

      In my case, yes I'd have grabbed my hunting rifle. But I wouldn't have walked into NASA offices with it. You don't believe me that it's going to blow up from the cold, fine. Bang. Now it's going to blow up from that hole that I just shot into it.

      That would have been a helluva good hunting rifle. You can't get within 3 miles of a shuttle launch unless you're emergency response and even then you are a full mile away. Also if you think that sabotage is a good strategy when you disagree with something then I'

      • by dfsmith ( 960400 )

        That would have been a helluva good hunting rifle.

        Crazy engineer: I just shot at the shuttle with my hunting rifle.
        Iazaus: Pfft. You couldn't get close to it. Let's launch!
        CE: Let me just call the newspaper....
        I: Errm, maybe we should postpone it a while.

        A BB rifle would have been just fine for the effect intended. You are absolutely right in your statement about heroes though. (Real heroes, not newspaper/TV ones.)

    • by dfsmith ( 960400 )

      Bang. Now it's going to blow up from that hole that I just shot into it.

      However, what you didn't know was that the shuttle was being launched to rescue 20 (or 50, or 1000) astronauts on a classified hypothetical mission. In the Challenger case, the information about the seals was discarded (not ignored); and someone made the decision to launch. Unless you're the one responsible for the decision, it's not yours to make. We, as engineers, can only hope to give the executive all the relevant and pertinent information. Even then, the launch decision was found to be incorrect by

  • by presidenteloco ( 659168 ) on Tuesday March 22, 2016 @02:59PM (#51755153)

    There should have been, at NASA, a launch validation team composed entirely of top-notch mid-to-senior level engineers and scientists.
    They should carefully consider each known risk prior to each launch.
    They should debate it only in terms of risk level = probability of occurrence x probability distribution of consequence severity.

    That team should make the go/no-go call, fully documenting their reasons.

    Any divergence from this sort of technical review with final authority is a gross violation of responsible process for something as complex as this.

    • by Gamasta ( 557555 )

      Why not the astronauts themselves? :-)
      I know they have some more stuff on their mind prior to flying a mission, but it's their ass on the line.

  • by ErichTheRed ( 39327 ) on Tuesday March 22, 2016 @02:59PM (#51755157)

    Fortunately, most people won't have the weight of something like this when faced with the decision to keep pushing your position or keep your mouth shut. I've had a number of times where I've suggested something isn't going to work the way people think it will, or that a course of action isn't the right one. Sometimes I've been listened to, and others I've been told I'm "too negative" or "overly cautious" or similar. It happens a lot in IT -- most of us don't work on safety-sensitive systems and don't design things that may fall down and/or kill people. Because of this, lots of projects fail and billions of dollars are just flushed down the toilet. Look at any ERP implementation in a large company; almost none are completely successful and yet those same consulting firms keep raking in money year after year.

    I heard this guy's story on NPR a couple months ago, and it really is a sad end; he was tortured for the rest of his life by the fact that he felt there was something more that he could do. It's similar to a development project getting taken over by the salesweasels and marketing people -- the actual engineers who know what's really possible are just ignored and an unrealistic date is promised, a vaporware feature that can't be built is sold, etc.

    Before I retire, I would like to see IT including software development start acting more like professional engineers (real PEs) and less like a bunch of cowboys with no guidance or standards. Things that work should be standardized to some extent so they're easily repeatable. Civil engineers, for example, don't go back to first principles designing a run of the mill highway interchange. They use reference designs and only get inventive/creative when the situation warrants it. Contrast that with IT, where Web Framework Of the Month changes every month and there's no standard anything.

    • Before I retire, I would like to see IT including software development start acting more like professional engineers (real PEs) and less like a bunch of cowboys with no guidance or standards

      Yeah, no kidding.

      I've spent a lot of years in regulated industries where overseeing agencies have no patience for "oops". And lives, huge fines, or both can be on the line.

      As such my approach to change management is very rigid, very paranoid, and to some people, way over the top. The people I've worked with have all co

      • The problem is, if the technical types stand up and say "This is a terrible idea", they're going to just get overruled, and fired if they don't follow their orders. That's the nature of any private company: the people at the top make the decisions, and the technical types have to do what they're told or they can find a new job.

        How exactly do you propose to fix this? Telling people to risk their careers and livelihoods is silly, it's not going to stop the managers from making bad decisions anyway, and it's

        • Maybe not a perfect solution, but it's something...

          Here in Alberta you must be a part of APEGA (the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta) in order to practice engineering (there are similar entities in just about every province in Canada). Any engineering company that wishes to operate in Alberta must have a Permit to Practice, and employ a so-called "Responsible Member" (of APEGA) that oversees and approves all engineering related decisions or designs. This person has the fina

          • Ok, so what's preventing the company from just firing his ass when he doesn't do what the CEO wants and hiring some lackey that does? This sounds a lot like "self regulation".

