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Challenger Revealed - A "Violation of Trust"?
     by Richard C. Cook

In a review of my book, Challenger Revealed: An Insider's Account of How the Reagan Administration 
Caused the Greatest Tragedy of the Space Age, Gilbert Taylor, reporting for the American Library 
Association's Booklist, wrote:

"In the days following the space shuttle Challenger disaster of 1986, Cook, then a budget analyst at NASA, 
leaked documents to the New York Times. The papers acquired significance for predicting that faulty rubber 
seals on the solid fuel rockets could trigger a catastrophe, as the official investigation indeed concluded. In this 
memoir and personal investigation, Cook justifies his leak, or, from another perspective, his violation of trust, 
and proposes a theory for why NASA managers launched after overruling objections from the rocket engineers."

Mr. Taylor raises an issue that is a source of anguish, not only for whistleblowers, but for anyone who works 
in an organization. I believe, and have said as much to audiences at book signings, that all of us at some point 
will have to make a decision about how to deal with perceived behavior on the part of others within our 
organization that compromises standards, is unethical, or is even illegal. It is simply the nature of life.
No organization can ever be completely free of problems of this type.

The easiest thing to do, always the safest, and often the most appropriate is to look the other way. I also tell 
my audiences to try to work things out from within, through discussion and open communications. To see why 
I acted otherwise following the Challenger disaster, I think it is necessary for a person to read my book.

Before the disaster I had spent months documenting some of the large number of potentially lethal hardware 
problems with the space shuttle. The people I worked with at headquarters said openly that "sooner or later" 
a disaster would ground the fleet.

The question was which piece of equipment would be the first to fail. The leading candidates were the orbiter 
main engines, the solid rocket booster O-ring joints, the filament wound case solid rocket booster replacement, 
the orbiter's heat-resistant tiles, and the Centaur upper stage. Actually quite a long list. But no one could stop 
the momentum of a program which President Reagan himself had declared "operational."

NASA knew almost instantly that it was the O-ring joints that destroyed Challenger on January 28, 1986, 
and they instituted a cover-up to prevent that knowledge from coming out. A few days later, a Presidential 
Commission was convened to manage the news and steer attention away from White House involvement 
in the launch decision.

My book documents these circumstances. Initially I approached the Presidential Commission and my superiors
at NASA but was rebuffed. The New York Times story published on February 9 began what I called a "cascade 
of disclosures," including how the Thiokol engineers argued vociferously the night before the launch that the O-rings 
were too cold to seal properly in the freezing temperatures.

Before they testified before the Commission, those engineers were told by their company attorneys to give only
"yes or no" answers. They defied orders and told the truth. I wonder if Mr. Taylor would call this a "violation of trust"?

Was it a "violation of trust" when Dr. Richard Feynman, the Nobel prize winner serving on the Commission, 
surprised Chairman William Rogers at the February 11 hearing by dipping a piece of O-ring into a glass of 
ice water and showing how the rubber would have stiffened?

Was it a "violation of trust" when chief astronaut John Young wrote a memo that appeared in the newspapers 
about a host of other serious shuttle safety issues that NASA was not taking seriously?

Maybe, just maybe, it was a "violation of trust" when NASA sent seven astronauts to their deaths on equipment 
that was known to be flawed in weather conditions which the world's leading experts said could result in precisely 
the catastrophe that took place.

Maybe it was a "violation of trust" when the NASA solid rocket booster program manager asked,
"When do you want me to launch, Thiokol, next April?"

Maybe it was a "violation of trust" when the top Thiokol executive told the engineering manager, who earlier that 
night had recommended against the launch in writing, "Take off your engineering hat and put on your management hat."

Maybe it was a "violation of trust" when a Thiokol engineer was told not to worry, that the decision to launch
was political, and that if something went wrong he would not be blamed.

Maybe it was a "violation of trust" when the investigating bodies spent months and millions of taxpayers' dollars 
writing reports that ignored many of the leading underlying causes of the disaster, as well as the likely involvement 
of the political figures who wanted the shuttle up for public relations purposes.

Could it possibly have been a "violation of trust" for NASA to fly a manned space vehicle where testing was 
inadequate, multiple design compromises had been made, equipment was installed to perform functions it was 
never intended to do, the system was expected to fly like a scheduled airline when it was clearly what one 
veteran astronaut called "experimental gear," where two of the five orbiters in the fleet have crashed because 
of hardware glitches known ahead of time to be fatally flawed, and where even today the number one question 
when the shuttle is launched is whether the crew will return alive?

In the end I made the excruciating decision to go to the press with what so many of us at NASA knew. 
Even though I was able to find another job at the Treasury Department, I was known to the end of my career 
as the NASA whistleblower. I wondered for the next two decades if I had made the right decision and often 
doubted it. I still wonder today. If I had kept my mouth shut I certainly would have made a lot more money 
and climbed the career ladder much more successfully.

When I finally completed Challenger Revealed, it was a cathartic experience which allowed me to face my 
doubts and fears. In the end, I was able to forgive myself and all the others who were involved in one of the 
most complex, bizarre, and puzzling events ever to take place, and I tried to convey this in what I wrote. 
I have received many positive comments on my book, as well as additional information from NASA insiders 
about that strange day in history. Today I would invite the public to read the book, walk in my footsteps, 
and draw their own conclusions.
 

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.
 

Contact Richard C. Cook at his website  www.richardccook.com
 

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