Truth, Lies, and O-Rings by Allan J. McDonald

Truth, Lies, and O-Rings by Allan J. McDonald

Author:Allan J. McDonald
Language: eng
Format: epub
Publisher: University Press of Florida


“Trouble with Your Logic”

In the first week of May, the Presidential Commission wound down its investigation. The panel decided to have one more closed hearing before starting to write its report to President Reagan. The NASA Failure Analysis Team had delivered its final report to the Commission, a report that concluded that the accident had, indeed, been caused by hot gas leaking from the aft field-joint of the right-hand solid rocket booster.

The Commission was very interested in all of the historical documentation generated by NASA and Morton Thiokol over the years concerning the known problems with the O-ring seals in the nozzle and field-joints of the solid rocket boosters. Of particular interest was how MSFC and MTI had dealt with these problems and why they weren't as well known to the highest levels of management as they should have been, especially Level I staff in Washington, D.C., and Level II people in Houston. And how did the problems remain totally unknown to the astronaut corps?

The closed executive hearing started in the morning with testimony from key Level III people from Marshall Space Flight Center. Thiokol personnel were explicitly prevented from being in attendance at this hearing. Learning the contents of their testimony, we found a lot of surprises. Certainly unbeknownst to me, Larry Mulloy had imposed a launch constraint on the last half a dozen flights of the Shuttle because of the O-ring erosion and blowby problem noted in the nozzle of STS-51B when it was removed in Utah in June 1985. Without anyone knowing, Mulloy had also personally removed the launch constraints for each Shuttle flight since June 1985. Even more surprising was that the launch constraint didn't even appear for Challenger.

Most upsetting for me was Mulloy's assertion that this launch constraint had been inadvertently removed because of a request from me!

In response to a line of questioning from Chairman Rogers as to how the launch constraint was erroneously closed out prior to STS-51L, Mulloy answered that it happened because of a letter from me, dated December 10, 1985. When this letter came to Mulloy's attention, “My reaction was, ‘we are not going to drop this from the problem assessment system because the problem is not resolved and it has to be dealt with on a flight-by-flight basis.’” Unfortunately, “the people who run the problem assessment system erroneously entered a closure for the problem on the basis of this submittal from Thiokol. Having done that then for the STS-51L review, it then did not come up in the flight readiness review as an open launch constraint.”

“Who made the error? Do you know?” Rogers asked.

“The people who do the problem assessment system,” Mulloy stated. His sidekick, Larry Wear, Manager of the SRM Project Office at Marshall, added, “At the incremental flight readiness reviews, there is a heads-up given to the quality representatives [one from Thiokol and one from NASA's Shuttle Project Office] for what problems the system has open, and they cross-check to make sure that we address that problem in the readiness review.


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