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From Challenger Revealed: An Insider's Account of How the Reagan
Administration 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 their comments."
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 everything together."

 "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 one. 

 "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 possible catastrophe.

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 a genius." 

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 to it."
"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 permission. 
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.

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