            • They lose their Permit to Practice unless they assign someone else as the Responsible Member. That other person would be bound by the same rules of ethics and standards of practice, and they must inform the Association of the change, and the reason for it. Plus, there is no at-will (or right to work, or whatever the hell it's called) nonsense in Canada, if you fire someone for something like that you get a big fat wrongful dismissal lawsuit. And, since the Association has the sole legal authority to determi

    • Read this: They Write the Right Stuff [fastcompany.com]
  • I feel for the guy. My Dad was an engineer on the Aerojet 260 project. [astronautix.com] They felt, all along, the segmented approach was unsafe. It was just that NASA and USAF never agreed. Still have a bunch of photos and some news clippings. So Thiokol got the bid and my Dad's work on the largest rocket motor ever fired is just one for the history books.
  • "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.' "

    I do hope that he came to realize just how wrong he was in the end. He was never a loser. Moral courage is the greatest strength one can have.

  • A question I have of fellow slashdotters, is there any material, perhaps post review of the incident that talks about Bob Ebeling's warnings before launch?
  • by BoRegardless ( 721219 ) on Tuesday March 22, 2016 @04:03PM (#51755833)

    Rudolph Krueger, PE, was asked to bid on designing the details for the booster tank seals, as he had done seals many military projects including for fighters and satellites.

    Rudolph replied back that he didn't think the proposed design was viable and declined to bid.

    Rather than someone questioning a certified professional engineer as to "What is wrong with the concept.", no one ever asked

    That is where the first failure occurred.

    • by lgw ( 121541 )

      PE is a simple cert, easy to get for any working engineer. It carries no prestige. The only thing important about a PE cert is that it can be revoked if you sign off on something you shouldn't, and some engineering designs require a PE to sign off. This system acts as a roadblock to the worst and most blatant management overriding of engineering decisions (just like the Morton Thiokill manager overrode the engineer who refused to sign off on the O-rings being good for that launch).

      It's an important and v

      • by k6mfw ( 1182893 )

        PE is a simple cert, easy to get for any working engineer. It carries no prestige.

        PE is a license issued by the state govt (i.e. Dept of Consumer Affairs), same agency that issues licenses to medical doctors, beauticians, construction contractors, etc. In some ways it can be difficult depending on how long since graduating or if use all subject matters in the exams (first is FE exam, then PE exam for the particular field of engineering). Once registered you can be traced (your address is publicly available from DCA) or in some ways easier to take you to court if something goes wrong. In

      • It's the process that matters and is all important. No one individual should be responsible for anything, that's one of the reasons for the process. You do not ever want to lay the responsibility for killing a bunch of people on one person.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday March 22, 2016 @04:11PM (#51755887)

    Sometimes I think the reason that we blame ourselves for bad things happening, even when we have no power to foresee or stop them, even we've done everything that was good and right to keep those things from happening, even when we had nothing to do with the cause of those events... is because it's easier to believe that we could have done something and didn't, than to accept that we couldn't do anything.

    Mr. Ebeling clearly believed that there was something that he could have or should have done, and that his inaction resulted in catastrophe. Not only was he innocent, and not only did he do everything within his power to make certain that the launch did not proceed, but the forces which pushed the launch forward rested entirely outside of his control. Maybe his hunting rifle plot would have made a difference - we'll never know. What's important to note, though, is that threatening his friends and colleagues with deadly force to delay the launch is a plan that probably appealed much more in the clarity of hindsight.

    Sometimes we entertain power fantasies for unselfish reasons. We envision ourselves being able to use power that we oftentimes lack in order to correct some grave wrong in our lives, or to prevent tragedies both foreseen and unforeseen. Sometimes these lines of thinking are helpful in preparing us to take useful action later in our lives, so we can prevent the same thing from happening again. Other times... well, just look at Mr. Ebeling. This kind of thinking can eat you up inside, and suffering this way is no form of redemption, if redemption is even called for at all.

    When any sober assessment of one's actions shows that a negative event which they've experienced truly was not their fault, why is it that some people continue to imagine that they could have done something about it, believing against all reason that they're to blame? It is because acknowledging that they were powerless to stop it, and accepting that powerlessness, hurts at least as much as the event itself. Blaming oneself numbs the pain that comes with acceptance, and to many it is treated as the lesser of two evils whether they're aware of it or not. It isn't, and persistently avoiding the pain of acceptance creates even greater suffering in the end.

    Rest in peace, Mr. Ebeling. You've taught us many difficult lessons - lessons which will hopefully save (and have already saved) lives. The final lesson you gave us, however, is a lesson in guilt and the importance of acceptance. Perhaps that lesson will save lives as well.

    • by Jahta ( 1141213 )

      Sometimes I think the reason that we blame ourselves for bad things happening, even when we have no power to foresee or stop them, even we've done everything that was good and right to keep those things from happening, even when we had nothing to do with the cause of those events... is because it's easier to believe that we could have done something and didn't, than to accept that we couldn't do anything.

      I think it has a lot to do with there being two kinds of people in the world; those who feel genuine responsibility for what they do and those who don't. Unfortunately knowledgeable "doers" tend to be in the first group, and management tend to be in the second group. Having a functioning conscience is an impediment to climbing the corporate ladder.

  • Ebeling reportedly told his wife, Darlene, "It's going to blow up." He told another daughter, Kathy Ebeling

    Let me get this right ... his wife is the first daughter?

    We all know what comes from things like that: Slashdot editors.

  • How ironic, it was his o-ring that did him in.

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