Revealed: An Insider's Account of How the Reagan
Caused the Greatest Tragedy of the Space Age
(Thunder's Mouth Press) by Richard C. Cook.
The following excerpt from Chapter 13 describes
how Cook, a NASA budget analyst, met with
New York Times science writer Philip Boffey and
provided him with documents about the known flaws
with the space shuttle solid rocket booster O-ring
seals. It was the failure of these seals, compromised
further by cold weather, which was the technical
cause of the Challenger disaster on January 28, 1986.
The New York Times story appeared on February
9. Boffey later won a Pulitzer Prize for national news reporting.
It was now Friday, February 7. As fate would have
it, the personnel office at Treasury called to make
the official job offer, one that was legally
binding. My first day on the job there would be Monday,
February 17. I accepted the offer with mixed
feelings - sadness over having to leave NASA and the
setback to my career, but relief at having escaped
what was feeling almost like a death sentence.
Again I mention fate. I had begun to feel like
an actor in a drama, reading the lines, playing a role assigned
by an unknown director. My only choice was to
play it well or poorly. The role was that of the one person
who knew about the history of the O-ring joints
and was at liberty to disclose that knowledge.
And what would happen if I failed to act? Sooner
or later, NASA would get around to disclosing a minimal
portion of what happened, and the information
would come out piecemeal. No one would ever get the full
horror of what had been done, that NASA's management
was launching people on badly flawed machinery
to meet politically motivated objectives.
Probably many of the details would never be disclosed.
The Commission would find some way to make it
all go down in a politically acceptable way,
with nothing ever really changing. I wondered about the millions
of school children who had watched the deaths
of Christa McAuliffe and the other Challenger astronauts.
Shouldn't they know the truth?
Boffey called again and asked me to come back
for a third meeting. When I arrived, he said, "My editors want
to publish the story this weekend - on Sunday.
We've got to hurry. The Orlando Sentinel is coming out with a
story tomorrow where they talk about the O-rings."
"All right," I said.
"The Times wants it to be the lead story
Sunday morning. We'd do it sooner, but I have to spend some
time tomorrow calling NASA's management and getting
All this sounded fine.
"Now," he said. "The documents are coming
from you. We'll protect your identity, but if you want to back out
we'll return everything and act as though you
never came here."
"That's very admirable," I said, but "the
story needs to be written."
"Yes, it does," said Boffey, "but there's
one more thing. We think it's very important to publish your July 23 memo.
It's your warning that explains it all and ties
"All I did was report what the engineers
said," I replied.
"But you put it into words everyone could
understand. And if we quote from it we'll need to say it was
Richard Cook who wrote it."
As I heard Boffey say this, I was starting
to feel dizzy. My worst fears were coming true. I couldn't hide or escape.
I had to play my part, even if it was an overwhelming
"I don't want to do it," I said. He just
looked at me. I had told him about the Treasury job and that if I got it
I would be out of NASA. "This morning I got the
job offer from Treasury," I said.
"Wow! That is really great!" Boffey seemed
genuinely elated. "You're safe."
He wanted me to come with him to talk to
the chief of the Washington bureau, Bill Kovach. When we walked
into his office, Kovach was on the phone, and
Boffey said he was talking about the O-ring story with the Times'
publisher, Arthur O. Sulzberger, in New York.
When Kovach hung up, we shook hands and
chatted for a few minutes. He was in his 40s and courteous and
friendly. As we talked, I felt that both he and
Boffey understood my fears as well as my sense that what I was
doing was not for fame or notoriety but to advance
the public interest. Kovach gave me his home phone number
and said to call him there or at work any time.
The last thing Boffey and I did together
that day was talk about how the article would describe the source of
the material. He said that he needed to say something
in print about who had made the disclosures. We decided
that he would refer to an unnamed "solid-fuel
rocket analyst" early in the article, while naming me later in the text
as the author of the memo which pointed to a
Boffey and I shook hands. He seemed excited about
the story. He said cheerfully, "If it turns out this is what
caused the accident, you're going to look like
That night as I drove home to King George it was
dark by the time I pulled into the driveway. I walked into
the house both fearful and excited. I said to
Phyllis, a little sheepishly, "I'm going to be famous."
She was upset. "Why?"
"They're going to print my memo with my name attached
"They can't do that."
"I gave permission."
We talked for a long time and finally agreed that
for the O-ring papers to have the impact they should,
my memo was needed. I was the one who gave voice
to the engineers' concerns that failure of the O-ring seals
could be catastrophic. Mine was the one document
that delved behind the engineers' jargon to the way they
actually felt and spoke about the problem. When
I went to sleep that night, my stomach was in knots.
Copyright 2007 by Richard C. Cook. Reprinted by
This excerpt may be reproduced exactly as it
appears here, with credit to Bartcop.com.
Richard C. Cook is the author of Challenger Revealed:
An Insider's Account of How the Reagan
Administration Caused the Greatest Tragedy of
the Space Age, called by Publisher's Weekly, "
easily the most informative and important book
on the disaster." He worked in the Carter White House
and NASA before spending twenty-one years as
an analyst with the U.S. Treasury Department.
He is now a writer and consultant on public policy
issues. His website is at www.richardccook.com.